One of the things I love about the game of Australian Rules is that it is always evolving – both on the field and in the coaching sense. In the last 10 years we have seen the introduction and growth of:
- Conditioning ( and the impact of GPS technology to understand and monitor the demands of the game)
- Injury Prevention & Rehabilitation
- Game Analysis (video and stats)
- Game Based Training
- Leadership Programs/Team Dynamics
With the beginning of a new decade, I thought it was worth considering – what’s next???
I am of the belief it will be the capacity of coaches to create an environment that optimises player learning of the game plan/style/tactics/strategies.
“I believe the next real advantage to be gained in coaching is in the quality of the teaching/learning environment created for the players”
- Neil Craig, 2009
Lets explore why we would be advocating this.
Our game continues to evolve in complexity and so does the amount of tactical knowledge players are required to take the field with. No longer does the most technically talented team dominate (although that is always a good base!). Port Adelaide in 2004, Sydney in 2005 and Hawthorn in 2008 are examples of premiership teams that have triumphed against more “talented” teams. I believe they all executed superior team play and tactical knowledge that complimented their technical skill and the intangible factor of a “hunger for the contest” that can never be under-estimated in a physical game such as ours.
Just consider in the past few years some of the tactical elements of our game that have come to prominence:
- Zonal Defending – both in general play and when the opposition are kicking in. This can extend from a few players up to an organised 18-man zone
- Player Roles – more defined expectations of areas they will cover and their responsibilities offensively and defensively
- Forward Line Systems – deliberate patterned or “choreographed” movements that create space and allow 1v1 situations. Random movement by forwards is no longer good enough
- Ball Movement Patterns – movement out of defense, preferred areas to enter from and into the forward line, strategies for when ball movement becomes slowed or opposition have numbers back
- Stoppage Structures and Systems –patterns of moving the ball from a stoppage
- Game Scenarios – winding down the clock when in front, stopping an opposition run-on, changing the tempo of the game
I am a firm believer that the “what” and “how” are two critical competencies of coaching. Let me explain how these relate to the elements listed above.
For the coach taking charge of a new team, or looking to change the game plan of his current team, he must define his approach to the elements listed above and many more. This is the “what” of coaching. The “what” concerns your game plan/style of play and your philosophies towards these. It is vital that the coach be well researched and knowledgeable in the modern game so he can make an imformed decision about what methods he believes will create a successful style.
Once those methods are decided upon we come to the “how” competency – “how” are you going to effectively coach these elements? The amount of knowledge transfer and on-field training that is required to have all these aspects ingrained well enough to withstand finals pressure is enormous. The key factor in achieving this will be the quality of the teaching/learning environment you create. Hence the crux of this post and my belief that this is where the next competitive advantage exists for any coach willing to learn and commit to some of the processes required.
A favorite quote of mine comes from Tex Winter, a basketball coach known for being the modern teacher of the triangle offense that the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers have used to claim many championships:
“It is the way we teach, not what we teach, that really counts”
Lets now work through some of the areas that need consideration to achieve an optimal teaching and learning environment:
- Training drill design
- Training session design
- Training progressions/sequencing
- Feedback & instruction during training
- Learning styles
- Electronic learning (“e-learning”)
- Team/small group meetings
(there are more things that could be added to this list but I will start with these as broad headings for now)
1. Training Drill Design
Ok, the first one here is training drill design and I have it listed first because it is probably the most important. Click the play button below to hear Patrick Hunt’s thoughts on importance of training (Patrick is the AIS technical advancement coach for coach education).
