Let them play!

I recently had the pleasure of presenting at the Rugby League National Coaching Conference. In two workshops, one for 9-12 years and one for 13+ years, I structured the message around 'let them play'. In both workshops, a focus was on conditioning the game form for play with purpose. In other words, the game as deliberately designed educative space. That educative space was focused on teaching a game concept. Borrowing from the old pedagogical maxim of specificity - 'practice how you want to play': that is, for there to be effective transfer from practice to the play on game day, practice needs to represent the game (some of us older types might see parallels between specificity and the more recent explanation, 'representative task design').

We started sessions with modified games comprising small numbers of players to warm-up in an environment that maximises the number of ball contacts per player in the game and hence, provide a greater practice volume as well as practice specificity than 'off the line' drills. One of the coaches who influenced my early thoughts on game-based coaching, Rick Charlesworth, wrote that "at almost every training session of the Hockeyroos we played small sided games with fatigue impacting on their performance. Often one team had a more difficult task, for example, two goals to defend or fewer players, yet they were expected to learn to continue with the task regardless of the distractions" (The Coach: Managing for Success, 2001). At conference, we played 3v3. This provided the basic structure of a Rugby League game: a play the ball, a dummy half, and a link. After 3 minutes, we stopped play for a tactical talk via a communication huddle with 'the coach' (me). Participants were 'blowing pretty hard', demonstrating during the reflective moment both the training specificity benefit of the activity as a warm-up and the potential for conditioning effects - so that with junior players (actually, with players of any age in community sport settings), you don't have to worry about separating fitness work from game development work as the game can be designed to do speed, acceleration, agility or cardio/aerobic fitness work for you. The proposal I put to coaches is that with junior and youth players, time spent with the ball in play is more beneficial to their game development than spending time running laps and sprint lanes.

To demonstrate how game 'rules are the tools' coaches use to condition games for play with purpose, I used the concept of changing the angle of attack. The game rule was any time a team could perform a successful switch, the tackle count returned to zero. I used tactical time outs with the teams retiring to their defenive ends to discuss 'when was the best time/place in the game to run straight lines, and when to run a switch?' We then came togther as a group, and using coach guided faciliatation, workshoped the ideas form the teams. Through this process I wanted to demonstrate the strategy of making the players thinking visbile. The idea being, the coach as a facilitator of player development of understanding rather than constantly a transmitter of knowledge.

I had the practice space set out in grids to show the coaches how to use grids to organise practice games, and how the space can be manipulated to change the shape of the games to condition the play - long and skinny rectangles, squares, fat and short rectangles, without having to move any of the initial boundary markers. I had been reminded recently of the use of practice grids when looking back on some old notes from my Teachers College days. I can't recall the last time I saw a coach using practice grids, but they can be highly effective for reducing session management time so more time is spent on what we use to call 'active learning time', like playing the game/game form.

A trend in many invasion sports now is that goals are scored 'on turnovers' - the moment of advantage when you win the ball from the other team and transition into attack before the opposition can establish their defensive shape. One way to create those moments of advantage is to engineer the condition of an overload in the game. At conference, we did this by conditioning the game to start/restart on the attacking teams defensive try line. The player making the try had to run around the outside of the playing field and re-enter play from their defensive try line - creating a moment of offensive overload (+1) for the now attacking team. The team tactical time outs and conversation huddle with the coach (me) were all about how to exploit that moment of advantage. Another way of engineering that moment of advantage is to call a player on the defensive team out of play for (e.g.) 10 seconds, creating the +1 overload. I often use the call 'drop', as in 'Mary, drop' (the player has to drop to one knee and count to ten before re-entering play). There are so many ways the play space can be conditioned for specific play with purpose, or to run match simulations for specific phases of the play with more developed or mature teams so players have experienced the patterns of play and how to solve the problems they present before they occur in the game on 'game day'. This concept of developing common player mental representations (patterns of play) to shape game behaviour to help teams collectively organise their play is an idea from systems based coaching that I discussed in a previous blog (see here).

'Kids' like to touch the ball and score. They want to play. Kids come to practice often because the coach says 'no practice, no play on game day'. Maybe, if we made practice a game, more kids would want to come to training, as training would be fun. Wayne Goldsmith's keynote at the conference reminded us that humans make memories through stories about moments that matter to us. We don't remember every moment of our lives - some moments seem to matter more than others and become our memories: it is the emotion associated with the event that creates the preference for these memories.At conference, I argued that 'lines, laps and lectures' don't create the 'drive home' stories: Mum, you should have seen that tackle I made that stopped a try; Dad, you should have seen the cut-out pass I made that put Cherie over the line; Billy, I smoked you on that try, I was so fast. Daniel Kahneman's work in this area of memory making is very interesting. The point here is perhaps that if we wish to keep more children and youth playing sport, playing purposefully at practice can not only be used as a delibrate practice strategy for game developemnt, it may be also a way of creating 'memory moments' - and therefore, a really valuable youth sport retention strategy. I was able to demonstrate this effect at conference by asking those not playing to monitor the conversation that was occuring in the practice environment I had created, and to monitor the conversations as players came in for the conversation huddle. The observers noted the frequent sounds signifying enjoyment, the friendly banter between team mates, and the memories being made from the game play. It happens with the adults as well as the 'kids'. Many attendees commented to me that the session had reminded them that as adult players before coaching, the training sessions they enjoyed most were the ones where they had played 'scratch matches'.

I'm not advocating that there is no place for isolated technical work on players motor patterns. My preference with youth and adult players is to place that in the warm-up progression from closed 'unopposed' to open 'opposed' drills and play practices, or in specialised 'craft work' sessions at the end of practice. However, as people who have read previous blogs will know, I am attracted to the Game Sense coaching concept (Australian Sports Commission, 1996) that 'game play' is the focus and main component of the practice session.

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