An introduction to using games in training

One big trend in training over the past decade has been the increased use of games. The Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) movement in physical education first started a conversation about strategically used games rather than technical drills to teach skills and tactics. Over the last few years, the use of games for athletic development has also get its moment in the spotlight thanks to social media as coaches realize the concept can apply even more so in the realm of physical preparation.

The benefits of a games-based approach

Advocates of TGfU have pointed out many benefits to used a games-based approach to learning a sport, including:

  1. Better skill transferability as skills are learned in context. Drills repeatedly show lower transfer rates and, importantly, athletes often fail to see the link of how it transfers.
  2. Promotes enjoyment for participants. If something is fun, athletes are more likely to come back the next day motivated.
  3. More room for developing critical thinking and problem solving skills in parallel. The open nature of games allows for decision making that is not present in most drills.

All of these points are equally applicable to using games for physical preparation. In addition, I would add a few points in favor of using games for in an athletic development program:

  1. Greater density of activity. As everyone is involved and less time is spent giving feedback, there is more time to move and work.
  2. Increased degrees of freedom. Being a robust athlete means being able to move out of a number of positions. Most drills define fixed positions to work from, but games put constantly put athletes in new positions and situations.
  3. The use of competition increases training intensity. If you are trying to win, you reach new levels of intensity you cannot always reach on your own.

A framework for games

All these points above illustrate what games can do. But just playing a game will not do everything automatically. When you look on social media it seems as though some coaches think tag will solve all of their problems. In order for a game to tick all of these boxes, coaches need to carefully plan the game and think about what it will do and how it will do it. In a recent blog post, lecturer John Stoszkoswki made a good point in evaluating the TGfU approach in the work of his students. “Many of the students are too focussed on what games-based coaching approaches are not (e.g., drills and/or direct instruction, which seem to be public enemy no.1 these days!), as opposed to critically considering, appreciating and justifying what they are.” We might all agree how drills fail us, but poorly designed games can be just as bad.

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time talking with practitioners that have used games successfully. Greg Thompson joined the podcast last week and in our latest HMMR Classroom video with him we started talking about a few simple factors to consider in game design. He uses these factors with both his elementary school students, as well as the professional teams he consults with. We continued that conversation and added to the list over the past week as I experimented with my own games in training. The list is hardly exhaustive, but it is a good starting point for using a games-based approach in training.

1. Everybody is involved, no elimination games

The first rule is simple. We can’t get better if we are watching from the sidelines, so design games without elimination. Or, if players are eliminated, makes rules that let them come back in the game (e.g. get out of jail). The side benefit of this rule is that it keeps it more fun and promotes a better team dynamic. The idea isn’t that everyone is a winner, but that everyone is involved.

Think of it this way: if you are always the first eliminated from a game and spend the whole session standing around, what motivates you to keep coming to training?

2. Find the right developmental fit

Choose games that have the right developmental fit both cognitively and physically. This always factors into to how engaging things are. As Greg explained to me after the podcast: “I have to be very careful with older athletes to make sure we keep a strong competitive element to game design so the games are compelling environments for the athletes to work in. Similarly, I try to make sure younger athletes are capable of experiencing a fair amount of success with the activity. I guess you could call this instructional fit. As I deal with a wide spectrum of ages, knowing the chronological as well as training age of the athlete I am working with is a central feature in planning.” Know where your athletes are to know what game will fit them the best.

3. Think about what you want repetition of

To paraphrase Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do. Don’t just play for play’s sake. If you want to develop maximum speed, design a game where that is needed to win. If you want to develop agility, design a game with a little more chaos.

Here’s an example of how that might look in practice. One key variable in designing games is space. If you play tag in a small space, athletes will be starting and stopping more frequently, but reaching lower top speeds. If you simply open the space up and keep the same rules, athletes will be running longer distances with more standing in between as their opponents are farther away. If you start off by defining what your needs are, then you can make sure the game design matches that.

4. Analyze the play and don’t be afraid to change the rules

You might think you have designed the best game in the world, but that doesn’t mean anything until you’ve played it. Coaches need to reflect after practice if their game did what it was supposed to. And, even more importantly, they to keep their eyes open during practice and be able to change the rules on the fly to get the adaptations they want.

Last week in training I put together a variation of capture the flag variation at rugby training. After a few minutes, one of the teams had a player literally standing on the ball to protect it from being captured. This slowed down the game and drew it further away from its purpose, so the rules were changed on the fly to ensure that the defense had to stay at least two meters from the ball.

5. Encourage creativity

What was interesting about the last example is that the players actually came up with and implemented the rule change. After the session I talked with Greg again and he told me this was his experience too: “I try not to get too married to a plan in case the players come up with something I hadn’t anticipated.” I often see athletes also coming up with better ways to incorporate tactics or technique into the games as I am no a rugby expert. Be open to new ideas and try to encourage creativity by praising such creativity. Unless new rules really work against the goal of the game, roll with it.

6. Don’t stick with one activity too long

We all know training can get a bit monotonous if you do the same thing all session. Similarly, a coach needs to develop many aspects of the athlete and, unfortunately, no one game can do that. So don’t get too married to one game. So be conscious of when it is time to move on from one game to the next.

Don’t forget about the basics

It can be fun and easy for a new coach to pick games as an easy and versatile training tool to start out with. But as helpful as games can be, it is important not to lose focus of the ability to teach fundamental movements. Games will not get you very far without a sound pedagogical skillset. And you cannot properly assess the games without a true understanding of motor behavior demands. As much as Thompson likes games, he also frequently interrupts them for more direct-style teaching and coaches need to have the ability to jump in and do that when needed. This is about the art of coaching and it’s what differentiates mere game leaders and expert coaches.