A misconception that I see a lot, especially among people who have a passing familiarity with the term but have not looked at it closely, is that the constraints-led approach (CLA) means learning through games. I’m even willing to take partial responsibility for this; after all, this website is called “Game Design for HEMA,” and yet we talk about CLA on it all the time. Though to be fair to us, we also talk about non-game CLA, such as in Nathan’s article on CLA for teaching cutting, and my article on using constraints to teach mechanics for the schillhaw, so I don’t think we’re fully at fault here.
Usually when I see CLA and games-based teaching conflated, it’s from what fellow GD4H contributor Jack Elers would refer to as “tools for the toolbox” people. Usually they will say something like “at my club we use CLA sometimes, but still use repetition for basics,” and by this they really mean they use games sometimes. But CLA is not games, and I will explain why. I’ll also explain why, although they are not the same thing, games are very good for CLA, which is why we talk so much about them and we associate them so closely with each other.
First of all, what is CLA? In order to understand this, you need to know about the ecological approach in contrast with the information processing approach, which I give a brief summary of in my ecological approach primer. The ecological approach is a model for how humans perceive the world and therefore acquire skills, and the constraints-led approach is a methodology for applying the ecological approach to coaching. The idea of CLA is to develop a skill by allowing the athlete the freedom to explore their own solution space, but to keep their actions relevant by constraining the environment. Constraints can be physical, for example putting a water bottle in front of someone’s foot and telling them not to kick it over in order to prevent them from stepping forward. They can also be verbal, for example telling someone only hits above the belt count as valid hits.
So we can see that CLA doesn’t inherently mean games-based, and in fact you can coach using CLA methodology without ever having your athletes play a single game. However, this being Game Design for HEMA, we obviously do use games. Why?
For the average HEMA club, I think games are the most effective and easiest way to apply CLA. The reason for this is representative design and affordances. Without going too deeply into what an “affordance” is, essentially you need the activity that you are doing in practice to afford the action that you are trying to learn the same way the actual game will. For example, if you are practicing direct cuts to the head, your practice activity needs to afford a fast action, because direct cuts to the head have to be fast when you actually fence. What a game does to enable this is it gives your training partner an incentive to provide that affordance.
Imagine two pairs of fencers, one pair does rote repetitions of cuts to the head, and the other plays the direct attack drill. The first group can hit their target at any speed, maybe their coach will tell them to go faster, but there is no physical reason for them to go faster other than trying hard to do so. For the direct attack group, their partner is actively trying to prevent them from hitting, which provides a physical incentive to go faster, because if they go too slow they will not hit. We know that the defender will try their hardest to block or avoid the attack, because they are trying to win, therefore we know that the affordance of hitting fast is real, and should therefore transfer to the performance space, IE live fencing.
In this way, games become a way to guarantee that practice activities will have the same affordances as fencing. The rules of the game become the constraints in order to afford different actions. The key becomes to try to constrain the games in the right ways in order to get effective actions out of the fencers. Can you do this without games? Yes of course, but with a skill like fencing that involves constant dynamic movement and an unpredictable environment, it is very difficult. In my opinion the only real way to do it is to have the fencer work individually with someone who is very good at setting up specific environmental scenarios. One example of this is the lessons of Michel Sicard, who has graciously posted many of his modern epee lessons on youtube. A lesson like this can only be done with a coach, not two athletes who are both trying to learn. The coach must be well versed in the scenario, and be able to add realistic appropriate variation. At this point “tool in the toolbox” people might be tempted to say that individual coached lessons are CLA, but that is of course not the case. CLA once again is a methodology, and not any specific activity. Most individual coached lessons are deeply steeped in rote repetition and producing an ideal movement, which is solidly IPA. Even Michel Sicard’s coaching lessons above may be done in this mindset, I don’t know.
So while games are definitely very useful for applying CLA, they are not the same thing. You can do games without CLA, and you can do CLA without games. As always, the rule of thumb for whether or not an activity is ecological is, is the purpose of this activity to allow the athlete to explore their solution space, or is it to produce a specific ideal movement? If it’s the former, then it’s probably CLA, if it’s the latter, then it’s probably not.