Coaching Game Based Skill

What is it and how do we coach it?

All spectators of Australian football, coaches and players included, marvel at the ‘Rolls Royce’ player who has the ability to ‘read the play’ better than most, who appears relatively unhurried when under pressure, and who consistently finds the ‘best option’ in heavy traffic. This presentation explored the general notion of ‘footy smarts’ and specifically the key components of game-based skill and highlighted practical coaching methods to maximize the transfer of training to the gam

What the coaches think

A similar session to this one has been conducted over a number years at various AFL coach education courses, where the attending coaches have been asked to identify the ‘game-based’ characteristics or abilities that separate the best players from the rest in Australian football. The top three responses consistently nominated by the coaches are, Decision making, Skill and Fitness.

The coaches are then asked to reflect on their own coaching practices and nominate how much time they devote to each of the top three abilities during a typical training session. The breakdown of the time coaches devote to each of the top three abilities suggests that training of the skills and fitness components of performance take priority over decision-making components (typical breakdown: skills 40-50%, fitness 40-50%, decision-making 10-20%).

This anecdotal evidence provided by the coaches is supported by the findings from a recent AFL research study titled, ‘You play as you train: Do training activities match game demands’. By the filming and analysis of the normal training session at several AFL clubs the study found this is not the case and does not occur to the extent it should. As coaches, why then are we ignoring one of the top three game-based abilities?

What separates the best from the rest?

The modern AFL footballer somewhat typifies the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius with the players now faster, bigger and stronger and than ever before. There has been a major emphasis placed on the recruitment of the athlete-player over the last decade which is evidenced by the range of physiological testing that elite junior players undertake each year at the AFL draft camp (i.e., speed, strength, agility, endurance, vertical jump etc).

Indeed, all AFL players are now considered elite athletes in their own right. What then separates the very best football players from the rest at the elite level? Sports science research from the study of expert performance in sport provides support for the anecdotal descriptions given to those players regarded as possessing ‘footy smarts’ and includes the following:

  1. Read the play: Experts are more accurate at picking up information from sport specific stimuli such as reading patterns of play and predicting future game events.
  2. Know how to get the footy: Experts have superior factual & procedural knowledge of their sport.
  3. Have all the time in world: Experts are superior at anticipating opponents’ actions.
  4. Make it look easy: Experts display superior capacity for dual-task performance.
How can we coach ‘Footy Smarts’?

The superior perceptual and decision-making skill of the expert players can be considered as a component part of game-based skill. The term ‘skill’ is often mentioned with little consideration given to what the term ‘skill’ really means within the context of Australian football. Therefore, within the framework of this presentation, the working definition of game-based skill is: Perception, and Decision-making, and Technique performed under Pressure. The key factor to be considered here is that the technique or ‘skill’ component of performance is intrinsically linked to perceptual and decision-making components and all are performed under game pressure.

Game-Based Coaching has been proposed as the most credible method to develop game-based skill and by definition, is an alternative to the traditional skills-based coaching methods that are currently advocated by the AFL (e.g., Auskick National Coaching Manual). Game-Based Coaching encourages the learning of perceptual and decision-making skills in a discovery environment that closely replicates the invasion-type sport and play environments that appear to be a major contributor to the attainment of expert decision-making skill by AFL players. Importantly, Game-Based Coaching emphasizes the development of those skills that separate the expert and less skilled decision-makers, such as the ability to ‘read the play’.

The broad aim of Game-Based Coaching is to maximise the transfer of training activities to meet the time-constrained and decision-laden demands of the game day environment. The concept of Game-Based Coaching was originally proposed under the banner of ‘Teaching Games for Understanding’ as a method for developing competence in physical education and sport. Various Game-Based Coaching models based on the Teaching Games for Understanding approach have been proposed over the intervening decades and include, ‘designer games’ as used by Ric Charlesworth with the Australian Hockyroo’s program, ‘game sense’ developed by the Australian Coaching Council, ‘guided discovery’ and recently ‘play practice’ (Alan Launder).

Advocates of Game-Based Coaching challenge technique or skills-based instruction, suggesting that actual game performance is degraded due to an absence of appropriate responses within the specific context of the game. Game-Based Coaching is proposed as a credible alternative as it provides for the development of game appreciation, perceptual and tactical awareness, and strategic knowledge, which contribute to the decision-making process.

Practically, Game-Based Coaching practice design should include creative elements such as the freedom to experiment and the opportunity for active problem solving. That is, all practice environments should be goal orientated to provide the learner with progressive challenges in regards to the tactical and strategic elements of the game, with the decision-making and skill execution components performed under pressure. Obviously, these practice environments need to cater to the level of the participants. At youth and senior levels design consideration should be given to the team structure such as team rules and game plan. The game-based coaching plan may include the following:

  1. Warm-up (modified game eg, handball tag)
  2. Game - Part 1 (modified environment / goal orientated)
  3. Break (discussion and questioning / traditional skill drills)
  4. Game - Part 2 (add progressions / variations)
  5. Cool down and review

There is scope for the systematic introduction of game-based coaching at all levels of AFL competition. The aim of Game-Based Coaching is to maximise the transfer of training activities to the game. A number of issues should be given consideration before fully adopting this coaching framework at your club:

  1. Education: This presentation has only provided a brief introduction to Game-Based Coaching. Coaches should continue to gain knowledge on emerging coaching trends and endeavour to inform and educate all stakeholders within their club of the relative merits and justification for using, what some may consider to be a radical approach to coaching.
  2. Planning / Preparation (7 P’s of coaching): The Game-Based Coaching is best developed by the coaches themselves to suit the particular needs of their team and coaching philosophies (by the way, perfect planning and preparation prevents piss-poor performance).
  3. Persistence: Unlike precision cone-to-cone drills, Game-Based Coaching encourages experimentation within a discovery environment in order for the players to better solve problems within the context of the game. Many coaches sample Game-Based Coaching but because it often appears chaotic and unstructured, they fall back into the comfort zone of using traditional skills-based cone drills that look neat and tidy and usually require little preparation. Remember, observable changes in game-based skill may occur over years rather than weeks, so stick with it!

As discussed, game-based coaching is a concept that has been around for some time and the old adage ‘You play how you train’ may now take on a little more significance.

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