Game Sense Can Be Taught!
Posted by Dean Holden at October 6th, 2012
Dean Holden, M.Ed (Coaching), Chartered Professional Coach
“Game Sense training is an athlete-centred methodology which focuses on developing players’ skill and tactical awareness through game-related practice, critical thinking exercises, and periodic questioning which challenges their understanding and awareness of the game.”
Since hockey is a continuous, dynamic invasion game, it is imperative that players develop their ‘Hockey IQ’ to better enable them to read and react to the ever-changing circumstances. It is extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, to acquire such knowledge while performing technical drills within a closed, patterned training environment common to traditional practices. Hockey drills are useful for those who are still acquiring skills or who want to fine-tune them, but in order to best prepare players to be tactically and strategically aware, they must play in game-like situations. The decisions they make, rightly or wrongly, will provide immediate, ongoing feedback to the player. While on offence, they want to either carry the puck or support the puck carrier to create scoring chances (and ultimately, score goals); while on defence, they either want to check the puck carrier or support the first checker, to prevent scoring chances against while trying to regain puck possession.
Establish the Competitive Culture
It may sound like a silly question, but “Why do we practice?” To see our players ‘perfectly’ execute a drill pattern without pressure or with token pressure? Or do we prepare to compete at game speed and intensity, under pressure and game unpredictability, with the scoreboard on and the clock ticking down, with playing rules enforced and ultimately, a ‘win’ or a ‘loss’ at the end of the time? Very few practices have athletes organized in two (or more) colours/teams competing against each other, with consequences, in such a realistic manner. Ask yourself if you are truly preparing your athletes for competition… or merely choreographing a pretty pattern that won’t have much positive carry-over effect in a ‘real’ game?
The ‘Game Sense’ methodology provides an environment that will foster these basic skills (skating, puck control, passing and receiving, shooting, checking) and decision-making abilities, equip players with a greater potential for success, and provide a more rewarding and enjoyable experience. In short, it lets the kids ‘play’ the game and learn while having fun!
Training Hockey Sense in Practice
The ‘Game Sense’ philosophy provides opportunities for players to become more educated and more tactically aware, while learning how important basic skill execution is in relation to their sport and their own performance. This helps reinforce one’s internal motivation to get better; which is the strongest form of motivation.
Skill technique is extremely important and needs to be learned while playing ‘heads up’. Aside from avoiding checking pressure, this allows the athlete to ‘see’ the playing surface and helps decision-making. Traditional ‘skills-only’ training (typically performed in isolation from the game) does not take into account factors that affect skill execution such as: speed/pace of the game, pressure (time and space and score board), intensity, unpredictability, fatigue, etc. ‘Game Sense’ provides a realistic environment where players are able to practice and improve their skills under game-like conditions.
Players have a far better chance of making good decisions and displaying good skills in a game if they have previously practiced them in a similar environment. The lessons learned in implicit games stay with players longer and are less likely to be affected by pressure/fatigue in games. Research by the U.S. Olympic Committee claims that athletes who receive quality coaching in ‘field sense’ can have the potential for improvement up to 30%!
How Best to Construct the Ideal Training Session
At the junior category (age 16-20), it is stated that 1 v 1’s typically occur 45% of the time; 2 v 1’s – 35%; 2 v 2 and 1 v 2’s – 10%… which totals 90% of all hockey situations! At younger levels, the 1 v 1’s become even more prevalent and therefore important. So knowing how often these situations occur in games, wouldn’t it make sense to practice these situations proportionally… and under conditions similar to those found in a game? Bottom line: for hockey, the majority of play comes down to winning the most 1 v 1’s to 2 v 2’s. Almost half of the game is 1 v 1! Think about how many individual skills, tactics, and team tactics can be captured within these combinations! Pretty much all of them!
True ‘Game Sense’ activities need to be played in confined space with specific parameters and limited participants. It is suggested that the teams be comprised of 3 or less. This is to ensure that all players are given the chance to participate and therefore improve. The time spent on these activities should mirror the times above; it is up to the coach to adjust based on the age and overall skill level.
Activities and games must be played with a clearly defined purpose. Identify which principle(s) of play (offense or defense), individual or team tactic(s), or skills which you want to improve. Coaches can manipulate the parameters (time, space, risk and/or execution elements, number of players, rules, etc.) to focus on these specifics. The key is that the coach becomes the facilitator: once the situation has been created, the coach ‘shuts up’ to let the players solve the problems and make the decisions. A coach’s role is to assist players in solving tactical problems, rather than solving the problems for them. As new skills are attempted, or need refining, it is here that questioning and skill instruction can take place.
The Questioning Technique
To produce intelligent, independent athletes, it is vital that the coach employ good questioning techniques. ‘Game Sense’ activities/games provide an excellent opportunity for the athletes to gain immediate meaningful feedback based on their own tactical decisions / skill executions and the outcome. The athletes need to learn from their failures and successes as implicit learning has proven to be the most enduring. The coach must move away from immediate, direct and all-encompassing feedback – the ‘play by play’ coach – and towards the delayed, bandwidth, questioning feedback coach. Let the game be the best teacher of the game!
Open-ended questions should be used in this approach. This promotes thinking among the players and this will also result in more effective long-term learning. Some examples of appropriate questions are: 1. Time – when should you have done A, B or C? How long do you have to do each? 2. Space (in possession) – how and where do you create space? How do you deny space (not in possession)? 3. Risk – which option was best? Why? Does the score and time of game affect your decision? 4. Execution – how should you have attempted that fake, pass or shot? What was the best technique for that situation?
Coaching Today’s Athlete
Remember that today’s athletes have had a completely different educational experience than that of many coaches. They have been educated in an environment where many things are negotiated, discussed and left to them to make choices. They are encouraged to experiment and it is explained to them that mistakes will certainly occur and that is fine – provided they learn something from them.
The best athletes try and play multiple sports for many years and don’t specialize until their sport calls for it. (Hockey is considered a late-specialization sport.) With ‘decision-making’ and ‘execution of skills under pressure’ at the top of every hockey recruiters’ checklist, it is vital that all young players be given exposure to a variety of sports as per the Canadian LTAD: http://www.canadiansportforlife.ca/