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What is the Constraint-led Approach to Coaching?

Updated: Sep 3

In Constraint-Based Coaching (CBC), players are encouraged to discover functional movement solutions and develop tactical awareness via playing games.

Rather than the traditional approach focusing on mastering technique and then attempting to use it in a game, CBC places the players in games where they must discover different ways to use their skills to succeed in the game effectively.

In my new book Constraining 8U Tennis, the almost 50 games are designed to allow players the freedom to develop skills at their rate. The games encourage players to play in all three phases, attack, defence and neutral situations in practice situations.

This encourages both technical and tactical skills development. Players will better understand when to play certain shots and how in practice sessions.

The player leads most of the learning, and the coach is the facilitator. Using effective questioning and manipulating elements such as the task, environment or the players themselves - the coach helps guide the player to find the solution.

The Advantages of a constraints-led approach

Players play the game (or modified versions) - Players develop better problem-solving skills

Practice is varied, and players develop more versatile skills

Implicit learning encourages better decision making

CBC players perform better under stress - Less competition anxiety

Why we need implicit learning

Implicit learning is where information is learnt unintentionally, e.g. learning through play.

As a young sportsman, I played multiple weekly sports, such as Football, Cricket, Basketball, Tennis and Athletics.

I also spent hours every day playing sports in school and after school, climbing trees, making camps and creating games with my friends.

I developed various mental, physical, emotional, and sport-specific skills through these activities. This was implicit learning.

Physical literacy is declining in young children, and they are getting less physical exercise than ever before. Children play outside less, do minor sports in school and generally specialise in one sport from an early age.

There are fewer opportunities for implicit learning; less demand for children to problem-solve, use physical adaptation and develop their creativity.

Traditional Tennis coaching often involves a coach leading the session; they choose the drills, give the majority of the feedback via prescriptive instruction and are very technical heavy.

This is explicit instruction.

How to encourage implicit learning

So, how can coaches create an environment that develops a wide range of critical skills, such as Physical, Mental, Emotional and Tennis specific skills, in a single or small number of lessons?

The answer: Constraints-Based Activity

The theory is based on the principles of non-linear pedagogy; it promotes a more hands-off approach to teaching and learning within a physical skill development setting.

Nonlinear pedagogy is a teaching approach allowing players to acquire skills more effectively.

The research on Non-linear pedagogy suggests a close connection between movement and the environment in which players will find themselves.

As Tennis is an open sport, the ball can land in multiple positions, with various ball characteristics such as height, speed and spin.

Players must learn receiving and sending skills in more open environments and less closed or isolated situations. Players must react in various ways and be highly skilled in practice tasks to allow movement change and find the possible solution.

The hands-off approach to constraints-led coaching can make some coaches feel uncomprfotbale. The most common method of coach-led learning situations is where the coach sets the specific task during training sessions and practice design.

Using task constraints allows more variable practice for the player to find optimal movement solutions (technique) themselves. This increases intrinsic motivation and will enable players to feel valued and in control of their Tennis. It also develops more adaptable players, and research shows; players using this constraints-based perspective perform better under pressure.

Constraints on skill development

There are certain elements or factors that we are faced with as coaches, and these factors will develop or hinder player development.

A coach can manipulate certain factors to enhance and improve player development.

They are

• The Player

• The Environment

• The Task

Tennis Book
Example of How I Constrain the Task- Taking From My Book, Constraining Tennis

The Player Constraints

These are the players we coach; every player is an individual and has a set of personal skills.

These can be physical skills or attributes such as weight, height, fitness levels, muscle, or genetic makeup.

As sports coaches, we may have two children aged seven but vastly different physical development; one child may be taller or have more developed motor skills. Therefore, movement skills or solutions for both players should be very different.

Along with the physical aspects, psychological factors such as maturity, behaviour, motivations, and emotions must also be considered. A player's emotional level will significantly impact their learning, especially within a sporting environment.

Along with the physical and psychological skills of a player, we must consider the tennis/sporting skill levels; this may include past or current other sporting experiences. Players will have different levels of sporting experience; this needs to be factored in when designing lessons.

