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Task design: set problems, not solutions

I created a task one time for rugby players to practice their side-stepping/evasion skills. I set up a environment, consisting of a small square (7m x 7m for example), attacker starts on one corner, and they must cross the opposite line. The defender started on the diagonal corner and aimed to get a two-hand touch on the attacker. This was the task. The aim was for the opportunity to execute a side-step to emerge. With the defender rushing across, it presents an ideal opportunity to step inside, if the defender does not rush across, then the opportunity is there to score a try. See figure 1:

Figure 1.

I should have just explained the problem, and let players figure out their solution. Instead, I explained the problem (the task) and then I detailed the solution I wanted players to execute. This was a mistake. This is one of the most profound things I have changed my mind on in coaching.

Twitter can be a great source of inspiration. Many researchers share their publications there, and many coaches share their session plans and ideas. Recently, I have seen a few questions around designing drills/games for a specific problem, and if I've had time, I have drawn up or thought about a game that would satisfy the issue. I wanted to share more around my own thought process (which may not work for everyone) around training task design, and possibly invite critique or alternative suggestions around how to go about task design. In a nutshell, my thought is (figure 2):

Figure 2.

I posted this tweet in relation to a question: how do we create an activity/environment to help with evasion, specifically rapid decelertion followed by an acceleration? The movement solution that an athlete chooses in the competitive environment emerges from all of the constraints placed on them. See the video below of Perry Baker playing rugby 7s. The movement solution he chooses is a result of the constraints acting on him - his opponents, the sideline, his teammates, his fatigue levels, his physical capacities. If any of these changed then the movement solution may have changed too. See video below:

Scenario 1 - Gaelic Football

To go back to the question: how do we create an activity/environment to help with evasion, specifically rapid decelertion followed by an acceleration? There are two ways to look at this - from a physical perspective and from a skill perspective. Frrom a physical capacity perspective, it is important that our athletes must be given to opportunity to develop the physical capacities that underpin this action. From a skill perspective (the focus of this post) we must understand that this movement solution is specific to this athlete, because of his action capabilities. An athlete of different action capabilities would like choose a different movement solution. And that's ok. We should give all athletes an opportunity to ffind a solution that works for them*. This comes from presenting them with problems, rather than solutions. Questions, rather than answers.

*This is not to say that we should never help athletes become faster, fitter, stronger, bigger, more flexible etc. We should, of course. Part of the challenge of coaching is deciding what to work on and for how long? What carries the biggest "bang for buck" - getting a player more physically capable or deepening their functional relationship with their environment (making them more skilled)?

I remember a conversation with a coach one time, and we were reflecting on our session (developing acceleration through the game - read more here). I suggested that we shouldn't tell athletes to sprint/accelerate maximally, to which the coach argued that if the athlete was not told/encouraged to sprint, he would not have done so. That is exactly the point! If the task is designed in a way that a player has to sprint to successfully complete it, then that is the behaviour that will emerge. If a player doesn't have to sprint to successfully complete a task, then he won't. This is the reason chaser races are so useful for development of max speed. Set a task: leader on the line with chaser 2 metres behind. The leader must cross the line 20m away without the chasers touching him. Both start on the whistle. Without even mentioning the word sprint, you can bet that that's the behaviour that will emerge. Set the problems, the solutions will emerge.

For the above question (underlined), here is a task I designed (figure 3):

Figure 3.

With this task, there is no guarantee that the player will perform a deceleration into an acceleration. But it does present a task where the attacker must evade the defender to score. The solution is variable (as the constraints are variable). Design the problem, let the player come up with their own solution.

Scenario 2 - Gaelic Football

A second example of this stems from another question on twitter, which poses a very similar problem, but a slightly different focus. The problem: an attacker evades an opponent but a few steps later the opponent catches up with the attacker, because the attacker does not accelerate away after the initial evasion. The focus here is on what happens after the evasion, rather than the evasion (like scenario 1). One option to deal with this is to just simply tell the attacker to accelerate out of an evasion. However, I would be keener to go down the implicit learning route and create an environment that will teach the athlete to do this. The solution I identified:

  • 1v1 task, attacker and defender facing each other. Attacker has possession of the ball and a bib hanging out the back of their shorts.

  • Attacker is trying to cross a line behind the defender.

  • Defender must first try and dispossess the attacker, and if unsuccessful, must grab the bib.

Again, the attacker doesn't need to be told to accelerate after the evasion. Rather, if the attacker wants to succeed, they must accelerate away from the defender. The behaviour emerges from the task.

Scenario 3 - Basketball

Working with a basketball coach in school, and an example of how task design can be progressed (or regressed) depending on the level of athlete a coach is working with. See below (figure 4 (1)) for a diagram of a simple basketball task. The aim was for the attacker to score a lay-up under pressure. The defender passes the ball to the attacker and then closes the attacker down. The attacker is then in a 1v1 scenario to score a lay-up.

A somewhat predicatable problem that arises from this task is that the defender gives a looped/slow pass to give themselves more time to get out to the attacker. This should be applauded - they are adapting their strategy to solve the problem in front of them. The issue is, this solution lacks fidelity, and would not be useful in a match-context. To progress this drill (figure 4 (2)), a feeder passes the ball to the attacker. When the ball leaves the feeder's hands, the defender can close the space. The final progression of this particular task was a 3v2 (figure 4 (3)). A1 starts with the ball, with A3 being free. The aim is for the attackers to score, by any means necessary. Because of the variability with this task, specifically around the contextual interference, an opportunity for a lay-up may or may not happen. But this is an authentic and game-like scenario. Exposing attackers to the opportunity to execute a lay-up, without eliminating other possibilities.


Designing training tasks can be a challenging and enjoyable aspect of coaching. Identifying work ons from competition is the ideal place to start when deciding what to work on. But rather than providing athletes with solutions to the problems they are struggling with, can coaches provide similar, but simplified problems in training so players are given the opportunity to solve the problems in a training environment. A key aspect of training task design is to ensure fidelity - so the solutions athletes identify in training can be utilised in competition. A key question coaches can ask: "do these training problems look and feel like the problems athletes face in competition?" Athletes can assist in this process - just ask them their opinion.

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