Game On!

Using a games-based approach to coaching opens a world of possibility for practice design, athlete engagement and problem-solving challenges. A games-based approach to coaching prepares athletes for competition and arguably is unrivalled on its impact on learning, developing and applying skill.

There are a wide range of advantages for athletes is coaches chose to adopt a games-based approach:

·      Practices provide context for the players you are working with

·      High contextual interference (Chaos rather than control)

·      Increased decision-making opportunities

·      Opportunity to practice skills in an opposed environment

·      Supports learning

·      Opportunity for player ownership & accountability

·      High error count

·      High ball rolling time

·      Fun, engaging & playful

·      Seeing more game-based pictures

·      Technical, Tactical, Physical, Psychological & Social Skill Development

·      Increased communication opportunities

There are a number of games-based approaches to coaching, which have a range of benefits and drawbacks. For any approach you chose there will always be a trade-off. As coaches it is about applying the approach that will challenge your athletes most effectively.

Jack Pattinson, DPP Manager at London Irish RFC designed a template that showcases a range of practice types that coaches may be able to pick and chose from. Jack’s session design toolbox includes:

·      Block Practice

·      Small Sided Games

·      Free Play

·      General Skill Development

·      Meta-Cognition

·      Tactical Warfare

·      The Game

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Taking a deeper look at the available practice types (and with the addition of constraints led coaching) you can start to consider the potential benefits & drawbacks of each practice type:

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Principles of Game Design

What are the ingredients of a good game? Think of a game you have played and why it is so engaging, immersive and how you have improved while playing the game. Here are some suggestions on the components of a good game:


Games that are simple ideas and easy for participants to understand.


Relate to the game you are helping the athletes prepare for


Allow choices within the game


Afford opportunity for athletes to strategise and re-strategise during games


Game provides feedback to say you have had success or not


The game is not too hard it becomes frustrating, but not too easy it becomes boring


Enjoyable and immersive

When designing a new game, try to remember the suggestions above. When thinking about the area you are playing in, you might want to consider different ways of dividing and zoning-out your pitch, court or field:

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Different approaches to game-based coaches challenge athletes in different ways while playing the games. Here are some examples:

Approach – Video Game approach to Coaching

How does it challenge athletes – Help athletes think about thinking (meta-cognition) and give game control (starting, stopping, pausing, replaying) to the learners.

Find out more –

Approach – Constraints Led Coaching

How does it challenge athletes – Restricting or rewarding athletes to play the game in a specific way to drive learning outcomes

Find out more –

Approach – Teaching Games for Understanding

How does it help athletes – Game play is taught before skill refinement which supports athletes to develop game appropriate skills

Find out more

Supporting athletes during games

To support athletes improve their decision making skills the role of the coach in practice must appropriately adapt. Rather than driving intensity or giving out useful information, coaches should look for opportunities to step out rather than lean into practice and games. How do you invest your time while coaching your group? Here are some suggestions on the role of the coach while utilising a games-based approach to coaching:

·      Observe

·      Support

·      Facilitate

·      Share knowledge

·      Guide & Help

·      Challenge

·      Question

·      Adapt

·      Set challenges

When reflecting on your approach to coaching and how you might utilise games, consider this:

“If matches didn’t have half time and you were not allowed to talk on the side, what would practice look like?”

Vibrant Environments

If you have spent time carefully considering the types of games-based practice you want to utilise as well as your role & behaviours as a coach you are well on the way to creating memorable, enjoyable and important learning experiences for your athletes. To make your overall learning environment vibrant you may want to consider these pointers (adapted from Richard Cheetham’s work):

·      A culture of teamwork, inclusivity & trust

·      An environment for creativity & play

·      Memorable moments, creating emotional experiences

·      Coaching the simplest ideas, with the greatest impact

·      Opportunity for everyone to be persistent and consistent

Ready to play?

You might be eager to start designing and trying out some games-based practices with your athletes. Before you get back on the court, pitch or field, remember to ask yourself:

·      Do the games that I have designed promote valuable learning opportunities?

·      Are the athletes given decision making opportunities?

·      Do the games create pictures that the athletes are likely to see in “the game”?

·      Am I ready to set some challenges and ask good questions to individuals, units and the team?

·      Do my behaviours as a coach allow the athletes to try things out and make mistakes?

·      Does the environment that I have created foster creativity, inclusivity and trust?

Good Luck and Game On!

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