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UK Coaching Research Team
6
Coaching Skills

Making Sense of ‘Game Sense’ – Part Two

What happened when Chris, an Australian Rules Football coach, abandoned his traditional coaching approach for a season, opting instead for a games-based approach to learning

After hearing about the ‘Game Sense’ tool, Chris felt it was a coaching approach that would be more appropriate for the type of players he wanted to develop. So he jumped in at the deep end.

To help adapt his style, Chris approached a university researcher who agreed to act as a consultative facilitator, someone who would provide advice or help Chris talk through an issue.

Other ways that Chris’s story was pieced together was by him keeping a reflective journal of each week, interviews with the researcher and a survey of players. In addition, the researcher attended training sessions and matches, and kept his own notes.

The three main themes that emerged over the season were:

  • changing session plans
  • clarifying the relationship between objectives and the style of the session
  • understanding that there is more to Game Sense than playing games.

An analysis of Chris’s session plans at the start of the season showed he was very much in the traditional camp – directive ‘skill and drill’ activities coupled with fitness and conditioning. 

As the season went on, the plans became more game-centred but still did not reflect Game Sense as they lacked any obvious conceptual or skill-development connection to the activities. It was only towards the end of the season (a full five months later) that the plans reflected the ideas of complementary aspects of play and learning technique.

In his reflective journal, Chris acknowledged the difficulty in the planning process and wrote that he ‘must get the balance right’ between the game and overall session objective. There was also the need to balance when to let the games flow and when to use direct instruction to achieve the specific task objective.

One of the most interesting parts about Chris’ journey, which may well explain why games-based coaching has not fully taken off, is that the sessions he was trying to plan were completely different to everything he had seen before – either as a coach or as a player. As such, it was difficult to understand what ‘right’ was as he had nothing to work from.

The most difficult part of the journey for Chris was getting the relationship right between what he was trying to achieve in a session and the activities he planned. It was about creating a consistency throughout the session, which again is in contrast to the idea that this approach is merely about playing games and seeing what happens.

As he wrote in his reflective journal:

Focus concepts can’t just be stated during a team meeting at the start of training, they must be reinforced through the activities and the dialogue within the practice session.

For Chris, there was a concern about balancing a session. At times, he thought he would be going into too much tactical depth and not affording enough time to the mechanics of movement or kicking etc.

This was similar to other research in junior rugby that discovered coaches take time to understand what role to play – when to step back, when to freeze play or practice to take advantage of a teachable moment, and when to give clear direction or instruction.

The word ‘games’ suggests something simple, but it is in fact the sophistication of games-based models such as Game Sense that gives them both their advantage and disadvantage.

On reflection, Chris has come to appreciate that Game Sense is not just about ‘getting bibs on and playing each other’. In an interview, he commented on how play practices and game simulations to stimulate learning were dependent on the coach ‘setting them up correctly’. 

In this first year, he felt he had got too caught up in running games and did not spend enough time observing players. In future, he expects to use injured players or team leaders to run the game so he can get back to the coaching element – again, the coach is facilitating skill development through games rather than facilitating games.

However, Chris also felt there was a role for drills (or more traditional styles of coaching) when tied in to the focus of the training session. He noted that while players liked the greater emphasis on game play at training, players also seemed to need the drills ‘to make players feel better about their skills’.

After five months of commitment and hard work from Chris, the final question is whether it was worth it. Did the players notice anything different? The answer is yes and no.

On the one hand, players noticed that training had changed, that it was more game simulated, involved greater emphasis on decision making and perhaps most interestingly included ‘harder and more complicated things’. Five of eight players who assessed the season indicated that training had been better this year, and they had perceived a benefit of enhanced transfer from practice to match day.

But some players saw fewer benefits than their teammates as they wanted more emphasis on skill work and drills. It could be argued that, just as coaches are used to a certain style of coaching, so players are also used to receiving a certain kind of coaching.

As the researcher concludes, some players are more comfortable with a games-based approach than others.

Related Content

There is plenty more on the topic of games-based learning on ConnectedCoaches – UK Coaching's free online community for coaches of all sports and activities. You may be interested in the following articles:

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UK Coaching Research Team