A key to the design of effective learning environments is providing representative practice that facilitates couplings between key information sources and movements (Renshaw et al., 2010). By replicating performance environments during practice, learners can be encouraged to engage in exploratory behaviour and become attuned to key perceptual information sources (e.g., the cues and clues within opponents actions) available in specific performance environments (Beek, Jacobs, Daffertshoffer, & Huys, 2003). However, in attempts to control the myriad variables that underpin performance, coaches can be prone to over complicate training by for example de-composing tasks or designing activities that are not reflective of competition demands. So, what advice could we provide? One solution maybe to go back to the future to design quality practice sessions (Davids, 2000).
Representative Practice: The Battle Zone
The importance of Backyard Games has been discussed at length elsewhere as being a key factor in underpinning the development of expertise. Backyard games allowed young children to learn to play games in non-threatening environments, where failure when trying something new or unique did not lead to admonishment from angry adults. In this article I argue that coaches can re-create the intensity of backyard games in training by adopting a constraint-led approach to the design of practice tasks. This enables coaches to maintain the representativeness of practice tasks and at the same time create high levels of intensity and engagement in the practice sessions because the outcome is meaningful to the players. For many teachers and coaches the efficacy of using games to enhance performance is obvious and is reflected in the growth of interest in pedagogical approaches such as Teaching Games for Understanding, Games Sense and the Constraint-led approach (Bunker & Thorpe, 1982; Chow, Davids, Button, Renshaw, Shuttleworth, & Uehara, 2009). However, as Rod Thorpe the founder of TGfU highlights “it’s not just playing games”. As such, coaches manipulate constraints in games to meet their desired goals. For many coaches replicating the structure of games is straightforward, but a major challenge is often creating the same levels of intensity as found in competition. Recently a game centred approach was introduced at the Cricket Australia/AIS Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, Australia under the guidance of head Coach, Greg Chappell. Traditionally, playing games has not been a key feature in practice sessions with most coaching being based on ‘net practice’. The initial task therefore was to find a way to create games that required players to function at high levels of intensity. An initial candidate for consideration was centre wicket practice. However, previous experiences of coaches suggested that this approach was limited with fielders dis-engaged from the bat-ball ‘competition’. After a brainstorming session, the idea of putting a low ‘net’ on the 30 m circle was suggested as it meant that all players would be to be constantly challenged and engaged emotionally, mentally, technically and physically in the practice games. We therefore christened the practice area the “Battle Zone”. A name that reflects that this strategy is much a concept as it is a physical space. In the Battle Zone game design is based on adopting all the principles of the constraint-led approach which form the basis of Non-Linear Pedagogy (Renshaw, et al., 2010b) with coaches manipulating constraints to facilitate the opportunity for the player to explore new ways of solving game related problems (Renshaw & Chappell, 2010). For example, more runs can be awarded for hitting or bowling balls into specific zones, different makes of balls can be used, or balls with specific characteristics such as different colours or seams can be used to help batters easier identify ball types such as googlies or legspiiners. Game scenarios can be developed, or different equipment used (e.g., bat width manipulations). A final point about the advantages of the Battle Zone is that performance assessment provides highly functional and relevant performance data on which to plan development programmes. Finally, the Battle Zone shifts control of learning and skill development back to the players, allowing them autonomy and enhances their feelings of competence as it enables them to gain vital experiences that are representative of real match conditions.
In providing games that enhance the development of young (and mature) players, cricket can perhaps learn from other sports. For example, some sports have been lucky (or astute?) enough to design games that capture the intensity required to push athletes oout of their cmfort zones to develop their performance. In Brazil, Futebol-de-salao (Futsal) serves this function. A game originally played in the dance halls which required use of a small heavy ball (for safety), Futsal, is a high intensity 5 v 5 game played on a small court. Players have a high number of touches and have to develop fast footwork and intricate ball skills to be successful. Many of Brazil’s great players initially learned their skills through Futsal and the some believe that it is one of the key reason behind the success of the Brazilian football team (Gladwell, 2008; Syed 2010).
In other sports, coachers use their own creativity. Coaches use many strategies to push players beyond their current boundaries as world-class performance comes by striving for a target that is just out of reach with top performers attempting to stretch their limitations in every session (Syed, 2010). For example, racket sports coaches use multi-feeds to force players to perceive and move faster, gymnastic coaches use innovative supports to help young performers to build the technique and strength required to do movements such as two-legged circles on the pommel horse (Renshaw, Davids, Shuttleworth & Chow, 2009) ) and ‘inverting; in pole vaulting (Paish, 1981).
The concept is captured in the story of John Amaechi, the former NBA centre. Amaechi reports that when he arrived at Penn State University he was far and away the best player on the team. Consequently, in order to challenge him, his coach recruited a ‘walk-on’ who only came on court to ‘double-team’ him when his team were on attack. As a result, Amaechi was forced to develop his game:
“I had to create time and space that scarcely seemed to exist. It pushed me past my limits, forcing me to think faster, sharper, deeper and with far greater creativity. In turn, my limits just kept expanding (Syed, 2010, p.83)”
These comments capture the idea that good coaches design practice for developing experts to force them to the edge of stability to create higher levels of performance. Allowing participants opportunities to work out solutions themselves supports the idea that movements are self-organised under constraints. Individuals who are given the opportunity to explore task problems via approaches such as discovery learning will learn to exploit the interacting individual, environmental and task constraints to find their own optimal solutions. Providing performers with multiple opportunities to explore and work out problems for themselves is in line with Bernstein’s (1967) definition of practice as ‘repetition without repetition’. Creating variability in practice is essential to the learners’ discovery processes and produces flexible and adaptable performers who invent novel adaptations to solve typical motor problems.
Chow, J., Davids, K., Button, C., Renshaw, I., Shuttleworth, R., & Uehara, L. (2009). Nonlinear Pedagogy: Implications for teaching games for understanding (TGfU). In T. Hopper, J. Butler & B. Storey (Eds.), TGfU…Simply Good Pedagogy: Understanding a Complex Challenge (pp. 131-143). Ottawa Physical Health Education Association (Canada).
Phillips, E., Davids, K., Renshaw, I., & Portus, M. (2010). Expert performance in sport and the dynamics of talent development. Sports Medicine, 40(3), 1-13.
Renshaw, I., Davids, K., Chow, J., & Shuttleworth, R. (2009). Insights from Ecological Psychology and Dynamical Systems Theory Can Underpin a Philosophy of Coaching. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 40, 580-602.
Renshaw, I., & Chappell, G. S. (2010). A Constraints-led Approach to Talent Development in Cricket. In L. Kidman & B. Lombardo (Eds.), Athlete-Centred Coaching: Developing Decision Makers (2nd ed., pp. 151-173). Worcester: IPC Print Resources.