I think for the last 10 years most coaches would be aware that drills or activities need to be designed to replicate phases or scenarios from the game . This does not necessarily mean 18 v 18 match simulation. It can relate to a kicking drill that exposes players to the types of kicks they most often use in a game (a good exercise is to go through a game and note down all the different types of kicks that are used in a game – you will be surprised how many subtle variations there are). It could be a “breakdown” drill that works on the first phase of ball movement when the the ball is won in the defensive 50m area. Where possible players should be put in situations where decision making and technique execution mirror game-like conditions (remember skill = decision making + technique execution). Game-Sense, Teaching Games for Understanding, Game-Based Training, Simulation Training etc are terms you probably would have heard to describe this type of training and drills.
Assuming you have drills that expose players to match situations, the other important concept to apply is called “constraints-based” coaching or drill design. By manipulating constraints in a drill you can effectively “guide” players towards the correct tactical solution, or adjust the complexity of the drill to overload players when appropriate. Constraints can be categorised under 3 headings – task, performer (ie player), and environment. Task constraints are probably the most known and used and these can include such things as field size, playing numbers (both in terms of density and numbers advantage), scoring and rules (ie must handball after taking a mark in the midfield). Constraints based coaching often allows “implicit” learning to occur which can be the best form of learning for some skills. If a players learns something “implicitly” it generally means the coach has not directly instructed the player on how to achieve the movement or tactical solution. Instead, the imposition of a certain rule in a drill could guide players towards finding the correct movement or solution through trial and error. Implicit learning has the added advantage of being more resistant to competition pressures (as it avoids “paralysis by analysis”) but is generally NOT appropriate for complex tactical situations such as a strategy for moving the ball inside 50m when opposition have flooded numbers back. This sort of scenario requires “explicit” learning to occur where the coach will give specific instructions about how to achieve the task.
For more information on decision making and implicit learning watch the video below of Damian Farrow, Skill Acquisition specialist at the AIS.
2. Training Session Design
After covering training drill design some may think that the quality of learning that occurs and difficulty in a training session will be purely about the drill design. This is not necessarily the case. Even better learning and transfer can occur by considering some of the following principles when planning your training session and the drills to be used.
A concept that can have an influence on the complexity of the session is the order of your drills. By continually “switching” from open game-like drills to more closed technique based drills and back again will challenge your players capacity to adapt quickly. This can reveal how well learnt certain skills are and enhance the learning as well. Similar benefits can be achieved by going from an in-close drill such as a handball game on a small field to a full-field game.
Also related to drill order in sessions is what drills you do first and last in sessions. Traditionally the first drill after the warm-up will be a kicking or handball drill that is not overly taxing from a decision making point of view. A better option on occasions is to place your most game like drill first. This will demand players be able to quickly “switch on” – as is required on match day. The ability for players to execute the game style and skills in this drill without having the opportunity to “ease” into the session will again be a good measure of how much learning has occurred. Another option is to consider what drill you place last in a session, particularly during pre-season when fatigue can set in towards the later stages. Exposing players to performing under fatigue is actually a constraints-based approach as mentioned earlier (under the heading of “performer” constraints). Defensive principles are generally what fall away first under fatigue in a match so drills that have a defensive focus are always good to place at the end of sessions.
A final thing to mention on the order of drills is that new concepts or concepts that players have had little training exposure to should be incorporated into drills early in the training session when players are mentally and physically fresh. It is likely that these concepts have been explained using video or whiteboard in the pre-training meeting so the sooner they can be put into action on the training track the better.
Another effective training session design is one that I like to call the “choose your own adventure” session (anyone else remember reading those at school?). In this type of session the first activity should be something pretty close to a normal game ie full field with normal rules. Do this for 10-15 minutes and then during a 5 minute break make a quick assessment of what concepts were breaking down in the game. Based on those you then choose the next drill or two “on the fly” that best expose players to the problem concepts. These drills should have been done before by the players and well known so they can move straight into them (it will also require good organisation to set up any cones, balls, bibs etc). Once the drills are complete go back to the original game used at the start of the session and see if the identified concepts are executed better. This method of session design is based on the “whole-part-whole” process normally used to train technique-based skills.
