Academic Review

See why academic research recommends the games approach

Even in today’s ‘Soccer Practice’, players tire of repetitive drills and yearn to play a match. They lack focus with common drills, such as ‘Passing and controlling in pairs’. Without an incentive to pass or control well, players do ‘just enough’. Whereas, adding competition, improves players’ focus to pass and control effectively. The ‘Paired Touch Game’(Figure 1) encourages firm passing and accuracy to force the opponent into error and challenges their first touch under limited pressure.

‘Traditional Formats’ that teach skills through direct transfer from coach to player are mechanical, complicated and linear in nature [22]. Players become conditioned by ‘sayings’ such as “Never play the ball across the back”, so recognize only danger and avoid risk. Consequently, players are disconnected from the realities of the game without context to apply realistic responses [22, 27]. Developing better players requires managing risk by exploring multiple solutions. Learning when to play the ball across the back helps to change the angle of play, maintains possession and decreases predictability. By encouraging players to learn for themselves they become empowered to take control.
Figure 1

Traditional Formats
The following ‘Traditional Formats’ all have fundamental drawbacks:

a) Fixed practices (commonly ‘drills’) repeat technique to refine and reproduce consistently, but control players’ response by limiting options. Skills are broken-down into small steps using a progressive sequence from simple to complex [35], without regard for the complexities of the game environment. Whilst drills are necessary in the army, soccer has more room for expression and individuality.

b) Variable practices extend ‘drills’ by offering alternative directions to adapt technique in, rather than in response to an opponent. Both fixed and variable practices have potential for competition, but this is often limited to 1v1’s/2v2’s.

c.1) Integrated practices: full/small-sided matches. Whilst full competition is engaging, it’s a large step forward from variable practices as players move abruptly from no/limited pressure to full pressure.

c.2) Functional Practices and Phases of Play are used by more experienced coaches to isolate match scenarios towards one main goal. The team defending this goal has little incentive to score so unrealistically retains defensive shape when in possession.

The Stop/Start Approach
The ‘Coaches in Game’ format coaches team play by identifying a ’fault’ before 1) freezing play, 2) asking questions and correcting the fault, 3) demonstrating the ‘correct’ way, 4) rehearsing the ‘correct’ way and 5) restarting play [25]. Whilst painting an accurate picture of specific situations, it removes players’ responsibility, and encourages dependence on the coach.

Coaching “fixed” solutions limits the tools in each player’s armory, leaving them vulnerable to unique or nuanced scenarios. They might know the ‘correct’ way but can’t adapt when this doesn’t work. E.g. the coach tells their ‘Wing Back’ to always guide their opponent towards the touchline. However, if the opposition winger always outpaces them or only threatens from crosses they must adapt.

Instead, guide players to adapt to unique situations by experimenting with different scenarios to discover solutions themselves. Experimentation allows players to understand why it won't work and when there are exceptions, so understanding is more complete, rather than just a remembered rule.

The 'Games Approach'
The ‘Games Approach’ allows experimentation through small-sided games with various conditions, triggering techniques and skills under realistic pressure [33]. First developed in Europe through Deleplace [7] and Mahlo [23], The ‘Games Approach’ was highlighted in the U.K. when Bunker & Thorpe [3] proposed the ‘Teaching Games for Understanding’ model. Several Game-Based Approaches have since emerged, all with slight variations [14].

“Game Sense” [2] took a considerable step forward by encouraging coaches to become facilitators by asking questions that stimulate tactical thinking, rather than just dictating [15, 16, 18]. As facilitator, the coach guides players to find personal solutions to game situations they meet. Questions aren’t asked to find correct answers, but to stimulate thinking as there is no single solution [5].

Light [19] suggested the coach encourage players to take risks, be creative and engage in active learning. Ideally the coach facilitates by using questioning to promote player dialogue and reflection [6, 20, 31], allowing players to be actively involved in their learning through problem solving [26], where they draw on prior experience and knowledge to make sense of learning experiences [21]. The coach can nudge players in a more fruitful direction when they’re way off the mark.

