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Games for Sport - Practice Design

Updated: Oct 23, 2022

One of my favourite challenges working in sport is designing practice to maximise the preparation of players in competition. I am an athletic development coach, but I am now venturing towards skill development. A big passion of mine is merging athletic development with skill acquisition, to maximise the impact we have to those we work with. To summarise, we must develop action capabilities AND skills, it's not an either/or. There is nothing wrong with developing capacities and action potential, but as I mentioned previously:

I do think it's wrong to ONLY build capacities. Skills pay the bills, and skills must be trained. Again, coaches just need to have a balanced approach to training to ensure that players are attuned to relevant cues in their environment to execute their enhanced capacity to accelerate in a meaningful way - i.e. skills are being developed, as well as capacities."

Athletic development through skill development

Focusing on athletic qualities that are typically developed on the pitch - Energy System Development (ESD), speed, agility - it is important that we try to develop these qualities alongside developing a players attunement to relevant information. To repeat what I have already said, skills pay the bills, and skills must be trained. Can practice be designed to allow for a physical overload, as well as a technical/tactical overload? Sometimes capacity development is both useful and necessary. ESD (e.g. MAS runs) can provide a physical overload far beyond any SSG, and the workload can be better controlled. A simple look at a GPS comparison of a maximal aerobic speed running block against even the most intense game will highlight this. Depending on the context, this might be a worthwhile investment of a team's limited training time. If a team spends less than 20% of their pitch training time working on capacity development during pre-season, and less than 10% of their pitch training time on capacity development during the in-season block, I would class this as an appropraite allocation of time.

This post will focus on the 80-90% of team training time that attempts to make better players. Previously I have outlined 3 principles that is have used when attempting to mesh athletic development within team training:

  1. there must be perception-action,

  2. the task must be representative of the competition, and

  3. the task must be at the optimal challenge point of the players, to drive the intensity of the session.

I have shared anecdotes of these principles when attempting to enhance the skill of acceleration.

Coach development through skill development

In the school I am currently working in as a skill development specialist, we are slowly developing principles to fit the context that the school finds itself in. There is an interesting challenge in this school in that many of the school sport coaches are simply ex-students who finished in the last 1-3 years. The school does not have the budget to recruit experienced coaches in all positions. A key challenge is to develop a coach education program to aid these young coaches, to maximise the learning and sporting experience for the students.

As with all coaches, our coaches are heavily influenced by how they were coached. Those coaches were likely heavily influenced by those who coached them. It is very easy to get caught up in tradition as it is passed from one generation to another. It is hard work to develop a coaching philosophy, and it is especially hard to break free of encultured practices. However, my role is to facilitate this process with the coaches I work with.

Over the last number of weeks, I have been providing coaching observations and a number of themes have stood out. With this, we have looked to create a number of "school principles" to encourage our coaches to provide fun and challenging sessions for our student-athletes. These are:

  1. Allow Adaptation - put students in situations where they have to attune to key information to achieve the outcome they want.

  2. Encouage Exploration - ask divergent questions within game-based scenarios to foster curiosity in their practice.

  3. Embrace Errors - challenge players to ensure they are learning. (For more on errors, see my previous post here)

Environmental Design Principles

To further develop this point, I am going to look at the Environmental Design Princples (EDP). The gap between the Constraints Led Approach theory and it's practical application is one of the most challenging aspects of coaching. To close this gap, the book "The Constraints Led Approach", by Ian Renshaw and others, introduced the EDP.

A constraint can be defined as a limitation or restriction. Within practice design, there are 3 types of constraints (as highlighted in the image above) - individual, task and environment (which I elborate on here). Behaviour (or physical performance as the image above says) emerges as a result of the interaction between all 3 types of constraints, through the perception-action loop. Take 7s rugby as an example. When a player makes a clean break from their own and the player ends up with an easy try under the post unchallenged, will they sprint? No, because the task of scoring a try in that situation does not require them to sprint. If the same player is being chased down by one of the opposition's fastest players, the attacker is more likely to sprint, because the task of scoring a try requires them to sprint to achieve the goal of the task.

This is a key concept when designing training (and very much leads into the first EDP below) - what behaviours do the coaches want the players to exhibit? Then the coaches must design a task where that particular behaviour emerges from. A simple example is a sprint. GPS is a great tool here as this will measure a player's max speed, and players can compare among each other. An even better way to drive intensity, in my opinion, is to have a chaser. The task can be set as "the leader must cross the line 10/20/30m away, without being caught by the chaser". Despite never mentioning the word "sprint" when setting the task, it is highly likely both the leader and the chaser will sprint - sprinting is an emergent behaviour of the task.

A list of constraints that can effect hockey. This is relevant to many sports. Taken from The Constraints Led Approach by Ian Renshaw et al (2019).

