Scott Pendlebury appears to have more time and space than other players

Game Sense Training - Developing Players

Friday, July 20, 2012

By Heath Younie
North Adelaide F.C Centre of Excellence Under 18’s Coach

What separates the elite players from the good players in any invasion sport?

Is it their technical ability, physiological capacities, tactical ability, innate motivation, or a combination? I believe it is their Game Sense, their tactical knowledge informing the ability to make the correct decisions consistently whilst under game pressure combined with the movement ability to execute those decisions.

Some might try to claim that some players are born with this natural talent to read the play. Recent research suggests that the training they have been exposed to as a junior is most influential in developing Game Sense.

Prominent in the biography of many elite players is substantial time in what Cote (2004) calls Deliberate Play and Pill (2007) calls Play with Purpose. For example, South American Soccer players such as current Barcelona player Lionel Messi and former Brazilian greats Pele, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo attribute their professional playing success to their consistent exposure to small sided games as juniors; whether it is playing on their local streets or in official Futsal competitions. Lionel Messi  states” playing football meant playing on the street, outside my house or anywhere else in the neighborhood where there was a game going on”  whilst Pele says “In futsal you need to think quick and play quick so it's easier for you when you move to normal football (outdoor soccer)."  These types of modified small-sided game experiences have provided many South American players with the confidence and experience to transfer into the full game where their decision making is more effective.

We also see the influence of “backyard” and “street” cricket matches in the biography of elite cricket players. Research is starting to paint a picture that it is time spent playing with purpose that distinguishes the developmental backgrounds of elite players from the rest.

If the elite performers of Australian Football are examined closely and assessed as to why they are considered the leading performers in the competition we see that it is their ability to execute the game related skills under pressure.  Scott Pendlebury was recently best described by his former Coach Michael Malthouse as having the unbelievable ability to be able to slow the game down in his own mind, looking like he has more time and space than any other player. As for Pendlebury’s background, he was considered an elite basketball as a junior, a sport where training involves small sided scrimmages where players have to make decisions under game related pressure. The courts are small which reduces the time and space, which according to Daniel Coyle in the Talent Code, ultimately improves a players decision making skills in full field games.

Another example worth considering is Cyril Rioli. Cyril grew up spending the majority of his time as a youngster kicking a ball around with friends. He was exposed to small sided games, playing ‘pick-up’ games with mates in the streets simulating game related pressure with decisions continually being made without the participants being explicitly coached. 

I was recently fortunate enough to spend some time on Bathurst Island working at Xavier College a remote school in the Tiwi Islands. What I witnessed supports Daniel Coyle’s research. Before, during and after school many of the local boys and girls meet at the school basketball court to play a modified game what they call “kick board”. Kick board is a “pick- up game” they have created which involves players having to kick a football at a Basketball backboard. If the ball hits the front of the board it is considered a goal if it happens to hit the side, bottom or top of the board it is considered a point. All the different techniques are involved with the kids umpiring themselves.  What is the most impressive element of this game is the kids decision making, their ability to execute different types of kicks under pressure. When questioning them who taught them how to kick the majority had developed their skill playing these types of ‘pick up’ games.

What are the implications for developing junior Australian footballers? Small-sided game versions, such as 6v6, 8v8 and 9v9 accelerate game development by providing play with purpose and substantially more game involvement (and therefore learning) than full field 18v18 games.

Play with purpose, deliberate play and play practices used to emphasis specific skill development in game-centered environments facilitate game understanding as well as motor skill – in other words, Game Sense. For example, playing a modified handball game of Australian Football where the size of the ground is reduced emphasises the importance of fast, proficient handballs in congested situations. The game related pressure stimulates movement and information coupling.

With this understanding coaches need to structure practice that continually allows players to fire their neural circuits. This can achieved through implementing deep practice typical of game sense training. Players should be encouraged to be creative and to make mistakes, but then encouraged to think about what has occurred. Den Duyn (1997) called this developing ‘thinking players’ while Coyle explained, “You need to make mistakes to learn”. Ultimately players that are exposed to this type of deep practice are more likely to become better decision makers, making them more effective players.