Many of these physical and phycological attributes we have limited control over. Still, an awareness of them can help us as coaches with our expectations within our squads and individual lessons.

The Environmental Constraints

When we think of the ‘environment’ as a coach, we immediately think of the surroundings in which our lessons take place.

The court, the surface, and its physical surroundings. However, we must look deeper into our learning environment, the culture we create as coaches, our values and beliefs, and how we coach and communicate.

This is often referenced as a socio-culture.

How would you compare an environment that encourages independent learning to one with more direct instruction impact skill acquisition?

The culture we create within our clubs and sessions will impact our player's learning and development.

As well as our club and coaching environments, we must also consider the impact of other external factors such as parents, peers, governing bodies etc. What are their expectations, values, and their own cultures?

How much of what we do in lessons and coaching is impacted by these sociocultural factors? My feeling is that it's quite a lot.

This is an area for us coaches to understand better and develop.

What learning environment do you set up, encourage, and support?

And how much do you hinder or facilitate learning in your lessons?

Do you set up suitable learning environments?

These are questions you should be asking yourself when reading this article.

In a recent article, I asked whether you need coaching.

My theory is players can learn by just playing the game. Coaching can speed up the process significantly, but the needs of the players should come before the needs or previous experience of the coach. A great example is the coach working with two players using the same drills, technical feedback and teaching games. This is not a very individual approach or a very effective method to develop better players.

The Task Constraints

Steve Whelan Tennis Coach
This approach has helped me develop county, regional and national level players.

By far the easiest one for coaches to manipulate, we do it daily; therefore, this is arguably the most important.

The task is the games, drills, and activities we set up. We usually set the game's rules game, equipment, court sizes, objectives, and players; therefore, it's the information we give the players during lessons.

As coaches, we can direct our players to acquire specific movement solutions by manipulating the task. For example, placing a rope of barrier tape above the net will automatically force the player to hit the ball higher. You have used the barrier tape to force players to change how they move/hit the ball.

As coaches, we can modify specific areas, including changing the space, rules, equipment and rotating players.

By modifying task constraints, we can allow the players to optimally learn movement patterns that consider their unique variations of performer constraints and how they interact with the environment and task constraints.

8U Tennis Constraints

At the 8 & under level, each constraint will have specific demands - things the players must be able to do. As a coach, you need to be aware of the particular demands each brings to the age group.

The demands of the environment

The environment will primarily be the Practice or match court; you set up and manipulate this environment. However, before creating your culture or background, it's essential to discover why your players are attending, their goals, and what they want from the sessions.

What are the parent's expectations and goals?

How can you, as a coach, combine these and create a learning environment that will satisfy all three?

We will look later at how to set up a learning environment, but the demands of the environment ultimately come down to you, the players and the parents.

The demands of the task

The task demands are relatively simple; you hit the ball over the net. Young players, however, have little or no sporting experience, never mind tennis experience.

As coaches, we must focus on the basic demands of the game first. Get this right at 8 & under, and you build solid foundations for the future.

Players must be able to:

  • Send and receive the ball, both underarm and overarm, after and before a bounce.

  • Be aware of court boundaries.

  • Be able to move, hit and recover.

  • Understand serving rules.

  • Understand how to win and lose a point.

The demands of the player

The player at this stage must be able to start to work independently, be able to set up a fun activity and be allowed to explore how to perform it.

If the player can’t work without supervision, they may need to attend a parent and player squad/class.

The player will be required to use physical skills such as running, balance and throwing actions and start to develop social skills such as working with others and problem-solving.

At this age, the demands on the player are limited. Tennis should be fun and engaging, and the player should be allowed to explore and express themselves in tasks and environments suited to their age and maturity.

These constraints will influence how the game is played at this stage of the player pathway.

The constraints of the 8U environment

The Ball

The 36’ foam or red ball is much bigger and slower than a regular tennis ball.

It will consistently bounce between the knees and bottom of the rib cage when the players are trading from the baseline.

