EXPERT SESSIONS AND ADVICE FROM QUALIFIED AND EXPERIENCED GRASSROOTS RUGBY COACHES

Why do games-sense coaches get it so wrong when they could be getting it so right

In the rush to play more games in training, many well-meaning coaches have missed an opportunity to improve their players. Instead they allow poor practice and discipline to negate the gains from playing in this environment, and sometimes, demotivate players.

Game-sense (or games-based constraint-led) coaches use games to encourage players to develop skills, techniques and decision-making. With a competitive atmosphere and more randomised scenarios, the players are motivated to find solutions and discover new skills. They also put current skills under pressure, testing out their ability to execute them correctly and at the right moment.

All this sounds far more preferable to drilling in the skills in a more closed environment.

It’s also the preferred method of many top coaches and coaching bodies. Instead of the previous hard-wiring methods of repeated practice, the whole learning process is much looser.

But this all comes unstuck if the coach fails to do the following:

  1. Have a structure to the game
  2. Have clearly defined rules
  3. Let the game take time to develop
  4. Adapt the rules to include players
  5. Play the game for the right length
  6. Allow the players the chance to reflect
  7. Prevent the consequences of sloppy thinking or sloppy play
  8. Return to the game at a later date

1  HAVE A STRUCTURE TO THE GAME

Every game should have a start, middle and end. At the start, give clear guidelines on the scoring system. The actual technical and tactical outcomes can be revealed now, or later.

The middle should have some form of change or progression. It might be simply changing the teams, or could be introducing new rules. The middle could be pre-ordained or based on how the game itself is developing.

The last part of the game should come to a climax with the result making some difference. “Next score wins” is the safest way. However, the real end comes with the players reflections on what they have discovered.

With no structure, you may realise there is little development by the end and sometimes plenty of effort without an idea of where the gains are.

While one might be pleased that the players have enjoyed the session and are keen to come back next week, they will also want to sense they are making progress. If there are no sure of that progress week-in, week-out, then you may well start to lose their engagement.

2  HAVE CLEARLY DEFINED RULES

Aligned closely to structure are rules. Players enjoy a simple game and quick game. If they know a game well, then you can introduce additional rules. Otherwise, start with a few very clearly defined rules: easy to understand, and easy to referee.

If the game allows players to cheat or break the rules, it will quickly lead to frustration. It can be demotivating too. Players who take the game seriously will be quickly turned off the activity.

3  LET THE GAME TAKE TIME TO DEVELOP

Competitive games often seem chaotic from the outside. Both sides are jockeying for position. Also, as players learn the rules, they will make mistakes that aren’t conducive to the learning points you’re hoping to instil.

Coaches who jump in too soon or keep stopping the game won’t let the players discover their own solutions. It becomes an activity rather than a game.

Be comfortable that it may be chaotic, it might not work out, or work out how you expect.

4  ADAPT THE RULES TO INCLUDE PLAYERS

A game can be dominated by just a few players. Though you can’t make players join in if they don’t want to, it’s no good if the most dominating players take charge.

The worst scenario is that the most competitive players love the game and the others become bystanders, just as they might be in a normal match.

Now is the time to adjust the rules. Perhaps rebalance the teams or change the possession terms so players are limited to their time on the ball. For example, in netball players have three seconds on the ball and there are limited places for players to move to.

5  PLAY THE RIGHT LENGTH

A good game is a quick game too. Too long and the players tire. They lose their motivation to make the extra effort.

A good training session works at different paces to allow players chances to express themselves physically and mentally.

Leave them wanting more rather than dragging it out. If they haven’t achieved what you want, revisit it another time. You will be amazed how different the game is the next time.

If you are coaching developing players, or younger players, be wary of their energy levels. Some children will happily run and run. Others really struggle. An endless game, without breaks, will soon lose its appeal.

6  ALLOW THE PLAYERS A CHANCE TO REFLECT

Though we love playing games, we also take much from feeling we have understood the purpose. We want something to hold on to. That’s why drills are so good.

So with games, you have to give a chance for players to review what just happened. Perhaps they can pick out good moments. They can also think what they can do better next time.

During the game, have 10-30 second breaks for players to talk tactics.

Also, encourage in-game chat. That’s the players telling each other what’s going well and what needs to change.

7  PREVENT THE CONSEQUENCES OF SLOPPY THINKING OR SLOPPY PLAY

We want players to express themselves, make mistakes and learn from them. That’s why the rules are important. If a mistake leads to a turnover of possession, a good piece of play soon after might mean a chance to regain possession. Therefore, a mistake in a game in training is quickly forgotten.

But if the game allows players success from low levels of execution, you are not pushing the players. Are the players moving as fast they can? Are they on the edge of their skill levels? How easy is it to score?

It might be time to change the size of the pitch or the scoring criteria. For example, a point can only be scored if a certain technique is performed correctly.

8  RETURN TO THE GAME AT A LATER DATE

All the reflection, learning and creativity is reduced if you don’t return to the game later in the season.

The second time around players might recall previous solutions. There’s also a good chance that new ideas will come from either players who weren’t there last time or the players who have been more engaged.

Overall, the players are layering their learning. Perhaps this time they will also bring additional ideas from other games or match situations.

In summary…you have to work harder for the players to enjoy their chances to learn. Be structured, clear and adaptable in your use of games. And then you can enjoy watching and experiencing their learning in return. 

For lots of examples of small-sided games go to Small-sided games on this site.

And here’s a couple good examples to get going with games:

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