Game Sense Coaching of Invasion Games
I was involved in one of those nerdy conversations about (Australian) football coaching on Friday over a couple of coffees, which I so enjoy (both the good coffee and the nerdy conversation). In the conversation on Friday the nuances of Game Sense coaching formed a large part of the dialogue. I have written elsewhere that one of the confusions with Game Sense coaching is that some reduce it to a tactical vs. technical coaching debate, and others, to small sided games (SSG) vs. drills, and this is where our coffee conversation began. I believe these binary positions misrepresent Game Sense coaching. Descriptions of the Game Sense approach generally do not rule in or rule out particular instructional strategies but represent a shift in focus from directive “coach centred” instruction to “player and game-centred” guided instruction. It is true that Game Sense coaching has an emphasis on practice sessions where contextual “game-like” practice forms the majority of the practice time. This is in contrast to the more common mechanical and directive approach to training that deconstructs the game into discrete elements which are “rote” trained through repetition in drills during practice eventuating (maybe) in a culminating game like activity to finish practice and lead into the warm-down. In this historically common approach, the coach focuses on directive feedback to players based on knowledge of results of movement behaviour. But there is more sophistication to Game Sense coaching than game-like practice.
I have been “playing around” with Game Sense coaching since first being introduced to the concept in 1995, and despite running lots of PD sessions on the approach since the early 2000’s I am still experiencing the same confusing over the approach as existed in the “early days” of the Game Sense coaching introduction and explanation. As I help out at coaching courses and conduct consultancies with various clubs it seems that the inclusion of a module on Game Sense coaching in most sports level 1 and 2 coaching courses, as well as the numerous blogs suggesting the efficacy of the approach when one “Googles” for practice ideas, has helped the idea of Game Sense coaching gain acceptance as a player and game-centred approach. However, what I find is that Game Sense coaching is most often miss-understood as the SSG approach. The distinctiveness of the Game Sense coaching approach shift of the role of coach from primarily directive or “command” style coaching to the “sport coach as educator” (to borrow a phrase from Robyn Jones excellent text by this name) guiding technical and tactical development through problem solving and inquiry instructional strategies is still not well understood. Game Sense coaching is not simply foregrounding designer games, play practices and match simulations at practice; it is about play with purpose.
The role of the coach as a designer of games that will be an educative experience facilitated by the coach through inquiry processes such as “tactical time-outs” where the players discuss what is working and what needs to change, and the coach shaping and focusing the play through well considered use of questions to individuals and groups of players begins with the coach having a clear understanding of the “logic” of the game. By understanding the logic of the game the coach can begin to teach players appropriate positioning relative to other team-mates and the opposition. It is my experience that it is coach knowledge of the concept of the game that limits ability to assume a guiding and facilitating rather than directing role.
Football coaches are generally good a teaching player’s awareness of self (player) and the ball. In other words, the players have been taught to “ball-watch”. However, I commonly experience that players transitioning from under-age football to senior football “ball watch” when they should be watching elsewhere. It would appear they have not been taught nearly as well to player-watch and space-watch. I experience the junior transitioning to senior player typically does not understand the sophistication of off-the-ball play. Young players in community coaching who have taught both the on-the-ball and off-the-ball “principles of play” immediately stand out. The young players have greater sensitivity to their positioning relative to the goals, the ball and other players as they have developed the perceptual and decision-making skills associated with “reading” the game when not in possession of the ball.
When well understood, Game Sense coaching has the advantage of grouping ball watching, player watching and space watching skills together through game-oriented play with purpose to form players understanding of “principles of play”.
Principles of Play
In order to simplify the task of learning to couple information-to-action Wade, Worthington, Franks and others evolved a terminology and methodology called Principles of Play during the late1960’s and early 1970’s. The method was developed by considering the sequence of maturity of player awareness of action in the players environment, by beginning with coaching the immediate vicinity first, and then spreading that awareness to include more players and action further from the players vicinity. It was proposed by Alan Wade, Eric Worthington, Ian Franks, Horst Wein (and others) that game development proceed from simple representation of the dynamics of the environment close to the ball using SSGs and gradually increase the complexity of the representation towards greater complexity of on-the-ball and off-the-ball play as players technical and tactical proficiency develop. In other words, coaches use the principles of play as a tool in the teaching of game intelligence (what to do), technical knowledge (how to do it) and game sense (knowing what to do + knowing how to do it + possessing an adaptive technical movement model to be able do it “in the moment” of the game).