Here are 4 key EDP:

1) Session Intention

To borrow one of Steven Covey's 7 habits, the first step is to start with the end in mind. This will act as an organisational session constraint. If a Gaelic Football session aim is to practice carrying the ball at speed, and included is a small sided possession game in a very tight space, there is a disconnect between the session aim and the game design, as the design of the game will not allow players to carry the ball at speed, due to the high number of players involved and the small pitch area. This will also create an issue if you demand players to carry the ball through a lot of traffic in the game, and they then get punished for running outside the area, or turning over possession. This is a great game for carrying the ball through a congested area and changing direction/agility, but thats not the aim of the session. The session intention must be aligned with player intentions.

From a physical point of view, it is important to align physical session intentions with technical and tactical session intentions. It is widely accepted that there are 4 key moments in a team sport game (Rugby, Gaelic Football, Football etc.). These are attack, defense, transition to attack and transition to defence. As mentioned previously, defence in team invasion sports is centred on the principle of denying space. Having a physical session intention of sprint metres during a session which is focused on denying space is again misaligned. Thats not to say a player could not or would not get up to their maximal sprinting speed during a defensive focused session, but it is less likely. A potentially more aligned session intention could be working on the counter attack having just recovered the ball. Here, the session design is likely to include more space and more urgency to attack the space, and therefore players will have a greater opportunity to reach their sprint zone. Whatever the physical aim, it is important to discuss with the sport coaches to ensure there is alignment and clarity regarding the session intention and maximising the impact the session can have.

2) Constrain to Afford

Affordances are "opportunities for action". In order to constrain to afford, coaches must view themselves as problem setters rather than problem solvers. A key requirement of the contraint led apprach is designing practice environments that provide opportunities for players to become more attuned to their game environment (Araujo and Davids, 2011). Practitioners are required to manipulate training environments to encourage players to engage with relevant affordances. An example might come when a football team consistently tries to work the ball through the centre of the pitch, where the opposition have the most numbers. A constraint might be to make the pitch wider to encourage the attacking team to use the wide space. Following that the attacking team may be given a numerical advantage of an extra player on each wide channel (for example, 7v7+2), to encourage the attacking team to use the width to create an overlap and progress the ball forward. As stated by Araujo et al. (2004), attunement to relevant information is a key aspect of skill adaptation.

The opposite of "constrain to afford" is "constrain to constrain". This is where the rules (constraints) of a task are manipulated in such a way that players have to perform a certain skill. An example of this came this week in school during AFL training. There was an 4v4+4 task set up (essentially 8v4 for the team in possession) where the team in possession had to keep the ball from the team out of possession. The rule imposed was that the game was kicking only, so no handballs were allowed. This meant players were forced to kickpass the ball, as they had no other option to distribute. While this may be a useful strategy to encourage kicking of the ball and development of that skill, the transfer to competition is reduced due to the contraints imposed on players in the training task are different to the constraints imposed on players in a game. This means that the representativeness of the task is reduced (see next point)

3) Representative Learning Design

I have spoken about this principle on numerous occassions, and this is one of the principles I tried to incorporate in my previous examples above. The training environment needs to reflect the game environment, in particular the information used to guide actions on the field. Representative training design will help players become more attuned to relevant sources of information, to aid their decision making in a game. This can be taken beyond just the physical environment, and also incorporate the connection between emotions, intentions, perceptions and actions. This refers to the concept of Affective Learning Design (Headrick et al. 2015). The key question with representative and affective learning design: does this look and feel similar to the real thing? An example of might include the incorporation of pressure into a free-taker's shooting practice in Hurling. Does the free-taker feel the same pressure in training as he would taking a free to win the game with the last puck of the ball?

Task Design model (O'Sullivan et al, 2021)

A useful model to assess the representativeness of a training task is the task design model (O'Sullivan et al, 2021). Key information sources for a soccer training task, for example, include a ball, opposition, a direction of play, and consequences (when the attacking team lose the ball, they must defend). A direction of play is a common ommission from many tasks in team sport training, with a fondness of possession games. The 4v4+4 mentioned above is a possession game with no direction, so this would alter the behaviours of players, as their intentions are not the same as a game.

4) Repetition without Repetition

A player with dexterity is another key aspect of skill adaptation (Araujo et al., 2004). Dexterity is a characteristic which explains how one is able to organize a movement solution for any emerging, external situation, in any situation and in any condition (Bernstein, 1996). Repetition without repetition is a way to ensure variability to create dexterous players. Examples can include the variation of starts positions in a small sided game. The attacking team can start bunched together, or they can start spread out. They can start standing up, facing away from the play, or lying down on their side, or on one knee. And the defending team can have equally as many variations, Each repetition can be changed slightly to add variability so that no repetition is the same.

Further reading:

A resources which has been a rich source of information for me (which I have mentioned throughout):

Sullivan, M. O., Woods, C. T., Vaughan, J., & Davids, K. (2021). Towards a contemporary player learning in development framework for sports practitioners. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 16(5), 1214–1222.

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