Speed & agility for team sports; moments, constraints & affordances – A framework for thinking

Reverse engineering is a key strategy commonly utilised in performance sport. Most versions aim to define physical markers or competition statistics as targets to work towards. But is this truly reverse engineering the problem? While a useful step, and certainly worth undertaking as a means for gaining some clarity, does it go far enough towards addressing the actual problem at hand? For me, the real problem in any team or skill-based sport is this:

In competition, the player/athlete exists within the moment. They either solve the problem in front of them, or they don’t.

Although a vaguer start point than most well-defined ‘what it takes to win’ models, this for me is a much more useful starting point, for it protects us from the fallacy of thinking we know more than we do. There is nothing we can do that will guarantee athletes solve these problems they face, but I’d certainly like to think we can prepare them so they’re much more likely to!

Objective markers from the physical or tactical/technical realm are certainly part of this picture. In stopwatch sports (where moment-to-moment decision making isn’t necessarily a part of the sport) they carry more influence on the end result, whereas in skill sports, much less so. As such, we won’t get to the level of detail of objective markers here, as this article aims to purvey a framework for thinking. Let’s return to our moment…

The ‘enso’ from Zen Buddhism is a symbol that represents ‘this moment’

So what are these moments made up of? What influences them? To understand a problem it is useful to frame the domains that influence its outcome. For athletes (as is commonly the case) I split these into technical, tactical, physical & psychological abilities. We must also understand how these domains interact with each other – sport is now full of specialisms/specialities, but how can a specialist understand the exact impact of their work if they don’t understand how they relate to every other part of the performance picture? The model I start with is shown in Fig 1.

Figure 1

We can go further than reverse engineering from the game, match or competition as a totality. We can reverse engineer from each moment that makes up those games/competitions. What might these game defining/career defining moments look like and how can we prepare so that when they arise, athletes are able to make the most of the opportunity?

In sports there are goals within goals within goals. For example, the goal of a football game might simply be to win; in order to win, the team must score more goals than they let in; in order to score more goals than they let in, they need to be effective in attack and defence; in order to be effective in attack and defence, they need to… and so on. To effectively reverse engineer from these imaginary moments, we need to be able to define what the goal of these moments will be.

When attacking (in team sports: when the athlete/team are in possession of the ball), the aim is generally for the attacking player to create space for themselves; either to pass to a team-mate or to shoot. When defending, the aim is generally to remove space or control the space; to prevent the attacking team from shooting or passing to a team-mate, or to dispossess them of the ball. Mastery in speed & agility, then, is to achieve these aims effectively and consistently in the context of each moment that comprises a game. 

Once we’re clear on these aims we can start to define the tools (skills) the athlete may need to achieve them. 

Creating, Closing & Controlling  Space

If they are to effectively create, close down or control space, athletes need to be able to move around the field of play efficiently. Movement essentially occurs linearly, laterally, or transitions between these two modes. This is how I organise our Skill-Stress-Context Continuum for speed & agility; skill can be broken down into linear movement, lateral movement, or transitionary movements. Linear movement skills include; acceleration, top speed mechanics and linear deceleration; lateral movement skills include; lateral deceleration, shuffle steps and crossover steps/running; and transitionary movements are steps at various angles that transition between linear or lateral movement. 

Fig 2: The Skill-Stress-Context Continuum

Once we have some clarity on the skills we want to develop, we can then consider how we develop them. The Skill-Stress-Context Continuum is how we approach this:

  Skill Where we focus on developing movement quality in a closed environment and involves isolated practice of skills, with the focus on movement quality. 
   Stress Where we challenge the athlete to see how well they can maintain quality of movement in more stressful, usually time dependent environments. The focus shifts away from the movement itself and towards a certain outcome eg. ‘winning a race’. How we organise the race/drills will depend on what movements we’re aiming to develop/stress. 
   Context The most important end of the continuum as this is where the skill is integrated into decision-making scenarios. To do this we create increasingly unpredictable, and sometimes chaotic, constraints-based drills/games with the focus on decision-making and perceptual interpretation of game-like scenarios. 

Before we progress to discussing some of the underlying ideas from our continuum, it’s important to note that we don’t approach this continuum linearly. We are utilising all parts of the continuum most of the time, but bias our focus depending on who we’re working with and where in the season or development they are.

We know skills must transfer into the sport itself, which is chaotic and unpredictable, so ‘Context’ sits at the end, and is the most important part, of our continuum. The best way to improve then is to recreate situations that we may find in the sport, that are relevant to the skill we’re trying to develop. But we can’t just recreate these situations over and over again. While this would certainly help, due to the athletes getting more opportunities to come up with a solution to the problems they face, they would be constrained to solving the problem with their current level of physical and technical development. Louie Simmons, world-renowned powerlifting coach and owner of Westside Barbell, has a story he tells with regards to powerlifting, which I think has a lot of relevance here:

“If I show up to your house for a fight and you beat me up, should I come back to your house the very next day and fight you again? Of course not, as I’ll get beaten up again. I need to go away, figure out why I lost, develop the areas I can with training, and only then should I go back to your house to fight you again!”