What is Game Sense Training?

Game sense training can be best described as a game-based (but not game-only) approach that implements small side games or match play situations into training. It “flips” traditional “game last” training based around teaching players the specific techniques in isolation through drills before game application into a “game-first” approach that truly represent the environment that the full game is played in.

Through a game sense approach coaches challenge players to develop an understanding of the techniques, rules and tactics that are required to play the game successfully. According to Pill (2010), the manipulation of game constraints (such as rules, number of players, dimensions of the playing space and movement within the playing space) provides the “tools” to create game sense games and what Launder (2001) calls “play practice” scenarios that develop tactical understanding and the application of movement skills for intelligent play.

Why use Game Sense Training?

In my experience as a junior coach and a Physical Education teacher the first thing young participants generally ask the coach is “When are we going to play a game?”  Why not give the players what they want and introduce some type of small sided games into your training?

In place of a traditional warm up get the players into a modified handball game where maximum participation is achieved by being small-sided.  Players are being given the opportunity to develop their skills in game related environments as the coach continues to instruct ‘through the play’.  This structure ultimately improves their decision making and tactical knowledge.  If the game provides an optimal challenge players motivation levels for training can be increased as players enjoy nothing more than playing the game.

AFL football is a complex activity where a player’s technique can break down when exposed to internal player constraints (speed, size, strength etc) and external conditions such as pressure from opposition.  With this understanding I suggest coaches should be providing their players with training sessions that expose the players to game scenarios allowing the players to learn to ignore irrelevant stimuli and attend to the relevant ones by developing game sense. 

The importance of implementing Game Sense into your training is highlighted in a recent news article about the St.Kilda Football club. Newly appointed coach Scott Watters discusses the importance of having players who both have the physical capabilities to play AFL as well as being natural ball winners. He states “I want players elitely prepared in their capacity to run, cover, impose themselves on their position, respond to opposition challenges in a really physical, strong way, but also to have the ability to understand the game and to problem-solve. We talk often about game-day problem-solving, that’s one of the greatest traits you can have as a sportsman.” 

Heath Younie is North Adelaide F.C Centre of Excellence Under 18’s Coach.  This article was written as part of the requirements of the AFL High Performance Coaching Course.


  • Côté, J., Baker, J., & Abernethy, B. (2003). From play to practice: A developmental framework for the acquisition of expertise in team sport.In J. Starkes & K.A. Ericsson (Eds.), Recent advances in research on sport expertise (pp. 89-114). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Coyle, D 2010, The Talent Code: Is talent grown or born.
  • Den Duyn, N 1997, Game Sense: developing thinking players workbook, Australian Sports Commission, Canberra.
  • Launder, A 2001, Play Practice: the games approach to teaching and coaching sport, Human Kinetics, Adelaide.
  • Pill, S 2008, ‘Play with purpose: teaching games for understanding’, Active and Healthy, 15(1), pp. 7–10.Pill, S 2010, ‘Using tactical games’, Sports Coach,  Issue:Volume 31 Number 1; Australian Sports Commission.
  • Pill, S.A., 2007. Play with Purpose : A resource to support teachers in the implementation of the game-centred approach to physical education., Hindmarsh: ACHPER Australia

Comment on this story

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Bruce bennett, 03-08-12 08:08:
Dear Heath i totally agree with your game sense training views.i my self have long football background.myself and a fewmates back in high school in 1985 played a version of this kickboard game on a basketball court the only difference was we used a tennis ball .it was much harder and it improved our kicking and handball massively and our abililty to keep our feet otherwise youd get bad gravel rash.
Andrew Jarman, 03-08-12 12:59:
Well done mate the article gives young Coaches the ability to develop better skilled players.Time for Heath to get a AFL Coaching position.
Craig Simpson, 24-03-13 17:43:
The idea of 'game sense' to develop players and team structures is spot on. I would love to know more of the types of 'games' advanced coaches are doing.
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