3. Training Progressions/Sequencing
When teaching a system of play – be that ball movement patterns, player movement in the forward line or defensive systems – a critical aspect of the learning process is the progression or sequencing of drills to develop that system. The most common approach is to use “breakdown” drills first to train specific elements of the system in isolation so that players get plenty of repetition and teaching. An example of this could be working on forward movement patterns with just 2 forwards before introducing more forwards. Once players begin to master these breakdown drills then the next progression is to start training larger “chunks” of the system and see if the specific principles can still be executed. It is at this point that the coach must accurately assess the appropriate time to progress again into more complex drills (and maybe start to overload the system) versus continue to use breakdown drills.
Again constraints-based coaching can be applied here to vary the complexity of the drill. A typical example of this is the gradual increase in opposition numbers and player density when training ball movement patterns from defense. Initially you may have something like 5 v 3 in the back line and 5 v 3 in the midfield and progress to 6v6 in both defense and midfield. If you started with the 6v6 option it is unlikely any pattern or success of ball movement would be frequently achieved. This makes it difficult for players to physically experience and learn the principles that lead to good ball movement patterns. On the flip side, if you never progress to the most difficult scenarios that players will face in matches then they will always be vulnerable to those scenarios come game-day.
4. Feedback & Instruction
So far we have covered drill and session design along with how to progress these. Whilst these are critical for providing the learning experience for the players, the aspect of how a coach teaches during on-field training can determine the rate at which the learning occurs. What are some of the teaching methods that need to be considered? Most centre around instruction and feedback to players either during drills or between drills. Lets look at a few of the techniques you can apply.
Freeze the play – “the coachable moment”
This is the critical one. The most powerful method of feedback and instruction comes when players are immersed in the experience, ie during the training drill. Being able to identify “the coachable moment” during a drill requires that you understand the principles of what you are coaching and what makes it work or break down. When you recognise this moment a very powerful form of teaching is to blow the whistle and have players “freeze” in their exact positions. By then telling or questioning (I will expand on these next) players can receive feedback on their play (be it correct or incorrect) whilst still having the “feel” of what just took place. This is much more effective than reflecting on this moment at the end of the drill or using video footage in the following days. Important in using this technique is to ensure everyone on the field can hear the point you are making, which can be challenging on an AFL size field. Also avoid over-using this technique – a couple of times per drill would be ideal as otherwise players will start to become frustrated with the stop-start nature of the drill. Players generally just want to “do it”, not talk about it.
Tell v Question
Whether communicating about concepts with players before, during or after a drill you typically have a choice between two distinct approaches – tell the players what the solution is versus questioning and making them come up with a solution (which may not be the same as yours!). The “tell” method is a traditional approach that originates from the dictatorial-style coach who likes to be seen as all-knowledgeable. This method is not as effective as the “questioning” approach but does have its place when time for feedback and instruction is limited and/or the playing groups game understanding is not yet at the level where they can “solve the problem” (if this was the case it is worth considering if the concept(s) being covered in the drill are too advanced for the playing group).
The “questioning” approach is almost always a great form of teaching, especially in the “coachable moment” as detailed above. I think there are two forms of questioning that you may use depending on how advanced your playing group is. One is the “guided-discovery” questioning which tends to lead the players thinking towards the solution. An example of this might be to ask – “johnny, we want to do x in that situation so what might have been a better option to achieve this?”. Immediately you are guiding Johnny by giving him the answer to what he should have been thinking. He then has to work out what the better option may have been. The other method, which requires a greater ability for players to critically reflect, is “open-ended” questioning. In this method you might ask – “Johnny, what did you think about that play in relation to how we want to move the ball?”.
Either method of questioning is useful for learning as players actually have to process information which makes for a learning experience that “sticks” better than using the tell method. The other thing that I have noticed is that when players answer incorrectly to the questioning they seem to learn better – somewhat counter-intuitive to what you may expect!
