Developing players technical- tactical connection by Play with Purpose

Many coaches focus on the motor development of technical skills and physical development as 'fitness' using drill exercises. Accompanying these activities is an authoritative stance exemplified by an over reliance on prescriptive or 'command' style coaching. Often practice contains nothing that looks like the game players are being prepared to play.

In the early mid-2000's I started to use the term Play with Purpose to describe an alternative pedagogical stance to the often common prescriptive and directive instructional style that I observed dominating coaching at junior and senior levels, and physical education teaching. The concept behind Play with Purpose was the deliberate use of game forms and open drills/play practices as learning contexts where the explicit teaching goal is to improve an identified aspect of players tactical and technical game performance. In other words, deliberately improve players 'game sense'.

Initially my ideas were heavily informed by the Game Sense coaching approach (Australian Sports Commission, 1996). Where some of the literature at the time seemed to be emphasising the 'game as teacher', my stance was the teacher (or coach) is the teacher, and the game is a teaching tool. I suggest that developing players 'game sense' engages the coach (or teacher) in deliberate scaffolding of three 'ways of knowing':

  • Knowing what to do in the context play
  • Knowing how to execute that response 
  • Knowing why the execution was successful or not
I now understand from research in skill acquisition that 'skilled players' have better anticipation and decision making skills. Skilled players are expert decision makers, and often this ability is a result of accumulating more hours in play and game like activities than the players that have not reached this attainment (Williams & Ford, 2013). Coaching that is over-reliant on drill based activities that lack coherence to the complexity of the game context may hinder the development of players, as the players do not get provided the guided and scaffold exposure to the game action sequences that emerge from the complexity of game play to develop the pattern recognition abilities of the skilled performer (Williams & Hodges, 2005).

Game-based coaching literature emphasises the main difference between it and directive practice is the deliberate manipulation of games for a purpose using the pedagogy of game modification. The essential characteristics of games are retained, while aspects of the game are exaggerated, eliminated or reduced (den Duyn, 1997). For example, the pedagogical principle of exaggeration can be applied to make a target such as goal bigger to make scoring easier; Goals can be made smaller so that the demands of attacking challenge is elevated. The pedagogical principle of reduction is most obviously observed with the modification of junior sport equipment and grounds/courts to scale them for the physiological development of junior players. The pedagogical principle of elimination can be applied to eliminate players from team numbers to form small sided sport versions.

The CHANGE IT formula (Schembri, 2005) is a useful heuristic for understanding the pedagogical principles of modification using exaggeration, reduction or elimination:
C- coaching style
H - how scoring occurs or how the scoring system works
A - area or dimension of the play space
N - number ofplayers
G - game rules
E - equipment
I - inclusion strategies for special needs
T - time (duration) of play or time permitted in possession or a phase of play

In order to facilitate play with purpose, the teacher/coach becomes a game designer seeking to use a game to purposefully shape player thinking and action. Rushall & Siedentop's (1972) Shaping strategy offers a useful way of thinking about this coaching/teaching action:
  • Know the desired game behaviour
  • Sequence the game progression from simple representation to more complex representation
  • Use primes such as questions to focus players thinking and action
  • Reinforce learning through volume of engagement - in other words, repetition of exposure to the desired game behaviour
One of the misconceptions of game-based approaches is that technique is not developed. It is the case that movement techniques are initially contextualised as solutions to game problems and players are encouraged to explore movement solutions in games. However, there will be times when a player may require isolation from the game to a drill to help accelerate their movement development. The mastery of the coach/teacher is knowing when, why and with which players the use of a reproductive and/or directive teaching moment is necessary - thereby using drills deliberately to focus attention through rehearsal, and not using drills as a form or 'learning by rote'. The removal of players from the game for a period of directed closed practice is shown in this Coaching - Game Sense video at 3.25-4.03    

In summary, play with purpose involves beginning the practice design by choosing a tactical concept for the training session, and then designing a game form to begin the game development (junior or novice players) or match simulation (adult or advanced players) engagement with this concept and to be the organising focus of the practice session.

For a more detailed consideration of this topic, see The Game Sense Approach as Explicit Teaching and Deliberate Practice

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