Closed and Open Practice

First published January 4 2019
Updated January 21 2024

Last year (2018), I had a podcast conversation with an advocate of ecological psychology explanations of skill acquisition and a constraints-led approach (CLA) to coaching. I've seen many demonstrations of CLA at conferences and online, and read examples in scholarly literature. I commented to the person I was talking with that mostly what I had seen presented as a CLA at conferences and online were 'familar' practice tasks given a new language. From a pedagogical perspective the examples seem very much like "conditioned " games, a few examples looked like closed drills while most examples look like open drills. People familar with my work will know that I believe a CLA provides a very good explanation as to why deliberately designed practice activities for play with purpose can be educatively effective. I suggested it is a good heuristic for conditioning games educative purpose. However, my purpose in recalling this anecdote lies in the young (well, much younger than me) sport scientist I was talking with commenting that he had never heard of the classification of closed and open drills. 

Closed and open drills

Closed drills are those that provide a relatively stable practice environment. For team sports, that means a practice environment where defenders or opposition are removed from the action, or placed in passive roles. Typically, it will also involve narrowing the focus of the practice to a 'moment' or to an 'action'. In my experience, in an Australian football (AFL) coaching context I see closed drills often used in "craft sessions" to develop or refine specific movement actions - such as in an Australian football context, wedging an opponent to move the opponent off balance and under the ball so as to gain the opportunity to exit the contest before one's opponent by having gained an advantageous position. The strategy of wedging is commonly used at restarts such as boundary throw-ins and around the ground ball-ups. Closed drills are often used to teach impovement of aspects of 'craft' that are not picked up by most players by observation of the game or by volume of play - you don't know what to watch what you don't know what to watch, or where a habituated movement pattern is likely to or is leading to injury or skill performance inconsistency. I consider a neuroscience explanation for this in a blog here

Closed and open drills can be thought of as a continuum from fully closed and isolated from the game through to fully open game form practice and match simulations. This paper gives a good overview of closed and open drills, and their skill and physiological demands.

I have observed in recent years some people presenting a "drill vs game form" or 'non-game form vs game-form' discourse that presents what I have called in this blog 'closed drills' in a deficit view compared with representative of the game practice forms. The discourse seems to suggest that 'closed drills' are to be treated with caution, if not completely avoided, as they do not contain desirable "perception-action coupling". People familar with my work will know that I am an advocate of play with purpose as a form of deliberate practice, however, I interprete play with purpose as 'game-based' approach, but not 'game only'. Perhaps, that is the influence of Mosston's Spectrum of Teaching Styles 'non-verses' approach to pedagogical choice on my understanding of the role of the teacher or coach as a designer of 'learning spaces' (I have summarised key ideas of the Spectrum of Teaching Styles in a blog here, and explained game based teaching/coaching using the Spectrum of Teaching Styles here). Perhaps, it is also because I am not weded to promoting a particular psychological explanation basing my work in the pedagogical tradition of the principles of teaching (coaching) for effective learning.

There are many examples of 'the best' players practicing using closed drill activities.

One of the first sporting biographies I read was the Craig Johnston story, Walk Alone. It is the story of remarkable football (soccer) success. One of the anecdotes shared in the story, is about when he arrived in the UK as teenager, how he quickly realised his technical ability was well below the level of skill of the locals he was competing with for a spot on the playing roster. To 'close this gap',  Craig Johnston spent countless hours away from team sessions in isolated practice using what teachers and coaches 'of my generation' would have described as closed drill practice, in order to 'close the gap' between his level of technical skill and that of the local UK lads.