Figure 2

The modern approach to facilitation prompts players to discuss and debate aspects of the game before returning to the game to act upon points of discussion [17]. Initially players are dependent on the coach and struggle to think of new ideas. ‘Figure 2’ helps stimulate players to problem solve independently.

‘Progressive Games’ assist independence by subtly guiding players, whilst empowering them to discover solutions through trial and error. The ‘Games Approach’ focuses on a particular skill/tactic within a realistic environment so that players become comfortable responding to the opposition, rather than a command.

Experts agree on 'Games Approach' benefits

Tactical decision making and skill execution are inseparable, so ‘Practice Sessions’ should cater for this [19]. Robles [32] analysis showed that the 'Games Approach' significantly improved decision making in 5 of 6 studies when compared to traditional drills [1, 4, 10, 12, 24]. Robles [32] also identified 2 of 6 studies that reported significant improvements in skill execution caused by the 'Games Approach' [10, 24] and that no studies reported significant improvement in skill execution when using drills.

Whilst Griffin [11] and Robles [32] acknowledge that the ‘Games Approach’ has the potential to improve technical skills compared to drills, most games focus on tactical game-play. Technical improvements are maximized through technical games (e.g. Figure 1) that develop technique in context.
Figure 3
Modern interpretation of the 'Games Approach'
Many modern games have ‘drill’ characteristics as they’re embedded with ‘restrictions’. A common feature is ‘patterns’ (e.g. pass to player A and run to cone B). These restrictions force players into the intended action, rather than empower them to find personalized solutions. E.g. restricting players to zones to force ‘spreading out’, results in players standing to the closest edge of their zone, where they’re vulnerable to a tackle/interception. Instead, 'Progressive Games' encourage, rather than constrain. In “Two’s a Crowd.” (Figure 3) players who keep moving into space are rewarded with possession.

Most ‘Conditioned Games’ mirror a soccer game’s format and rules, keeping players within their comfort zone. Instead, ‘Progressive Games’ take players outside their comfort zone, where they can no longer rely on old solutions, so must think dynamically to succeed. Players gradually become comfortable when challenged by new situations. They learn a wider variety of solutions that can be referenced in tricky and unique match situations.
Figure 4

Several studies identified the design of games as vital [8, 13, 28, 29, 30, 34]. Yet seemingly logical ‘conditions’ often have an opposite effect to the intention. E.g. whilst the intention of the “Maximum 2-touch” condition is to speed up play, players often respond by stopping the ball, so not to rush their second touch. The resultant static ball slows down and makes play predictable. Instead, the ‘Progressive Game’ “Changing Directional Focus” (Figure 4) guides players to speed up play organically by instantly rewarding fast passing.

Figure 5
Personalized Learning
‘Progressive Games’ allow players to find the solution for themselves by posing problems that require positive decisions to solve. E.g. “Balance of Possession” (Figure 5), subtly empowers players to identify support options by awarding more points for passing from deeper positions. Players become accustomed to playing in different directions. They’re not compelled to pass backwards, but discover the benefits for themselves. ‘Progressive Games’ reward positive play. They both maximize realism and increase opportunities to practice the skill/tactic. They also prevent ‘cheating’ (solutions that don’t promote the game’s objectives).

It’s important for players to take responsibility for the success of each game by moderating the manner in which they play. To achieve this, sell the ‘Process Approach’ (the process of learning) to explain the benefits of regulating challenge. The ‘Process Approach’ maximizes the learning environment for long-term gain, rather than a ‘Win at all Costs Approach’. ‘Progressive Games’ include ‘Adaptations’ to empower each player to pitch the game at their level. E.g. against a weaker opponent, they can widen their goal or limit their touches to increase challenge. Players become evenly challenged whilst their desire to succeed outweighs their fear of failure by competing more against the challenge than against their opponent. Patience is required to convince players by reinforcing the message until they’re familiar. Playing lots of mini-games and not recording scores reduces pressure.
Player Autonomy
The ‘Games Approach’ is also effective at increasing motivation and enjoyment [9, 34] by personalizing solutions, which improve confidence and develop independence. Players respond positively to an increased sense of autonomy and empowerment [17].

However, this is challenging when players offer solutions that contradict the coach. Rather than dismiss them, allow players time to experiment to find personalized solutions to overcome danger. It requires a brave, coach to allow players more responsibility, but gains respect and creates more complete players.