If you can master the areas of designing game-based drills, manipulating constraints in the drills and using the questioning methods at the appropriate moment, you will have created a fantastic on-field environment for players to learn.
Terminology (action words)
The use of terminology is important for both on and off-field communication with players. I will focus here on terminology as it applies to instruction and feedback during training. Terminology can be very powerful for quickly conveying detailed concepts with the use of very few words. This makes it useful for coaching “on the run” efficiently. I have been involved in a team where a single term actually described a complex ball movement pattern requiring decisions both on and off the ball. Terminology should ideally invoke strong visual representations of the action it is related to. It should also be “action” or “doing” words – for example “scan”, rather than “awareness”, might be a term to use with players when they are in defensive transition and have to identify positioning of opposition players. Terminology can be useful when coaching technique too and can avoid “paralysis by analysis”. An example of this might be to use the term “snowflake” when you want the ruckman to provide a tap that softly lands in-close, as opposed to going into the biomechanical elements of how this is achieved.
Letting players come up with terminology and have ownership is a great way for them to embrace it and use in their communication on the field. It is vital though that whoever decides on the terminology – players or coaches – that it is then used consistently across the playing and coaching group. Players will be confused, and hence restricted in their learning, if varying terminology is used to describe a certain action.
Technology – video and headsets
Technology has a lot to offer both on and off the field in terms of teaching. I thought it was worth mentioning just two applications of technology to assist feedback and instruction on the field.
Video is obviously a powerful teaching tool when used appropriately. Many individual sports like golf and swimming use video replay of technique immediately after a repetition to enhance feedback or even provide “feedforward” before the repetition. Team sports are more challenging and Australian Rules is no exception. However at the higher levels the video analysis software products are getting to the point where they can provide real-time replays within a matter of seconds. Coaches can be spread all across the field and have certain actions immediately “coded” so that they can be replayed immediately if necessary. These replays can be viewed on a laptop or even sent over a wireless network to an iphone – opening up a lot of possibilities for quickly showing video replays to players on the field. Video can be combined with the tell or questioning methods of instruction and, apart from using the “freeze” method mentioned earlier, is the best way to put players back “in the moment”. Often the video footage is taken from a high vantage point and can reveal off-ball movement and availability of space clearly to the player – helping in their conceptual understanding of “why” a certain action may or may not be appropriate. Still, the challenge with using video on the training field is the ability to do it quickly and efficiently when time is at a premium.
Another piece of technology that can be useful is communication systems that can be worn by the player, such as headsets. The coach can talk to the player through the headsets which is often clearer and more effective than trying to shout instructions to players across a field as large as Australian Rules. Again the ability to communicate this way should just compliment existing instruction and feedback techniques. They are ideal for questioning and prompting players as the play unfolds. For example if it was being worn by a midfielder and the ball goes into their forward line and they are out of the play, you may prompt by saying “what should you be setting up for next?”. Whilst they may not be able to communicate back depending on the system you use, you would hope their actions reflect setting up for defensive transition in anticipation of the opposition winning the ball. Be careful with using the communication system to directly “tell” players what they should do next as this is not developing their “game intelligence” and instead they will rely on you as a “crutch” to make decisions for them – something that is obviously not going to happen on match day!
We have covered four aspects of the teaching/learning environment as they relate to on the field – training drill design, training session design. progression/sequencing and instruction/feedback. Now lets have a look at some of the off-field methods that are almost as important and are a critical compliment to what happens on the field.
