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Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) – Are all coaches playing the game?

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Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) is a coaching concept that has been around since the 1960s. The benefits of this pedagogical approach are well documented so why then is it still not a well accepted and implemented approach?

Over the years, a number of issues related to student learning have been raised with a ‘movement skill first approach’, including low levels of student engagement, low transferability of knowledge and a lack of understanding of the game itself. In the 1980s, Bunker and Thorpe proposed TGfU in the face of the more traditional drill-based models.

What is TGfU?

The basic premise of TGfU is the use of a games-based approach to learning skills, which gives the participants more awareness of where and how to use these skills, rather than merely performing them in a sterile, drill-based environment. TGfU can be further described as a sequential cycle of teaching based on the premise that game understanding and decision making are not dependent on the prior development of sport-specific movement techniques.

Games-based approaches, which claim to promote active involvement in problem solving through game play and game progression, and the use of questions, discussions and reflection, have attracted strong interest due to links with constructivist teaching practices. There is plenty of research that suggests that we do not learn by passively receiving and then remembering what we are taught. Instead, learning involves actively constructing our own meanings. We invent our own concepts and ideas, linked to what we already know. Participants need activities that require them to make personal sense of the material and so construct their own meanings. Further research shows that learning activities that require active processing improve recall by as much as a factor of 10, are more enjoyed, and create deeper learning.

 

If one applies this to the TGfU model in a sporting environment, it is possible to see that this environment of an active, context-specific and participant-centred approach can lead very easily to participants showing the ability to make their own decisions, allowing them to see the implications of those decisions and being able to construct a meaning that would demonstrate a much higher likelihood of being able to realise when and where that decision would be effective. 

Why is TGfU criticised?

For some coaches and academic writers, there are still some areas of critique and gaps in research when it comes to TGfU. This, however, seems to be more linked to poor implementation as opposed to the effectiveness of correctly used TGfU methods. Some coaches viewed it as having merely a relation to the game, rather than encompassing a player-centred pedagogical approach, with some evidence missing relating to the demonstration of higher level thinking and the application of new knowledge in new situations.

Central to TGfU are participant-centred questioning and reflection. However, at times, reflective practice is detached from the reality of practitioner practice. In this sense, coaches often employ a fairly superficial level of discussion, with little analytical underpinning. With sessions often short on time or with coaches trying to get through a sometimes unrealistic amount of delivery or dealing with sporadic attendance of participants, it is understandable that the session sometimes just goes through the motions. It can be seen as difficult to stick to the TGfU model in many environments where coaches and participants just want to get the session done and support mechanisms do not exist or people simply cannot understand the philosophy. In addition, some coaches may see their sport as unable to lend itself to the TGfU model.

Why am I an advocate of TGfU?

For me, it is always important to think of the long term benefits particularly in younger participants.

I argue that if you are a coach who is delivering drill-based sessions then you are neglecting to develop the person and the many other skills, experiences and benefits that can be found within a sports coaching environment, which TGfU can encompass and that are often quoted around sport participation. 

In addition, delivering a TGfU-based session as a coach can become much more straightforward as, while a game is running, you could:

  • condition the rules of the game (eg time limits, scoring methods, types of skill)
  • change the playing area
  • alter the numbers per side
  • change types of equipment used.

Some or all of these can alter the level of challenge for the participants and, along with questioning the participants at varying levels around their decisions, can give them much more autonomy in their development.

Here is a video on the New Zealand approach to TGfU coaching, which demonstrates and discusses some of the rationale behind employing it:

Personally I believe strongly in four central pillars in coaching:

  1.     active
  2.     games based
  3.     participant centred
  4.     fun

All of the above run strongly within the tenets of TGfU.

The TGfU model allows participants to not only learn, strengthen and develop skills, but in situations and environments where other important skills are also addressed (such as teamwork, communication, spatial awareness, decision making and leadership to name a few). It remains a mystery to me as to why this method is not employed more in coaching situations.

Perhaps it is the feeling of a lack of control, handing over decision making and skill development to the participants, or the idea that if there is not a sea of cones with players executing skills with no mistakes then they are not progressing? Perhaps coaches think it takes too long, and they just what to see a skill executed correctly and move on?

Whatever the reason, I strongly believe that in the longer term, if we can coach through engaging, fun and participant-centred methods such as TGfU, coaching skills in the context that we expect them to be performed in, then surely this will allow everyone to enjoy sessions more and be more successful both in the sport and as a person, which, as a coach, should be ultimately what we aspire to achieve.

Are you an advocate of TGfU?  Maybe you think TGfU is unrealistic to adopt in your coaching environment? What do you think of this post? It would be great to get your feedback. Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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Comments (11)

   
andrewb62
Henry – I do agree with you. TGfU is a vitally important coaching tool in many sports, and also a very misunderstood one, it seems.