I have recently been reading Eric Worthington’s 1974 text Teaching Soccer Skill. Worthington was the technical director of soccer in Australia in the 1970’s. The description of attacking and defending principles of play could be used in the coaching of any open-play invasion game like hockey, Australian football, lacrosse, as well as still being applicable starting points for understanding the logic of soccer/association football. Below I summarise the principles of play as described by Worthington.
First Defender/s: The Principle of Delay. The principle of delay the offense is essentially the closest defender to the ball challenging the player with the ball. The concept is to stop the attacking player playing the ball towards goal. Correct body positioning of the defenders body to block movement and passing into “dangerous” spaces ahead of the player with the ball is vital. The role of the first defender/s is to pressure the ball player into error so that the ball possession is lost.
Second Defender/s-the Principle of Depth in Defence: This refers to the defensive player next closest to the ball. This does not necessarily mean the next defender behind the first defender, as the principle of second defender refers to taking up a position in space relative to the ball. The second defender has three functions. The first is to assist the first defender with verbal instructions, such as block, hold ground, tackle, or move left/right. If the first defender is unsuccessful and the player with the ball advances then the second defender must come at the player with the ball. If the first defender is successful in turning the ball over then the second defender becomes an attacker and adjusts accordingly. If the first defender is successful in delaying the ball player the second defender must pay close attention to opposition players in the vicinity to prevent those players becoming an easy pass option for the player with the ball. The second defender needs to be very skilled at watching the ball, watching the player, and watching space. Proximity to the goals also dictates whether the second defender/s have tight player marking or focus on defending space.
Third Defender: The Principle of Defensive Balance. The first and second defender/s are the ones in the vicinity of the ball or movement of the ball. The role of the first and second defender/s is to stop the attack. The role of third defenders is to deny offense penetration by attackers into “dangerous spaces” where they could receive the ball and score. The Third Defenders try to deny the offense space by restricting the space attackers can work in and denying penetration of the ball into “dangerous spaces”.
The first attacker is the player with the ball. This is the role I observe most often being coached in junior sport. Worthington describes the first attacker as having three decisions: keep the ball, pass the ball, or kick at goal. The off-the-ball support role of the Second Attacker is the one harder to coach. Again, Worthington provides a nice explanation of this role.
Second Attacker/s: The Principle of Width and Depth in Attack: The second attacker position is determined by two considerations. Firstly, maintaining possession by positioning to create “advantage space”. That is, space that attacking players can get into before a defender. The second attacker position is therefore about space and positioning of players relative to the player with the ball. Speed is an ally of the second attacker role. Speed of ball movement, speed to react before the defender/s, speed at moving into position. Worthington called this the Principle of Penetration in offense. Positioning at 45 degree angles to the player with the ball allows second attackers to support the ball player with width and depth. Motion offense off the ball to create and re-create 45 degree angles at varying distances from the first attacker (ball player) by the second attack players disrupt defensive systems. When off-the-ball movement by second attack players becomes slow or stalled the role of defence is made easier. Worthington described the off-the-ball running patterns of the second attackers as the Principle of Mobility in offense. The second consideration of the second attacker/s is positioning to defend should the ball be lost. By being in motion the attacker/s ability to transition from offense to defence positioning is assisted.
In summary, the Principles of Play and corresponding functions of players are:
(Maintain possession and score) (Force the ball to turn over ~ re-gain possession)
(Get the ball into a scoring position) (Stop the ball moving forward)
Depth and Width Depth
(Move to create ‘advantage space) (Cover the space around the first defender)
(Disturb the defence positioning) (Restrict the space second attackers can work in)
In conclusion, an essential element of Game Sense coaching is to teach players the logic of the game and how to respond individually and collectively to offense, defense and transition phases of the game when a player is in on-the-ball and off-the-ball game moments. SSGs and designer games are one “instructional tool” in playing with purpose during a practice session. Another Instructional tool that moves the SSG approach towards Game Sense coaching is the invasion game principles of play. The still common “skill and drill” coaching approach in community coaching tends, however, to lead to a focus on training the on-the-ball moments as reproduction of “textbook” mechanical responses. Not surprising really, when most coaching manuals are complete with instructional cues to develop stylised movement mechanics and examples of closed and open “run off the marker” drills. I am not saying that these open and closed drills don’t have a role to play in practice sessions. Quite the contrary, they are very useful as warm-up and warm-down practice closure activities.
I suggest that coach education that brings greater attention to conceptual understanding of games and to the role of the coach as educator designing games for play with purpose as the next step in coach education and the building of awareness of the distinctiveness of Game Sense coaching.