The challenge of games – ECB Coaches Association Conference review, part 2

I have written previously about my conversion to games-based practice, but also about the challenges I have encountered when trying to design appropriate games.

So when I saw that Ian Renshaw, co-author of “the best book on non-linear pedagogy I have ever read”, and father (and coach) of Aussie opener Matt, was speaking at the ECB Coaches Conference, I knew I had to book in for his sessions straight away.

And with Professor Chris Cushion, speaking on the Challenge of Games, providing the (very necessary) counter-view to the “game as teacher” mantra, I had a lot of games-based learning to look forward to.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Club Constraints; Home Constraints – Ian Renshaw

Ian Renshaw is Senior Lecturer in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the Queensland University of Technology

I had been following Ian’s published and social media writings on constraints in skill acquisition; his appearance on Stuart Armstrong’s Talent Equation podcast was especially enlightening on the practical application of the constraints-led approach.

But the Conference offered the chance to hear Ian speak and, even better, watch (and participate) as he demonstrated some of the games he advocates, in two sessions on the use of constraints in the club and home settings.

The club games were challenging, exhausting to play, and, perhaps most importantly, FUN. The “home” constraints, exemplified by sessions with Matt Renshaw (Australia & Queensland) and Billy Root of Notts, looked misleadingly simple (more on the apparent simplicity, later).

How do we learn? (the “science bit”)

Expertise comes from lots of goes and lots of variability.  Not “10,000 hours of purposeful practice”, perhaps, but lots of opportunities for players to explore and discover the “best” solution (best for the player(s), which might not always be the most “technically correct” solution).

Natural learning is typically “implicit”; research has shown that implicit learning is more robust under pressure. Once you have learnt to ride a bike (most probably by falling over, a lot, not reading the manual or being told how to balance), you never forget!

How should we coach?

Pedagogy (or coaching practice) should therefore strive to facilitate the process of implicit learning. Games should:

  • replicate game scenarios
  • develop perception-action skills (not text-book replication of “ideal” techniques)
  • simultaneously seek to develop technical, tactical & mental skills and fitness

After presenting some of the evidence-based theories supporting the constraints-led coaching practice, Ian offered a simple framework for games design:

  •  Allow players to learn by exploring.
    • This style of coaching is very hands-on during session design, but essentially hands-off during practice.
  • Match initial constraints to ability of the player.
    • Challenging enough to make the game fun, but not so difficult that the player has little chance of success.
  • Allow & promote variability.
    • There might very well be more than one way to solve a problem; equally, no matchday challenge will be experienced in exactly the same way, time and again – different opponents, different pitch, playing conditions, match situation.
  • Make sure that practice is realistic to performance (“representative”).
    • The learnt skill must transfer to match-day – otherwise, why are we practicing it?

Above all, EXPECT MISTAKES – but remember that every mistake is a learning opportunity!

The Challenge of Games – Professor Chris Cushion

Prof Cushion, Professor of Coaching & Pedagogy and Director of Sport Integration at Loughborough University, started his presentation by telling us that he was not going to provide an answer to the challenge of games.

There is no right way to coach (there is no evidence to support the superiority of any single instructional model, across environments and for all learners).

But learners do learn (and there is good evidence, from educational research, to identify how they do this).

And coaches can help…sometimes…where they can effectively implement appropriate coaching practice and match their (the coaches’) behaviour to the needs of the participants.

Games-centred approaches take account of the varied needs of the participants to progress game understanding and development of appropriate skills or techniques in parallel, but do not leave the player to struggle in an environment to which they cannot adapt.  The “whole-part-whole” session template fits this model.

Appropriate drills (or ‘gamified’ drills) can be used to coach in the basic techniques – you can’t jump ahead to a game of “squares” if some of the players struggle to hold a catch thrown from 2m away, so start with a basic catching drill (or game-like drill), and return to the drill to reinforce the requisite techniques if the game subsequently breaks down.

But although we (coaches) are starting to buy in to the games-based coaching methodology, implementation has been haphazard.  Chris went on to identify a number of issues that need to be considered, by coaches and coach educators, when implementing games-based coaching.

The various dilemmas faced by coaches are discussed in more detail in Chris’ paper “Applying Game Centered Approaches in coaching: a critical analysis of the ‘dilemmas of practice’ impacting change”, Sports Coaching Review Vol. 2 , Iss. 1, 2013


A fascinating and challenging couple of days thinking about the use of games in coaching situations.

  • Games are the way forward.
  • Games cannot be the only coaching intervention.

See also:

Simplicity and focus in 1-to-1s – ECB Coaches Association Conference review, part 1

Change the game…or change the coach? ECBCA Conference, part 3

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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