5. Learning Styles
Learning styles is a subject that could have a whole post devoted to it (and probably will at some stage). It is a concept that has attracted some interest in coaching ranks at AFL level in the past 5 years or so. In reality coaches have probably been using various techniques for many many years to cater for differences in learning styles. As a quick snapshot the model I work off was developed in New Zealand and is known as VARK – so called because it is an acronym for the 4 different learning styles defined by the model. These learning styles are Visual, Aural, Read(write) and Kinesthetic. A brief rundown:
- Visual – learn through diagrams, pictures, mind maps, information presented in charts
- Aural – like to listen and discuss concepts to learn them
- Read (write) – key points, bullet points, articles (like this one!) and books would be the preferred way of learning information. Many coaches exhibit this preference
- Kinesthetic – This is the most common for sports people. Like to physically do it. Walk throughs are an obvious one but also could use “real-world” scenarios such as video footage of the player or their team, and demonstrations. Team meetings where the coach verbally explains diagrams and bullet points are not likely to assist the kinesthetic learner
There are questionnaires that can be taken to identify your learning style. For more information on these and VARK in general click here
Some players will exhibit a strong learning preference in one of these areas which means they have a preference for learning through this means. It does not mean they can only learn through this method. Many players will also be classified as “multimodal” – meaning they learn equally well through 2 or more of these styles. Remember as a coach it is important to know your learning preference as well because this is likely the method you will use to teach new concepts – which may not match the learning preferences of the majority of your players.
In terms of the coaching application of learning styles the challenges are many. When dealing with a large squad of players it can be very hard to cater for each players learning style. If you were looking to introduce a new concept (say a zonal defensive system) the “perfect world” situation would involve 4 different learning stations for each of the 4 learning styles. Players would be allocated to the appropriate stations but also free to move to other stations as well. A coach would run each station and the teaching method would be based on the learning preference. For the Aural station it may be players just talk and discuss the concepts with the coach. The Visual station might have “x and o” diagrams. The Read/Write station could have the key principles of the system listed as bullet points and players may want to take notes. The Kinesthetic station would have walk throughs of the principles and video examples from games or trainings. To set this up requires a lot of coaching resources and time for planning and so would be difficult to do, even at AFL level.
A more practical approach to cater for learning styles in a large squad of players is to use the multimodal approach and hope that there is a bit of something for everyone. A diagram accompanied by a list of key points and a verbal explanation by the coach, then followed with a video example from a game would be the best way of doing this. If you can do this in an open space that might also allow for a walk through or physical demonstration would be even better. Common tendencies by coaches are too much talking and/or too many written points when teaching concepts or conveying information.
Another good resource with some simple tips on coaching to cater for learning styles can be found by clicking here
Electronic learning (or “e-learning” as it is known) has great potential as advances in technology are making it a more realistic option. It can be a great teaching tool to accompany on-field training and face to face meetings. First a definition of e-learning:
“The delivery of a learning, training or education program by electronic means. E-learning involves the use of a computer or electronic device (e.g. a mobile phone) in some way to provide training, educational or learning material.” (Derek Stockley 2003)
Some coaches reading this may be struggling to understand the value of e-learning to playing the game and how it could be applied so lets work through a few examples. One of the simplest e-learning uses cases is the publishing of your stoppage structures online. Many FREE options exist these days that can convert powerpoint files into a format that can be put online (and password protected). So simply whip up your stoppage structures in powerpoint (or get someone to do it for you) and then publish them online and send the url link via email or sms to your players. From then on players will be able to access and study the structures anywhere they have an internet connection. Many other team sports have custom “playbook” software that allows you to do this and more but with a bit of effort powerpoint can be adequate.
Now, something a bit more advanced for the second example. I am sure everyone has heard of, and most likely accessed, youtube at some stage. If you have digital video footage of your games or training you may try uploading a section of interest onto youtube and making it a private video if necessary. Send the players the internet link and ask them to analyze the video footage and enter in their observations into the comments section. Use these inputs as part of your next face to face meeting with players, either individually or collectively. This method has similarities and common benefits to the “questioning” method of on-field instruction mentioned earlier as it gets players to critically reflect.
