Game Sense Coaching to Improve Kicking

Thursday, September 25, 2014

by Dave Reynolds,
SANFL Metropolitan Programs Manager

Over the past summer I played a season of AFL9s, a social modified version of Australian Football. Anyone from our office who wanted to join our team could, including Adam from finance. 

Adam has a strong basketball background, but very little background in football. Before the game we had a light kick to kick. Adam kicked some of the best ‘floaters’, ‘tumble punts’ and ‘accidental torps’ I’ve ever seen, so I offered a couple of tips. With a quick focus on holding the ball vertically and making sure it keeps that shape as it’s guided down to his foot, we were able to see the majority of his kicks spin backwards and go reasonably straight. Within the first minute of the game Adam received a handball, ran forward and executed his first kick of the game. Was it a backwards spinning straight drop punt like he practiced before the game? Unfortunately not, it wobbled off the side of his foot and went out of bounds.

In the 10 minutes before the game Adam received a good start to improving his kicking - an assessment was made that his kicking needed improving, his technique was evaluated, a key area was identified and he received one-on-one coaching focussing on improving the identified area. Adam was able to execute the kick with reasonable success while kicking to a partner before the game. So with almost instant improvement during practice why did this not transfer to the game?

I regularly hear coaches say things like “I don’t know why Johnny’s kicking hasn’t improved? At training we spend ages kicking one-on-one with him, which improved his kicking, but then in games he continues to miss targets by foot!” This is very similar to what I witnessed with Adam.

A question to be asked in the case of both Adam and Johnny - is the training they are receiving specific to the game situation? Kicking to a partner is a closed skill, far different from the open game of Australian Football, so why should we expect transition of execution into the game if we have not practiced for it? 

A game sense approach allows the player to refine the movement competencies necessary to successfully meet the challenges presented within the game. Game sense games allow players to practice and develop skill execution within similar environment constraints to the ones they will be challenged with in the game. 

Now that’s not saying closed technique training should be avoided. This is important to ensure the technique is competent enough to execute the skill. But this is just one element of skill execution. To be efficient in executing a skill in the game a player needs to develop game awareness, decision making under pressure and tactical game appreciation, along with developing the technique. A game sense approach is about finding the right balance. It is often stated as Technique + Game Context = Skill. 

Picture a traditional Australian Football training session - before the training starts the kids are running around in an unstructured environment kicking goals from the boundary, dodging and weaving, trying new things, using flair and trying to outdo each other. Then the whistle blows, they all run over to the coach and are then made to stand in lines, wait turns and run cone to cone. Which is more specific to the game of Australian Football? 

Game sense coaching approaches training sessions differently to traditional training session structures, encouraging a “Whole – Part – Whole” approach. Start with a small sided game (whole), then break down an identified element of the game, such as kicking, for focus improvement (part), and then returning to the game again (whole). The small sided games are specific to the game, maximize involvement and are extremely enjoyable for the players. 

The small sided games can begin at a simple level and develop in complexity as the group and individuals develop. For improvement it’s important to find the optimal challenge level of each activity. Although it may look good if few footballs hit the ground, this is a clear sign that the players are not being challenged enough and not developing, as they are executing skills in an environment that they are already competent in. When challenged they will make mistakes and will improve. Challenging environments may look messy, but they are maximising the opportunity for development. Smooth seas don't make skilful sailors – messy trainings are good trainings.

A key element of game sense coaching is the art of questioning. Many coaches, like me, have fallen into the trap of telling player’s answers and then wondering why they have not retained it. Through good questioning the facilitator can allow the player to find the answer themselves, maximizing their learning from the activity and providing a far better opportunity for the player to retain what they have learned. 

A game sense coaching approach involves all of the areas mentioned here – creating environments specific to the game, technique development, maximizing involvement, finding the optimal challenge for each activity and the art of questioning. It’s the perfect way to maximise development and enjoyment.

A good resource for more information about game sense training and specific Australian Football practice activities is Pill, S. (2012). Play With Purpose: Developing Game Sense in AFL Footballers.

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