 Enter affordances…

Fig 3: Adapted version of Newell’s Constraints Model

Constraints & Affordances

In fact before we get to affordances, let’s zoom out again. From this holistic vantage point we can see each moment doesn’t just involve our athlete. In any given moment, the athlete is interrelated with the task they face, along with the environment the task is set within. Our original model (Fig 1) can therefore make up the organism section of the adapted version of Newell’s Constraints Model shown in Fig 2. Each of the constraints in this model, present certain affordances within the situation the athlete faces.

Fajen(1) defines affordances as opportunities for action that are defined relative to the action capabilities of the individual (italics added). Affordances are often discussed in sport in relation to the constraints-led approach(2)to coaching, which tends to focus on the technical/tactical domain. The discussion usually concentrates on how task and environment can be manipulated in order to challenge the performer (organism) to find solutions relevant to their sport. 

When a performer finds themselves in a particular situation on the pitch, a number of task and environment constraints will be present; where they are placed on the pitch, where the defenders are located, where their team-mates are located, what the score is, what the level of competition is (eg. friendly/World Cup final), along with many others. The interrelation of the constraints in each situation will afford the performer certain opportunities. Task and environment constraints are what we manipulate within the ‘Stress’ and ‘Context’ sections of our Skill-Stress-Context continuum. 

However, an important part of the constraints-based model is the performer themselves; the performer’s capabilities from a physical and technical perspective will also afford them opportunities within a given situation. 

Example 1; In rugby, a performer who possesses great speed will be more likely to kick a ball into space, if they see space appear behind a defender, believing they have the physical (& maybe technical) ability to outsprint their opponent to collect the ball. 

Example 2; In Football, when a ball is crossed into the box, a performer who is tall and/or possesses great jumping ability, will more likely seek to greet the ball earlier in its flight path. They may jump to challenge to head the ball to score, whereas if they were shorter, or less proficient in jumping high, their strategy would more likely involve positioning themselves further towards the end of the balls  flight path, so they can control the ball/shoot without jumping or competing in the air. 

The distinction between a performers height (or other anatomical factors) and their physical abilities is important. Both are physical affordances; anthropomorphic factors such as height or limb length are referred to as ‘Body-Scaled Affordances’, whereas jumping ability or speed are referred to as ‘Action-Scaled Affordances’(3). They are not mutually exclusive. Limb length and other anthropomorphic factors can obviously influence abilities such as speed, even though speed is mainly determined by anatomical and physiological factors, as well as technical capabilities. As performance coaches, there is little we can change about an athlete’s anthropometry, we can, however, have a great influence on their anatomical, physiological and technical abilities. 

So while we ultimately want the performer to be able to solve the problems they face, meaning we spend a lot of time exposing them to tasks/environments relevant to those they will face in their sport, we also want to improve the tools they have for solving these problems, from both a physical and technical basis. If we can improve the athletes physical qualities and technical abilities, they are then more likely to explore these upgrades as part of their problem solving approach to the tasks/environments they face. 

Strength and conditioning coaches have traditionally focused on improving physical abilities in the gym, working mostly at the general end of the general – specific continuum, which resides between the physical and technical domains. The tactical/technical coaches have then taken care of sport training, with a chasm left between the gym and the sport itself. 

As coaches within team sports, then, I feel we hold a number of responsibilities pertaining to skill development. We must develop tasks/environments that encourage the athletes to explore the skills we’re aiming to develop. We must also develop the underlying physical and technical abilities that the athletes can then utilise to effectively explore these tasks/environments. Finally, we must help the athletes connect it all together, so when they face game-defining moments, they’re more likely to prevail.


  1. Fajen, B., Riley, M.,  & Turvey, M. (2008). Information, affordances, and the control of action in sport. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 40(1), 79-107.
  • Chow, J. Y., Davids, K., Button, C., & Shuttleworth, R., Renshaw, I., & Araujo, D. (2006). Nonlinear pedagogy: a constraints-led framework for understanding emergence of game play and movement skills. Nonlinear dynamics, psychology, and life sciences, 10, 71-103.
  • Ramenzoni, V.C., Davis, T.J., Riley, M.A., & Shockley, K. (2010). Perceiving action boundaries: Learning effects in perceiving maximum jumping-reach affordances. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 72 (4), 1110-1119.
About the Author
Head of Sport Science Wolves & Director of Areté Performance