The most advanced example I can give is to use specific e-learning software (check out Adobe Presenter or Articulate Quizmaker) to create online quiz questions that cover various aspects of your game plan. By hosting these on what is called a Learning Management System (LMS) it is possible to track players scores and the % of correct answers for certain questions. This can be great feedback for the player and you as a coach have objective information on which parts of your game plan may not be clearly understood by the playing group.
One of the great advantages of e-learning is that it is available “on demand” – this means players can access content for learning anytime they like and take as long as they like to absorb it. Contrast this to content delivered in a team meeting environment where the pace is dictated by the coach and the content is not available to access again once the meeting is over. When using quizzes in your online content it is also possible to make individual players accountable for what they have learnt – unlike a meeting in a large group where it is possible to “hide” as a player and not really understand the concepts that were taught.
7. Team Meetings
Team/area/small group meetings are another critical aspect to master in order to create a great teaching and learning environment. Throughout a week at most clubs there could be pre-training meetings, game review meetings, game style teaching meetings, opposition preview meetings and area meetings (ie forward/midfield/back). We have already touched on some things related to team meetings in terms of learning styles and also some of the advantages e-learning has over the team meeting environment. Now lets look at some other principles worth considering.
Length – ideally no more than 20 minutes in one hit or alternatively 10 minute “blocks”. This is probably the most abused principle by most coaches with some meeting lengths becoming stuff of folklore. Research has shown that after 10 minutes humans attention will tend to drop dramatically. Therefore every 10 minutes there needs to be a stimulus of some kind to recapture the attention. This could include changing seats, a humorous video or picture or a change in presenter.
Group size – the less players in the meeting the better. If you are using meetings in pre-season to teach new concepts consider splitting the squad up into groups of no more than 10 and having one of the coaching staff present in each of the groups or stagger them to be on at different times. If this is not possible look at having breakout groups where players go away to problem solve and then come back together as a whole group to report their solutions.
Video Feedback – video is a great teaching tool as we all know. The key with using video in a meeting is not to overload the players with too much of it. 7-8 clips is about the maximum and showing them in a structured order is best (ie ball movement clips then defensive clips then stoppage clips). It is also preferable to have a balance of clips which show examples of the players doing something correctly versus incorrectly. The natural tendency of coaches is too show more of the negative examples which over time can be draining on the playing group. A simple approach to avoid this is to keep track of the number of positive v negative clips you show in each meeting – it will become obvious if you are getting out of balance. Showing enough examples of executing a concept correctly builds players belief in the game style you are implementing whilst always understanding the need for improvement.
Interactivity & Engagement – get players involved as much as possible. Ask questions, pose scenarios – get them thinking and involved! As another example of technology in action it is possible for players to each have a response pad, similar to what audiences use in tv game shows. They can respond to questions (ie answer A,B,C or D) and the results can immediately be displayed in a graphical format on a powerpoint slide. This system is expensive but very effective in a team meeting environment. See video below for an example and visit keepad.com.
(start about 3:30 in for relevant demo)
Summarize – I think it is especially useful, at the end of a meeting, to ask a player to summarize the content of the meeting or the 3 key points he will take away. This is good reinforcement of the information covered in the meeting and gives the coach good feedback on how effective the meeting was. If you ask 3 or 4 players without getting an adequate summary or key points then you may need to consider how you delivered the information.
Repeat to remember – research has shown that the best way for information to “stick” in short term memory is to “repeat to remember” within 24-72 hours of delivering the information. Therefore if possible try to refer back to the content covered in the meeting within the following 1-3 days, either in another meeting or even on the training field where players can physically demonstrate their understandings.
We covered quite a bit in this article. We identified the evolving nature of our game in terms of systems, styles and strategies and how that has created the need for a quality teaching and learning environment. We then went through some of the on-field factors such as drill design, session design, progressions/sequencing and instruction/feedback. Following this were some of the latest developments in off-field learning such as learning styles, e-learning and team meeting principles.
I really hope that you can take at least one aspect out of all this and apply it in your coaching for the betterment of your players. Good luck!
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