Making Sense of Game Sense Coaching

Making Sense of Game Sense Coaching -  2014 AFL National Coaching Conference, Feb 1st, Adelaide Oval
Game Sense coaching is often described as an approach that uses games as the focus of the traning session; but there is more to Game Sense coaching than a focus on games, match simulation and play practices or open drills. Game Sense coaching challenges our thinking about what it means to be skillful. Game Sense is not simply decision making or the development of thinking players. Game Sense is decision making in combination with movement capability to execute a functionally effective movement response. That is, a movement reponse that successful addresses the situated context of the moment of play. Hopper (2003) helps understand this by explaining that during a game players continuously:
Read the situation to make appropriate decisions
Respond according to thatreading of the player (make a decision)
React with movement execution
Recover from the skill execution to prepare for the next game engagement.

Being skilled is thus the combination of information-movement coupling and not the seperation of Game Sense as decision making training from skill training.

Game Sense coaching is not about "throwing out the ball" and letting players play a game.  It is a coaching approach that nuances whole-part-whole practice (or: game-practice-game) with an emphasis on player engagement in active reflection and problem solving. The following features are observed in Game Sense coaching:
- the use of small-sided games to accelerate learning through greater player opportunity for maximum participation
- the use of practice tasks that representative the complexity and constraints of the game so players "practice as they will play"
- this representation occurs by manipulating game constraints to also bring about a specific learning focus, so there is "play with purpose"
- coach use of guided discovery by a prepardness to help players find answers to the problems experienced during play in preference to tellling players the answer
- progressively increasing the challenge of activities (simplification-towards-complexity) so players are continually challenged to improve but practicing at the edge of their ability

The illustration above shows the rhythm of a game-sense coaching plans for juniors, but generally speaking Game Sense coaching doesn't involve replication of a model of planning, rather it involves emphasising the value of play-based training designed with purpose and accompanied by well-considered coach questioning of players game behaviour so that players are constructing the answers for themselves.
Another distinctive feature of Game Sense coaching is that session planning commences with a consideration of the concepts to be taught. It is not assumed that game play must wait untill after stylised and often prescribed ways of moving with and without the ball are practicised in "skill and drill" fashion. When this is assumed training starts from the perspective of what skills are to be rehearsed during training. Game Sense coaching acknowledges that practice tasks that represente the game day realities are most likely to build a player ready for game day as there will be transfer from practice to game day demands. Fundamentals and basic skills are not ignored and practice of the movement basics still occurs during training or they may be incorporated into the warm-up, as the sample coaching plan below illustrates

Implications for Australian football junior and youth coaches:

1) Repetition of themes (eg. keep possession of the ball from an opposition) in small-sided games and match simulations (SSG’s increase individual player game engagements) at the level of optimal challenge (at the edge of the players ability) accelerate skill learning.

2) Encourage play as practice, but design the purpose of the play

Design games and play practices that combine technical, tactical and fitness training into one task (Suggested Reading- Rick Charlesworth, 1993, 1994 – Designer Games)

3) Game Sense is learnt – talent is habit: you are what you do

Learning a skill comes about through the brain adapting (linking nerve fibres) to experiences. The brain becomes more efficient at pattern recognition and its ability to execute functionally efficient motor responses (Suggested Reading- The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Bounce by Mathew Syed)

The game or match-simulation component of Game Sense coaching sessions may be a modified game like the illustration in the coaching plan above or it might be a game like the one illustrated below. It depends on the age and stage of game development of the players you are coaching. I have used the game below in AusKick sessions to teach game fundamentals and used a progression of the game as a practice task to focus on specific movement concepts in an U16 Centre of Excellence Program.

The scholarly coaching litereature suggests that despite 20 years of professional development and advocacy of Game Sense coaching as a preferred approach it is still  not the common experience of Australian community sport coaching at any level of the game. However, it was rewarding to have a number of coaches comment today that they had radically changed their coaching after attending previous presentations on Australian football Game Sense coaching, and that they believed player engagement and enjoyment had been enhanced as a result of the change to Game Sense coaching. This demonstrated the value of conferences such as the AFL National Coaching Conference in promoting ideas like Game Sense coaching that can positively encourage young peoples experience of the game of Australian football for more sustained participation and enjoyment, as well as for the development of more skillful players. 

For further examples of game sense coaching ideas for Junior and Youth football and a more detailed explanation of game sense consider-
Play with Purpose: Developing Game Sense in AFL Footballers

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