In my own sport (cricket), coaches have been taught to utilise games-based learning (GBL) for several years, but until very recently the emphasis has still been on the delivery of skill drills, with games at the end of a session, almost as a little light relief from the technical and physical work.

The latest iteration of post-level 2 CPD includes a workshop dedicated to GBL (specifically for coaching children), but I am not sure that uptake of the new workshops has been that enthusiastic. This ran in pilot form last winter, but as far as I can see few Counties (if any) are offering it in 2015-16, which is a shame, if true.

For myself, I am a convert. To be honest, one of the reasons that I first trained as a coach was because I enjoy playing games…being able to do this _and_ support my preference with academic research just reinforces my behaviour.

I try to use a “Whole-Part-Whole” session plan whenever I can, with groups and in one-to-ones – I still do some skill-drill work, but for most of the practice the players will be playing, and (hopefully) starting to work out their own solutions.

* Whole – play a (short) game, designed to challenge a particular skill
* Part – identify and practice a technique directly relevant to the game
* Whole – play the game, again, this time with particular emphasis on successfully applying the technique from the “part” drill(s)


BTW – I appreciate that there might be a subtle difference in emphasis between TGfU and GBL. The former implicitly seeks to instil _understanding_ of when and how to deploy a particular skill, whereas the latter focuses (mostly) on successful delivery of the skill (“win the game”). Outcomes should be broadly the same, I would imagine.


Challenges for the coach
* Devising _relevant_ modified games
* Not being _seen_ to be actively coaching (perception of spectators/parents & players)
* Time spent asking questions and drawing out responses is time when the players are not (physically) active


Still – TGfU/GBL makes it more interesting for the players (and the coach). Can’t be bad!
06/11/15
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AdamPE
Morning Henry, as Andrew pointed out, the ECB has recently revised its coach education programme to address this topic, leading to Fixed, Variable and Cricket Game-Based Practices to encourage skills development to align with actual match situations - it's the old adage of 'once they cross the whitewash/boundary rope etc, players are on their own' and need to be able to cater for such eventualities [tactical awareness, etc] without the coach's direct support or input - I assume this is largely the case for most sports, except maybe where 'timeouts' are permitted but, even so, there is limited time to address concerns or problems and how much the performer is able to absorb before play recommences.
06/11/15
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David_T
Hi Henry,

That's 4 crucial rules to coach by! I totally agree.

I just wondered....you pose the question why are more coaches not doing this? Could it not just be confidence, but also could it be pressure (or percieved pressure) from parents to give children what THEY expect to see in a session?

David
06/11/15
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andrewb62
David - absolutely the case, in my experience!

"Why aren't they in the nets?"

And not just from parents - some of the (young) players simply don't believe they are practicing cricket unless they are in the nets, retrieviing wayward deliveries that didn't reach them, or stood at the back of a line waiting for their turn to bowl...
06/11/15
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henrydorling
Thanks for the comments. I agree it seems to be a coaching style which is against the norm which is hard to fathom but easy to see why. Interesting to hear the cricket perspective as that is one game I have heard coaches say they can't use anything but a drills based approach to. The youtube clip has a good cricket example and good to hear the ECB are embracing it more. To develop your point around timeouts I think even with that TGfU should be employed as it does not address the sustainability factor of players in the game actually developing skills and qualities they can take away outside of the game not just during it.The parents/spectators factor is also interesting particularly the lack of understanding about what works and what is more effective and the cricket nets is a good example. It seems based on what they saw when they were young and nothing about modern research and evidence. I think there should also be more of a wider promotion of TGfU from advocates and look at a more practical embedding of the principles as opposed to writing about it although it is a difficult task. At my son's football and rugby sessions drill based activity is too prevalent and when a 'games' based approach is taken, they just play 'the game' with no conditions and no player input. I know they are only 8 years old but they still have an opinion and ideas! I think too many coaches are driven by winning so they are scared to try something different like this in case the team don't win and people point the finger at their 'different' style.
09/11/15
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andrewb62
Re parents & spectators - to be fair to them, their failure to understand TGfU/GBL ia as much a failure of the coach (or the wider coaching community) to explain what he is trying to achieve when he "plays games" rather than drills.