Transferring this approach into matches is challenging when a fear of losing leads to a more conservative approach. Instead, competitive matches can be presented as an extension of ‘Soccer Practice’ by combining freedom to explore with the challenge of different opposition. A ‘Progressive Warm Up’ before matches bridges the gap to training.

Barriers to Progress
Whilst ‘Games Approach’ benefits are apparent, it’s still not widely used. Many coaches repeat drills and conditions they performed as a player, most of which have considerable limitations. E.g. the highly regarded “Rondo Drill” has lasted for generations, yet is restricted by static attackers and limited options. Some coaches dismiss the ‘Games Approach’ by saying “I’ve been coaching for 30 years” or “if it isn’t broken don’t fix it”. These perspectives are unsurprising when coaches rely on their own “folk pedagogy” [13].

Coaches new to the ‘Games Approach’ have the challenge of transitioning players [13]. It can be difficult for players who are comfortable being told how to play. When faced with unfamiliarity they ‘freeze’ or revert to the comfort of traditional solutions. To counter this, simplify games to allow success before gradually increasing challenge and independence, whilst reinforcing players’ freedom to fail and learn from mistakes. As players' confidence grows, they'll take more responsibility. Whilst they may appear to get worse, before getting better, players will progress quickly once comfortable.
Figure 6
How to use the 'Games Approach' well
The chart (Figure 6) includes key aspects of an effective and engaging session. Larger hexagons are more fundamental.
Figure 7

a) Challenge
Allow players personalized challenge. Some games e.g. ‘Greed’ (Figure 7) have layers of challenge so that when players succeed, they meet a higher challenge. However, some games are enhanced by players adapting their personal challenge. 

Result-based personalization should be avoided though (e.g. First to 5 goals, player ‘A’ has a 3 goal head start). As each player’s challenge within each play is unchanged, the weaker player is over challenged whilst the stronger player is under challenged. It’s sometimes beneficial to compete against much stronger players, but when overdone, players will prioritize 'safe' options to avoid failure.

b) Responsibility
Games encourage experimentation to solve unique game problems. To maximize this, subtly guide players by occasionally offering alternatives, rather than dictating. Use drinks breaks to discuss new solutions so players have time to consider the problem. It’s important they sometimes try out bad/risky solutions so learning is organic, rather than copied.

c) Success
Comparison can demotivate players who regularly lose. Many players see success as ‘winning’, which is less realistic when better opponents are also improving. Instead, measure success based on progress rather than comparison.

d) Variation
A variety of different games, cater for different learning styles and give players opportunity to relate skills to unique situations. Learning is more permanent when players develop understanding through a fuller range of experiences.

e) Active Involvement
High intensity games improve fitness without players realizing they're working so hard. To maximize involvement and intensity:

· Use games rather than drills. Games contain more incentives, so players work harder,

· Prioritize high intensity, competitive games,

· Set up a warm up game that players join in with on arrival to maximize activity.

· Always have the next game already set up so players can start quickly,

· Have recurring games each session to reduce explaining time and maintain intensity,

· Initially have shorter length games to maintain a high intensity. Once players can maintain

  the intensity, gradually increase game length to extend.

· Have drinks close by and limit length of breaks to challenge recovery (initially have

  slightly longer breaks to build success) and expect players to jog to and from drinks break.

· Play smaller-sided games to increase ball-touches and maximize intensity,

· Limit stopping the practice to coach. Instead, use drinks breaks for feedback,

· Place spare balls spread around the perimeter to restart games immediately,

· Coach holds extra balls in their hands, to restart play.

f) Competition
Use competition effectively to maximize realism and engagement by:

· Emphasizing all player's responsibility to improve rather than beat each other,

· Assist players to set personal conditions as the main challenge, alongside their

  opponent (see ‘Adaptations’ section for each game),

· Coaching players to feedback to each other after each 1v1/2v2 challenge to highlight

  process, over the result. This includes both praise and advice,

· Creating an environment where competition is prioritized over counting,

· Avoiding recording or announcing scores and prioritizing games without counting. 

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