It would be easy to read many sporting biographies and come to the conclusion that the individual became a great player as of high levels of game play during their youth, including lots of "backyard" or street games, as stories of backyard/driveway/street games are common in these books. Indeed, some selectively focus on these anecdotes to provide a narrative for the advantages of deliberate play in the developing 'champion player'. However, frequently, the biographies also reveal a commitment by the player to additional closed drill practices of isolated from the game movement skills, often to work on a perceived 'weakness' in their game - such as the anecdote of Craig Johnston I shared above, or another I read of Rugby champion player Nick Farr-Jones who as a 15 year old, worked on his passing by aiming to hit a thin tree, or Cricket champion Steve waugh hitting a ball hanging in a stocking. Even the 'classic' example of Cricket legend Don Bradman hitting balls rebunding off the corrugations of a rain water tank fit the definition of closed drill practice. Examples of the value of "drills" and "technical work" are frequently evident in the stories of champion layers practicing, and also how the individuals character is so influential in talent development as they did not see these practices as 'boring'. A nice paper to read on the multidimensional nature of talent development and the role of the individual self regulation of their behaviour can be found here.

As I write this blog (2019), I have been watching Australian batters struggle in their test match against India. Expert commentary consistently highlights that the batters struggles can be directly related to technical flaws as well as poor 'shot selection' (decision-making), the later a function of player "game sense". Frequently, the commentary suggests "technique matters". What the commentators seem to be rfering to is the biomechanics of the actions.

Ashes 2015: Australia’s batsmen show technical flaws at Trent Bridge

Test batsmen battle 'basic flaws'

Often players who are held up as technically divergent and yet 'champions of the game' when exposed to a biomechanical analysis of their actions, are revealed to be technically compliant in the 'things that matter'  - what sometimes gets called now the "shape" of the players action. For example, a biomecanical analysis of crickter Steve Smith:
"Amid all the talk about his unorthodox technique, his candidacy for LBW and his favouring the onside, Smith has, as so many geniuses do, simplified his game to a few fundamentals that are then applied with an iron will...No matter how much he moves about in his crease in order to work the ball into gaps on the leg side, at the precise instant that the ball strikes the bat, his head is in line with it. The importance of the head's positioning in promoting the balance required for any sport cannot be over stated and Smith gets it right, hour after hour after hour...Not only is his head in line with the ball, it is also still at the point of impact" (link to article)
Closed or open drill: It depends

Mosston's wisdom, first espoused in 1966 in the original text detailing the Spectrum of Teaching Styles, is that an important 'teaching skill' is knowing when to intervene and how to intervene (which teaching style is needed at the time) - highlighting the place of professional judgement and decision making in practice design and the role of the teacher/coach in the movement skill development 'practice' environment. Dave Collins and colleagues have advanced a theory of professional judgement and decision making to explain the pedagogical work of the sport coach that I believe coaches should be looking at and considering with respect to the nature of their work. See here for readings. 

"I had to be innovative to satisfy my insatiable desire to be active and improve. Mum's stockings provided the solution. A tennis ball was placed inside an old pair, which then hung from a beam in the garage. To make it more realistic, electrical tape was bound around the ball to give it hardness. Later, the tennis ball was replaced by an old cricket ball, with tape now used to reinforce the stocking. To adjust the height of the ball, all I had to do was wind the stockings around the beam a few times to simulate shorter-pitched deliveries. The trick of the whole exercise was to play as straight as possible, so the ball would crash into the tiled roof and then fly down at a good pace directly back to where I was waiting. If I got it slightly wrong, the angle would be accentuated by the ricochet and the sequence would be broken, much to my frustration. I believe I learnt patience and perserverence from the thousands of hours I spent alone in the garage. I would keep trying until I could hit 10 in a row, then 20, eventually 100. I loved the challenge I would set myself to maintain the pleasure I gained from playing the perfect shot, the one that 'pinged' off the bat. Without knowing it, I was enthusiastically searching for the perfect technique and developing routines that would later form the basis around which my game evolved" 
Steve Waugh. Out of My Comfort Zone: The Autobiography

There is some empirical support for the arrangement of activities into a closed to open continuum (for example, see here
Recently (2021), colleagues and I took Mosston's 'non-verses' pragmatic approach to pedagogy: that is, that no teaching style is wrong but teaching styles can be used wrongly, in that the teaching style is not aligned with the purpose of achieving the outcome for the player from the practice, and explained the the Spectrum as a Spectrum of Coaching Styles (see here). 


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