Freedom Through Constraint

gnimagesWhy have poets produced so many of the most memorable phrases in the world? What special gifts do they have that enable them to create such startlingly new yet useful and aesthetic sentences?

Firstly (as ever) it’s practice. Great phrases are exactly what they’re looking for, and what they’ve trained themselves to create. But it’s more than that – after all, they’re not the only ones looking for the perfect words.

Novelists have contributed many millions of brilliant ideas, and brilliant, quotable paragraphs, but relatively few lasting phrases of just a few words in length. Is there something about a poem that generates creativity in a different way to a novel?


Rules and constraints; rhyming schemes and iambic pentameter. If you wish to express something in a poem, you are forced to find words that fit not only your meaning but also the constraints of the particular poetic form. You’re forced out of your comfort zone, away from easy cliché and familiar phrasing, and you create something new.

Adding the artificial constraints frees you from the biggest constraint of all – unthinking repetition of the obvious choice. Habit. Taking the easy option.

The same is certainly true of training for sports. When your coach says to you that you’re to play with a stall count of 3, or that you have to alternate which hand is on top for your pancake catches, or that your normal handlers aren’t allowed to pick up the disc – or any of a million other things – he’s creating conditions that will challenge you. Certainly you might end up learning some things that you need never use in a game. But those few precious, useful things that you discover, that you would never have discovered playing an ordinary game of 7-a-side, are priceless.

Perhaps you learn that you’re more capable than you thought, that you can exceed the limits you had imagined for yourself.

Perhaps performing skills you might very rarely have a use for will help you better understand the skills you do use – just as practising the invert hammer will give you more control of the angle and trajectory of your normal hammer.

Perhaps you invent a totally new switching scheme on defence, or gain a greater understanding of defences you already use, because you’re forced to see things from new perspectives, with new difficulties – e.g. playing 6-on-7.

Or perhaps you simply make more mistakes, more often, and learn from those mistakes, because the artificial constraints force you to take more risks or do more new things.

As I’ve said before, 7-on-7 (particularly within your own club) is a slow way to learn, and it’s slow because you are not challenged to innovate or to cope with an opponent’s innovation; it’s almost entirely possible to play the same way week after week. You don’t engage your brain, you just go through the motions – and improvement will be extremely slow. If you add in variation and constraint, and force yourself to tackle new problems in new ways, you will learn much faster. Even though you might learn one or two ‘useless’ things, the fact that you’re paying attention will make all the difference.

The best players I’ve played with, the ones who learn the quickest and go on to be the most skilful, are the ones who apply their own constraints. They don’t just throw to each other at the start of practice – they throw around imaginary defenders, with wide or high or low releases, aiming to hit the receiver’s navel rather than just putting it somewhere near them (or aiming to hit them just as an imaginary cutter arrives in that space); they generally set themselves constraints that are more challenging than they would face in a game.

There are few things in life that constrain your creativity more than complete freedom. It takes a conscious effort to step out of your routine, to ignore the familiar, to challenge yourself. But it’s always worth it.

When someone suggests an apparently strange constraint, don’t dismiss it with casual mention of how it won’t apply to real game situations. Instead, embrace it as the source of necessary variation that will enable you to step out of your self-imposed, habitual shackles and actually learn something.

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4 Responses to Freedom Through Constraint

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great read Benj,

    As a biologist, rather than an artist, the analogy I draw is that the failure to practice under artificial constraints ( i.e. regular 7 vs 7) is equivalent to being an isolated island species that has no need to evolve new mechanisms of evading predation. Then when there is an invaisive species they get found out bad style.

    By installing different constraints a team/player can adapt and be ready to face a plethora of selection pressures.

    Don’t be the dodo i guess.


  2. Pingback: It doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun | India Ultimate

  3. L says:

    It would be interesting to have a list of alternate rules for scrimmages and what they can be used to teach. Some that we have used:
    – Lower stall count -> encourage faster disc movement
    – Score a point without turns means double -> promote conservation of the disc
    – Turnovers don’t count on a huck -> work on long game
    – Turned discs must be brought to sideline -> work on getting disc off the line
    – Smaller field (mini, etc.) -> players get more touches, faster movement, more interesting throws in tighter space

    Anyone have any more?


    • DG says:

      -‘Walktimate’ – useful early in the season for going through offensive schemes
      -Having a scoring receiver walk it out of the endzone and having to score again – working on endzone offence
      -Dropping an 8th defender as a last back defender if offence is too huck happy


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