This is the ideal ‘hitting zone’ for these young players, making the game easier to pick up and play.

It takes much work to get the ball to bounce higher due to the constraints of the ball.

This enables players to develop their consistency and accuracy when playing.

The Court

8U Tennis

The 8U court is 11m x 5.5m, the same size as a quarter of a full tennis court.

The court is relatively narrow for the player, so players need to learn a little sideways and forwards primarily.

They don’t need to move backwards due to the low bounce and pace of the ball.

With this in mind, we must understand that players at this stage don’t need to cover significant distances; they rarely move forwards to the net and won't find themselves pushed too far behind the baseline.

The Constraints of the Player

The players at this age are still developing many mental and physical skill sets. You, as the coach, must understand what constraints are in place on the player at that age.

Tactical Awareness

Players at this age will have a limited understanding of tactics; they may be able to find space and hit the ball away from their opponent but would need help understanding other tactical intentions such as controlling time, using their strengths etc.

An advanced player, or coming towards the end of the age group, may become more self-aware, but the majority will be very limited in this area.

The player has a limited range of understanding and will mainly be focused on the ball and themselves and not so much on their opponent.

Physical Skills

The player's physical literacy at this age is still in development.

Players, for example, will struggle to read shot balls.

This is because the eyes of an 8-year-old are different compared to a twelve-year-old; the smaller the eyes, the quicker light bounces back from the rear of the eye, making judging distance more challenging.

An 8-year-old will struggle with complex coordination and find moving multiple body segments in a coordinated manner complex.

This developing kinetic chain will find complex movements such as serve extremely difficult.

The young player also lacks muscle, so it is impossible to use their legs to drive up into the ball.

Mental Skills

Players at this stage will find sharing challenging and are still developing social skills.

Tennis requires two players, so some cooperation must occur, i.e. players must wait for each other before starting the point.

How often do you find players start a point or activity without their partner being ready?

This is because they are still developing their awareness of working with others.

This must be taken into consideration when planning and designing activities, and a great degree of patience from the coach.

Children 8 & under will also be very kinaesthetic in their learning.

They learn by exploring and doing.

They rarely listen or watch, so your ten-minute demonstration of hitting a perfect forehand could have been better. We still must demo activities so they know what they must try, but we need to understand that they will want to have a go and explore the game themselves.

Tennis Skills

The lack and continued development of these physical skills will impact tennis skills.

Players at this age will need help controlling time, i.e., hitting the ball quicker due to a lack of physical skill and the constraint of the court and slower ball.

Players at this age will struggle with complex tennis skills and should focus on getting the ball over and in and moving their opponent.

The technical skills at this stage should be fundamental, with small, simple shapes.

Under 8 Tennis is the most fun, rewarding and arguably critical stage of a player's journey.

At this stage, you, the coach or parent, help develop critical skills that will last a lifetime. It's also where players fall in love with the game.

In my Book, Constraining U8 Tennis, I show you nearly 50 practical examples and drills you can use this approach for with players.

This book contains FUN tennis games where most of the learning is hidden. Let the kids play, explore and enjoy each game.

Remember these key points:

  • Explain the What, Why and How.

  • What the game is (Name), why we need it as a tennis player (Intention), and how (Ball characteristic).

  • Allow the children to set their targets - You guide them. Let them adjust quickly if they put a too easy or difficult mark.

  • Talk less, listen more - Let them play.

  • Include the service in every practice.

  • Every game has an element of competition, either individually or cooperatively.

  • Encourage children to focus on each game's process (how) and less on the outcome (result).

  • Focus on what the kids can do when delivering feedback.

  • Avoid heavy technical coaching - Let the game do the work.

You can purchase the book here:

Stop traditional coaching and allow your players to learn their way!

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Written by Steve Whelan

Steve has developed thousands of tennis players and coaches as a coach tutor over the past twenty years and has delivered hundreds of coach education courses.

Steve had over 20 million social media views in 2022 alone.

Read About Steve's fantastic career here.

Contact Steve direct at or

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