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Emergent behaviour: Drills v Games

As with so many posts I have shared lately, this idea was stimulated from a conversation with a soccer coach last week. The conversation was around players being passive and too casual during training. The coach explained his predicament - when doing a passing pattern drill, the coach encouraged players to move off the cones when receiving the ball, like they would have to move in a game. The players did a number of repetitions, but the same pattern remained - players were not moving dynamically to receive the ball. To illustrate his point, the coach then acted as the defender, and the player receiving the ball started to move more dynamically. This left the coach puzzled, and he asked the player "why don't you do that in the drill?" Another example, again from soccer, is when the coach ran a drill which required the players to dribble around cones that were randomly spread out in a 15m x 15m grid. Players had to avoid other players and dribble around cones. As the drill was running, the coach said to the player "you're just running with the ball, you're not dribbling." Last I checked, cones don't tackle people, so there was no reason to "dribble" the ball. Players will do what they need to do, in order to complete the task they need to complete.

Behaviour EMERGES

In my eyes, these examples are the perfect illustration of how behaviour is emergent. Something I have written about a lot and applied in various contexts (agility, acceleration, conditioning, games for sport, skill adaptability) is Karl Newell's model of constraints (see below). During the passing pattern above, the player did not need to move off the cone explosively or with any kind of intent to receive the pass. There was no opponent pressuring the player to do so. When an opponent started pressuring the receiver, the receiver was much more dynamic. This was not because he was told to change his behaviour, but because the task required him to change it. The task constraints changed, which altered the information, which forced the player to adapt their movement strategy, all to achieve the task goal.

Karl Newell's model of constraints.

A crucial distinction between drills and games, in my opinion, is around the key information that guides the player to a successful behaviour.

  • In a drill, like the passing pattern above, the only information that a player has to be attuned to (or perceive) is when their teammate is ready to pass them the ball, and the speed and angle the ball is travelling at. This is the only information that the player needs to take on board to guide their movement (or action) to receive the pass. the solutions players use in drill-based work are unlikely to transfer to competitive scenarios, because the information landscape is very different.

  • Games, on the other hand, where an opponent or a number of opponents are trying to disrupt the passing pattern of a team (to use the example from above) presents much more information for a player to be attuned to. Not only do players need to be aware of when their teammates have the ball and when they are ready to pass, they also have to be aware of the positioning of the opposition and where the space is.

Drills v Games: the variability trade-off

In some cases, drills might be ok - a novice player who is learning to coordinate their actions, or an elite player doing some remedial technical work as a recovery "flush". In the case of the novice player in particular, the information present in a drill may be enough to stimulate learning. The complexity of information in a game might be too much for a novice, and it exceeds their optimal challenge point, potentially leading to negative consequences.

When a coach is planning training, and is aiming to design developmentally appropriate or suitable challenging tasks, a key question they should ask is "what is the appropriate level of variability?" Skill is the ability to adapt, and players have to adapt because of various constraints (i.e., variability). To use the example from above: can a player still receive the pass from their teammate if 1) the pass isn't exactly where they wanted them to be, and 2) the player is under pressure from a defender? These constraints will force the player to adapt their behaviour to optimally control the ball. The most dynamic source of variability comes from the opposition. When there are two competing players or teams against one another, coadaptability becomes the name of the game - the constant cycle of opponents adapting to one another (for more, read about Skilled Intentionality).

Using variability-tinted glasses, we can identify how the difference in information in drills versus games impacts the need to adapt. Drills are so called because they involve a player repeating an action (i.e. you are drilling an action). In order to do this, variability needs to be minimised (for example: the player just runs from one cone to another while they pass, there is no variability in their movement outcome (movement process - yes), or there are no opponents trying to prevent a team/player executing the pass). With minimal variability, players have no reason to adapt, and are therefore not becoming more skilled. Games, with opponents competing, have huge amounts of variability, and thus have huge amounts of adaptability - which is ideal for developing skilled players. It is important to note, even with minimal external variability in a drill (no variability in movement outcome), there is still some variability in the process (movement process). A sign of a skilled performer is when variability in performance process is present, with stability in the outcome.

Drill - Simplified task - Complex task

To illustrate how one could change a task from a basic drill to a simplified task, and then progress the simplified task into a more complex one, I have drawn out examples from three sports below - rugby, soccer and basketball. These are all real examples of work that I have done with coaches over the past number of weeks.


Drill - One of the most common drills in rugby at all levels is the standard straight line passing drill in fours. Almost instinctively, coaches will set this drill up before they move on to anything meaningful. It must be said, for novices, this could provide a learning stimulus. There is information that can challenge them - they have to move in a straight line, watch where they are receiving the ball from, and be aware of who they are passing to. There is variability within this drill. But for any player beyond a novice level of skill, this level of variability is unlikely to stimulate learning, and certainly not enough for transfer.

Simplified task - To progress the passing drill above, a coach can simply add one or two or three defenders to the task. While only a small change, this adds loads more information that a player has to be attuned to, adds much more variability and makes it more game-like. The number of defender suitable to add will depend on the skill level of the group. For a highly skilled group, adding in three defenders would provide an appropriate challenge. For a group who aren't so skilled, one defender might be suitable.

Complex task - A 4v4 game, where players are attacking and defending (there are consequences if a team loses the ball - see task design model here) provides a lot of information that players need to attune to, and a lot of variability that players have to adapt to. The increase in information and variability will bring an increase in errors and learning (provided the task is developmentally appropriate).


Drill - Focusing on shooting, a simple drill can be a 1 on 1 shooting task. The key information present is in the feeding of the ball (it will never be the same) and the goalkeeper positioning. The drill can be regressed even further by removing the goalkeeper, or the drill can be progressed by limiting the number of touches the attacker can have before shooting. Although not a representative constraint, it can challenge the player to learn.

Simplified task - In a similar set up, we can add information (add outfield opponents and teammates) which will ramp up variability. The challenge with this variation will come from the contextual interference - with every rep that players do, they won't always get an opportunity to shoot, but this is the game.

Complex task - 3v3 with goalkeepers. The pitch size can be adjusted to suit the needs of the players. There will be limited space and huge amounts of information (and variability) but this will really stimulate learning and transfer.


Drill - Truck and trailer (as is known in Gaelic football circles). As drills go, this contains a decent amount of information and variability, because of the multiple moving parts. For novices it can be a challenge to give and receive passes accurately because of the movement speeds and angles. However, once they have the drill figured out, this drill ceases to benefit anyone, and it falls into the same category as straight line passing (rugby drill above).

Simplified task - A 4 v3 (or a 4v2) directional half-court game can challenge players once they have become comfortable with a truck and trailer. The aim is for the attacking team to work the ball over the half-way line. Players can pass or dribble, which will enhance the contextual interference. Complexity can be scaled up or down by altering the number of defenders, or by setting a time limit for the attacking team.

Complex task - Starting from the half-way line, a 5v5 game is highly representative and highly challenging. If the defending team win the ball, they must bring the ball over half-way and then attack in the opposite direction.


  • Drills and games differ in the information that players must attune to.

  • Drills and games differ in the variability that players must adapt to.

  • One is not better that the other, rather it is about what is developmentally appropriate for a player or group of players.

  • There are an infinite number of variations a coach can make to any game to either simplify or complexify it (see STEP model for more).

  • Training to learn, and training to transfer are not the same thing.


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