While reading The Little Book of Talent, I came across the following bit about the influence of games on skill development

“Games are fun. Tournaments are exciting. Contests are thrilling. They also slow skill development, for four reasons: 1. The presence of other people diminishes an appetite for risks, nudging you away from the sweet spot. 2. Games reduce the number of quality reps. 3. The pressure of games distorts priorities, encouraging shortcuts in technique. 4. Games encourage players, coaches, and parents to judge success by the scoreboard rather than by how much was learned.”

The author, Daniel Coyle, is clearly talking about official competition against other players/teams here. From that perspective, I’d venture to say a lot of coaches agree with him. You often hear coaches wishing for more training time, but how often do you hear them wishing for more competition?

What about games in practice, though? Do we think the same way about them as we do about ones we play against outside competition?

My guess is in many cases we don’t. At least we don’t do it often enough.

Let me address Coyle’s points one by one.

The first one basically says we are conservative when others are watching. That means we’re less likely to take the kinds of chances which lead to learning, but which necessarily also lead to mistakes. Whether this is true really depends on the training environment you nurture. If players feel like they are judged negatively for making mistakes – be it by teammates or coaches – they will seek to avoid them. This is especially true in any kind of situation where mistakes hurt their team.

Coyle’s second point is that necessarily there are fewer quality repetitions in games. He is speaking in terms of the individual performer here, not the collective in the case of a team sport like ours. While this isn’t something we can do much about when playing a competitive match, we can definitely address it in a number of ways in practice. We could run small-sided games to increase individual reps (fewer players = more reps per player). Alternatively, we could set up ball initiation or scoring to maximize individual reps around a certain skill or tactic.

The third point, about technique short-cuts, is a really important one. The tendency of players in game situations is to default to their comfort zone. This isn’t necessarily about trying to avoid errors, as discussed above. It’s more of an unconscious thing. In the speed of game play they tend not to think about the thing they should be working on. This is where coaching comes in. Sustained feedback is massively important. So too is making them do it the way you are pushing them to, perhaps using something like second chance.

The final point about success or failure being judged based on the score is another one I think we can address in how we design our games. As noted above, we can encourage certain things in how we give out points. Going even further, we can use process rather than outcome scoring to keep the focus where we want it. And, of course, we don’t have to score at all.

We need to play games in practice. At least we do if we want our players to know how to apply their skills. To get the most out of them we need to understand the issues they bring and look to moderate those effects, if not take advantage of them.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently Technical Director for Charleston Academy. His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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