Interestingly, the rondo has become almost fetishised as "the game that made Spanish football" (perhaps until they were knocked out of the last World Cup...). But we used to play "keep ball" 40 years ago (probably with a more British emphasis on hard chasing by the player(s) in the middle, admittedly), and never saw it as much more than a physical exercise...because we (players and, perhaps, coaches) did not properly understand the skills needed to succeed.
10/11/15
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henrydorling
Yes I agree as I said it should be down to us advocates to make more of a clear and user friendly case for it with the parents and spectators but that is no easy job. I think the rondo has some value but on the whole it is one person working while the rest watch!! Not that active or games based but as with everything it depends how the coach delivers it and whether it is contextualised well enough.
10/11/15
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liammccarthy16
really nice Ash Casey article here regarding the subject and ideas shared: "Models-based practice: great white hope or white elephant?" : http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17408989.2012.726977
- a particularity nice analogy around jumbo jets and novice pilots. Perhaps distinguishes where NGB coach ed should be looking...
09/11/15
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henrydorling
Thanks for the link Liam. I have downloaded as I enjoy Ash's stuff. Like the analogy too around test pilots which links well to the concerns above of coaches not developing their practice to ever be the 'Captain' and as you say would perhaps show where NGB's should be looking more.
10/11/15
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Zak90
I use TGFU a lot coaching in schools and I find it brilliant to use because the children love it, it shows me how the children use their skills in different sport specific situations and it helps to develop decision making skills. Due to my students having a wide range of different abilities within their class, I split the group up into high, medium and low ability teams and have the high ability playing against high ability, medium vs medium and low vs low. This way in conditioned games, along with different learning interventions, they are able to challenge themselves and learn at the level they are currently at.
14/11/15
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EllyNetball
Regretably, I didn't come across this blog until the day AFTER :-( I'd delivered a workshop on using a Games-Based Approach with young netballers on the EN Performance Pathway.
Why isn't this type of coaching more widespread? GBA researchers Harvey and Light suggest that what is stopping the adoption of these practices is that they require a profound shift in the role of the coach – from directing and controlling to facilitating and guiding. Key to this shift is the ability to use questioning to facilitate learning. This means moving beyond simple yes/no questions to open-ended questions that foster debate and discussion between player and coach, and among players themselves. For them, questioning is the key to learning. For coaches, an ability to ask good questions at the right time is paramount. Perhaps us coaches need to be more fearless in the training environment - move away from the "directing and controlling" and practise the art of asking GOOD questions?
Take a look at sports coach UK Research Summary 24 Asking Good Questions and Games-based Activity: https://www.sportscoachuk.org/sites/default/files/no24%20asking%20good%20questions.pdf
04/07/16
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kraichura

I coach field hockey and can appreciate how a games-based approach may be somewhat harder for parents to understand in cricket than in some other sports.

My preference in all my sessions is to have them dominated by conditioned games. They may be based on a regular pitch format with a goal at each end and just the layering-in of rules, or they may be based on a different shape, or a larger number of goals and conditions that create situations I'm looking to work on - e.g. attacking overloads, fast counter-attacks or a specific technical skill. This style of coaching works well with groups that have some a decent level of ability, but with younger/weaker groups, a lot of coaches tend to revert back towards techniques and drills, I think because it feels 'safer'. I think there's a need for children to understand the skills required and how to do them, but I think it's vital to get them involved in something game-realistic as soon as possible with each new development area/technique.

14/12/16
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henrydorling

Hi Kiran thanks for your comment. It sounds as though you are an advocate for the games based approach which is great. It definitely works very well in a game like field hockey that's for sure especially in the ways you are describing. I think your point about children 'understanding' the skills is interesting as I think this is where most coaches think a drill based approach is the only way. If they have not demonstrated a perfect technical model then they must not have learnt how to do it properly to then put it into a game which us games based proponents know is not true. Just get them playing a conditioned game to understand and learn the skills. The skill or technique has to be in the context in which it is to be used and then the learning and understanding is much deeper. A coach who I listened to talk recently said that he enjoys chaos in his sessions and loves to see how players react. Much more game like than a sterile drill! Good luck in your coaching.

15/12/16
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kraichura

Hi Henry, does that mean you believe you can throw players into perhaps a mini-game scenario straight-off, ask them to, where possible (or award points for) say stopping the ball on their reverse side and then see how they get on with trying different things until one or two start to get it right and then others start to learn from them? (In practice of course, there will always be some who will have learnt it the previous year or at school etc)

16/12/16
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henrydorling

Yes absolutely I believe that. What you are describing is exactly how a games based coach would deliver and a conditioned practice would work. I just feel that if you taught them how to reverse stick in a drill, (usually one on one hitting across the pitch from my experience) as soon as you went into a game you would have to re-teach them in that context as the skill breaks down and they can't do it well enough. Why not teach them how to do it in the game straight away then use the conditions, incentives and questions to bring out their learning. Even those who have learnt the skill previously could still be challenged as you could bring in more conditions and differentiated activities for them IE reverse stick shooting only or one handed reverse stick dribbling for example. In rugby the drill is still seen too often for example for passing and then when they play in a game coaches say 'why can't you pass, we have only just been practicing it?' So they don't understand the passing has to be learnt in the context in which you want it performed. I'm sure it's the same for hockey so good luck with your games based approaches and keep doing them!

17/12/16
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