Video games for your toolbox

A Digital Video Games Approach is more than putting points and levels into your training. Let’s start to unlock their power. By Amy Price, FA Women’s National Coach Developer and coach developer with, with Dan Cottrell.

It is recognised that no one games-based-approach, or indeed any coaching method will cover all the needs for player development. Therefore, the challenge for any coach is to work out which method will work most effectively in each circumstance.

Even in that one statement there are a number of further challenges. Different players and teams, naturally, will respond differently. Furthermore, an individual may be more responsive to different methods in different training sessions, which, in turn, might lead to a different team response.


According to Mosston & Ashworth (2002) spectrum of teaching styles (see the table), there is a non-versus approach where no one style is better than another. The coach and player work together to decide which are best for what outcomes they want to achieve. That doesn’t mean every session is a discussion of how the session is going to happen. It’s probably more the case that the coach decides but based on feedback from previous sessions.

For example, if you are introducing a new law or an explicit change to a skill, you might need to use a command or practice style of teaching. If you are exploring tactical decision-making, then you might use guided discovery. Finally, if you want to develop some plays, then it might be over to the players to come up with some plans.

Teaching styles can be used alongside coaching approaches. Having a range of tools in the coaching ‘toolbox’ can help achieve the goals and desired outcomes for players.

However, having a range of tools and knowing how to use them is not enough. 

Importantly, it’s about knowing when and why to use these tools, aligned with the goals and intended outcomes for the players. This is the basis of Professional Judgment Decision Making (PJDM). More information on PJDM can be found here.


More recently, a Digital Video Games Approach (DVGA) (Price et al. 2017) has become part of the coaching toolbox, working on players’ strategic understanding of how to play games. 

Let’s unpack this coaching approach a little to see how you can implement the concepts in your coaching.


First, let’s check what it’s not. It is not gamification. Gamification is a way of making a game out of a non-game like activity. For example, scoring points for achieving different skills or completing different tasks. 

Gamification has some good short-term gains. It’s engaging and gives immediate feedback. Physical Education students have also reported they felt a greater sense of enjoyment after experiencing gamification compared to more traditional teaching methods. (Fernandez-Rio et al. 2020).

This must be balanced with ‘pointsification’ problems, where just adding up points can become meaningless. 

Also, making something you must do into a game reduces the meaning of the game. Games should be voluntary for the best impact (McGonigal, 2011). 

Finally, engagement can be temporary. Research in Physical Education has shown that gamification boosts intrinsic motivation in the shorter term (Fernandez-Rio et al. 2021).This is in contrast to a DVGA which focuses on developing game understanding. 


DVGA might use points, and certainly uses levels. However, as with all coaching methods, we need to understand the objective and potential outcomes. This will help us to choose our coaching tools wisely.

The objective of a DVGA is to develop deeper levels of game understanding (strategic understanding). This means developing players who can learn how to approach and solve problems. Decision-making is a part of problem solving. 

Experts are quicker, more effective decision-makers because they ‘see’ what actions to take, choosing the most appropriate for that moment. For example, if there is space behind the defence, the expert will not only identify it, but know if they should kick the ball or not. They are in control of their thought processes and can monitor and evaluate their progress towards achieving the desired outcome. 

This leads to the next crucial point. A DVGA needs to be rooted in the rules and principles of the sport you are coaching.  

Just playing any kind of game doesn’t necessarily help to develop deep understanding. If using a DVGA, there needs to be a range of opportunities for players to set and solve problems. These problems should be underpinned by the sport’s rules and principles.

The challenge for players is to understand how to gain advantage over their opponent by applying the rules and principles, in combination 

with other sources of knowledge (such as skills and tactics, opposition, teammates, themselves, and the game state).


Approaching and solving problems by playing within the rules and principles inherent in rugby is important for developing understanding. 

Pill & Cohen (2011) explain that all games are underpinned by logic. Rules and principles guide the logic of a game, or otherwise, how a game works. We want our players to become better at playing rugby by understanding how the game works.

The deeper a player understands how a game works, the more chance they have when problem solving. The better they are at problem solving, the more likely they are to gain an advantage over their opponent.

For rugby, logic could be defined as:

  • Score tries: The ball needs to cross over an end line and be in possession of an attacker. 
  • Backwards passing: The ball can only be propelled backwards by hand. It cannot be thrown, dropped or tapped forwards.
  • Stopping the attack: The defence must have some way of stopping the attack and/or gaining possession. 
  • Temporary stops: There must be some ways for the attack to recycle the possession after a stop, and the defence must give space for the attack to start again.

To put it into the context of other similar invasion games, rugby league would include a limited number of temporary stops, which might be regarded as chances. American football would allow forward passing, but only from behind the point of a restart.

Once we have the game logic in place, everything else can be designed to create a game of rugby union, which allows a chance for developing game understanding: for example, the size and shape of the pitch, the numbers of attackers and defenders, the type of temporary stops (a touch tackle or a full tackle), what happens after a temporary stop or a turnover.

The next article will see how to use game logic aligned with a DVGA to develop deeper levels of game understanding and how players use metacognition; thinking about their thinking.

LINK TO FIRST ARTICLE: Why you should be thinking more about metacognition

Fernandez-Rio, J., de las Heras, E., González, T., Trillo, V., & Palomares, J. (2020). Gamification and physical education. Viability and preliminary views from students and teachers. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 25(5), 509-524.

Fernandez-Rio, J., Zumajo-Flores, M., & Flores-Aguilar. G. (2021). Motivation, basic psychological needs and intention to be physically active after a gamified intervention programme. European Physical Education Review. doi: 10.1177/1356336X211052883 

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: The Penguin Press.

Mosston, M., & Ashworth, S. (2002). Teaching physical education. (5th ed.). Boston: Benjamin Cummings.

Pill, S., & Cohen, D. (2011). Teaching Games and Sport for Understanding: ’Backyard League’. In Edited Proceedings of the 27th ACHPER International Conference (p. 57).

Price, A., Collins, D., Stoszkowski, J., & Pill, S. (2017). Learning to play soccer: Lessons on meta-cognition from video game design. Quest, 70(3), 321-333.

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