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UK Coaching Research Team
Organising and Planning

Making Sense of ‘Game Sense’ – Part One

Moving from a traditional, instructional coaching approach to games-based coaching is hard work. What does it involve and, crucially, is it worth it?

Recent research from Australia provides a vital insight into what it actually takes to evolve your coaching style, and approach, to one of ‘Games Sense’.

This research investigated how a community Australian Rules Football coach (let’s call him Chris) adopted the ‘Game Sense’ approach to coaching. 

Aussie Rules is described as ‘a high intensity intermittent movement sport’ where ‘configurations of play emerge, dissolve, transform and reconfigure moment by moment’. The game is inherently variable, and adaptability among players is essential.

To Chris, what he read and was told about Game Sense fitted in to how he thought about the game. He saw this as a chance to move away from a ‘traditional’ approach to one that suited what he saw on the field of play.

Chris’s idea of ‘traditional’ coaching was when techniques were progressively developed through coach demonstration/explanation followed by practice. He was breaking down technique into small parts and showing his players how to put it back together again. 

Such an ordered, production-line technique did not correspond with what happened during the dynamic, complex matches. Chris felt his current coaching was unable to give his players the complexity of decision making and flexibility of movement required – and Game Sense seemed to be the answer.

In the early 1990s, the Australian hockey coach Rick Charlesworth mentioned Game Sense as a player development tool within the concept of ‘designer games’. This would integrate technical, tactical and fitness training into a match-like context, with the coach acting as the facilitator who allows players to think through solutions.

As it developed in the 1990s, the differences between the more common type of coaching and Game Sense started to emerge more clearly. Rather than see player development as a linear process of ‘learn technique then play’, the Game Sense approach regarded these as complementary – they happened at the same time. This was especially evident in coaches’ session plans where drills and instruction were replaced by game play mixed with questions and answers.

This also required a change in coaching style towards more of a facilitation role, guiding players to solve problems, rather than providing the answer directly.

However, the history of Game Sense does not match the neat thinking behind the theory. Reviews in rugby league and Australian Rules football found it has made limited impact, especially at community level. Reviews of games-based approaches (Game Sense and others such as Teaching Games for Understanding) have found the shift in practice required for coaches has made it difficult to implement. 

It challenges their depth of understanding, their ability to act as facilitator rather than director, and questioning skills. In addition, the planning process for sessions can be daunting and often leads to just playing games while neglecting skill development. Many of these were evident in the story of Chris as he tried to change his coaching style.

Chris was a coach who wanted to develop a new coaching style, and he put considerable effort into achieving this. For the majority of players, he got results, but it did take a full season of planning and reflection to come to terms with the approach. 

His story shows that games-based coaching is not as easy as it sounds. While in theory, it makes sense, it is no game! In fact, it is a sophisticated approach that requires rebooting your sporting and coaching experience.

If there are any lessons to emerge from Chris’s story, they are:

  • Planning is important. This approach does not mean just playing games. Instead, it involves coordination of overall session topics and activities. It took Chris a full season to get his session plans correct.
  • Learning when to sit back and when to step in is critical to running a good session.
  • Try not to get bogged down as a facilitator of activities. If you can get others to organise activities, you can concentrate on developing your players.
  • Not everyone will appreciate this approach. How do you manage the culture change, not only within yourself, but with your players?

If there was one final lesson to learn from this story, it is that this is difficult, and you should seek help wherever possible. Do you know of other coaches who are using a games-based style? Perhaps you can observe them, talk to them or get them to observe you?

What happened next?

Take a more in-depth look at his season of games-based coaching

Read part two here

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UK Coaching Research Team