Games-based learning for optimal athlete development

Across the past decade or so, we’ve seen a massive shift in youth athlete development toward a games-based, game-realistic approach to training. If I die on one coaching hill, it would be within my proclamation that this is the most optimal way for training athletes toward what practice is generally for – the game itself.

A games-based approach positions athletes in the exact circumstances they will face on a matchday. This brings experience in making decisions under pressure, an increased sense of 1v1 decision making within the context of the entire team, and simulates the movement patterns that players are likely to perform on and off-the-ball in any given match.

I apply this to any sport, and any context in which I work with people. You need to train for the specific demands of what you are training for. That might be an exam you have to write. It might be a presentation you have to give to an audience. That might even be a goal or future aspiration you are working toward. The best way to get there is by replicating the exact demands as closely and as safely as possible.

When I’m working with endurance athletes, the same lessons apply. We want to train athletes to simulate the demands of their specific race. If for example you’re racing in a mountain, it does not make sense to train on flat roads. Instead, you’d want to train in a mountain. If you don’t have access to a mountain, you’d want to find other ways in which you can replicate the demands that your body will face on race day, such as accumulating as much elevation gain per kilometre as possible (i.e. taking advantage of whatever hills or slopes you can find in your area).

You want to train on technical terrain, repeatedly have your body go through the blows of what downhill running feels like at a fast speed, and practice what it feels like to both run and hike up that mountain.

I recently heard a great quote from an endurance podcast, that was essentially this:

“If you want to learn Spanish, you wouldn’t go about that by learning more English.”

The quote was speaking more to the power of specializing in one specific realm at a time, but I think it’s also a great representation of the power of a games-based approach to athlete learning.

If we want players to excel in the overall sport of soccer, we wouldn’t have them waste time practicing corner kick routines for an entire hour of practice, especially not without linking that to a game-realistic activity resembling what happens before and after the corner kick.

Let’s take that mountain running example, where the athlete does not have access to a mountain, and apply it to an invasion sport like soccer. Chances are, you don’t have access to a full-sized pitch to train on, or the capability to do an 11v11 match in practice every single time you train. No problem! All you need to do is set up small-sided games in whatever playing area you have available to you, and allow players to replicate the moments that they will see on a matchday within those small-sided games. This can be specific to a topic (or objectives) that you have in mind for that session, or simply letting the players discover learnings as they go about the game on their own.

In fact, while the occasional 11v11 game is useful in giving players a sense of how they should position themselves in relation to their teammates, it’s not as conducive to optimal learning as small-sided games. Small-sided games allow for more 1v1 decisions, a quicker speed at which those decisions must be made, more goals, and therefore, across the board – often more fun.

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Full-sized games have their advantages, such as allowing players to focus on team shape and more complex tactical situations. But uninvolved players can more easily switch their brains off, until the moment where they absolutely have to become involved. There is never a moment where a player even has the ability to switch off their mind in a small-sided game. The game simply moves at too fast a speed.

Bringing it back over to the context of an endurance sport, we train athletes the same way. You don’t actually want to replicate the exact, precise demands of your race day too many times in the build-up to that race. For one, it’s dangerous to put that demand on the body so many times. For another, you can often achieve greater endurance and mechanical boosts by doing shorter bouts of what your race entails (such as strides, hill strides, tempo runs, etc.). If you are able to check all the boxes in your training and link those training sessions together, you are then fully prepared to do the mountainous race, without ever even having to do the full shebang in training.

Nevertheless, if it came down to a choice between playing an 11v11 match OR implementing activities that have no specificity toward the match itself, I would always advise to pick the first option.

The problem that most coaches have when implementing their own training activities, is that they fail to make that training specific enough to the context of the game. There’s often…

-> Players waiting in lines or standing around.
-> Passing patterns that will likely never happen in the game.
-> Elimination games where players are actively forced to sit out.
-> Activities that don’t even incorporate the ball.

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The same coaches will then lament how their players don’t communicate, can’t play under pressure, or lack certain technical skills. What they don’t realize is that their players only lack those skills because they have not been put in the right environments to practice and develop them. If you want your players to be better playing under pressure, you need to maximize their ability to do so in training through putting them in the game-realistic pressures they face.

You might notice a common trend among the arrows above. None of them maximize fun or participation for players, and they don’t even maximize learning toward what players are training for beyond the ability to have fun and participate in organized sports.

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As a coach, you should always be reminding yourself – what are we training for? That answer will likely be a combination of fun, participation in sports, and to develop learning opportunities for the game. You should then be thinking about – how can I maximize fun and participation for my players, while working within the context of the game?

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The best way to do this is by playing games. If you’re not going to play the exact 7v7 or 5v5 game, the next best way to do that is by introducing games-based challenges that can encourage more out of the technical, tactical, physical or psychological demands of the game than that 7v7 or 5v5 game would have allowed. For example, you introduce a scoring method where players are actively forced to work on their movement off the ball into a square, rewarding them for the behaviour you’re trying to bring out.

Ask any player at the end of a session what activity they enjoyed the most. Chances are, they will say the game. This is backed up by 99.9% of students who have taken my Coaching & Leadership course, which allows students to play sports for two hours in sessions led by their peers. Whenever we dissect where they had the most fun, it’s either in the game, or a game-based competition that amplified the adrenaline (what a game against an opponent will always naturally do!).

Non-specific training activities can be fun too. Professional environments often love to throw in a game of head tennis, tag, or tic-tac-toe for their players. I’ve done handball with my soccer teams. I’ve even done this activity that players love called ‘Anything But Your Hands’, that requires players to wait in a short line for their turn.

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The difference is that these activities work best as team bonding exercises. They are meant to prioritize the social corner, rather than the other four, and can often be used to warm-up or cool-down the muscles. That’s why if integrated into the actual session itself, I would only do them in warm-ups or cool-downs. Even then, I’d go as far as to say they work best as arrival activities, or as ‘after the session is over’ activities. That’s because optimal warm-ups and cool-downs still have some direct link to the rest of the session, and often incorporate the game-realistic elements, such as a ball, opposition, and teammates.

The main part of the session should be dedicated toward giving players as much time replicating game environments as possible. All the literature and research that’s out there will point to how this is the best approach for cognitive learning development, decision making, game understanding, and tactical IQ. But beyond that, it’s the most fun way for players to train.

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So now if you’re training on your own, or coaching athletes in 1-on-1 sessions, you might think that this games-based approach is impossible. It’s not! The same lessons need to be applied. You cannot re-create the specific demands of an 11v11 or 7v7 match. So instead, you need to re-create the demands or the pressures of performing in that match. You need to increase their need to scan for BOTS through use of things like colours, numbers and targets; often-times while multi-tasking. You need to use yourself as a teammate or coach that they are working alongside.

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Take the athlete training for the mountainous race. In their training environments, they might not have any opponents to practice the demands of what it would be like on race day. That’s often a great thing when it comes to not over-training. But you can still use the power of mental imagery and visualization. You can imagine yourself racing another athlete you know you’re going to face on race day, up the steepest climb of the mountain. You can give yourself targets and goals to hit in different sections of the training run that are applicable to race day (even as small as not having any negative thoughts or actively taking it easier on a downhill so that you can go harder on an uphill).

This is exactly what I would do for a player in a 1-on-1 environment. I would encourage them to visualize what it’s like going up against an opponent they despise, or to tell them to imagine me being that opponent, and then put them in game-realistic activities that encourage them to use their technical, tactical, physical and psychological savviness to beat me. If I didn’t have the physical requirements to keep up with the player, I would find some other way to amplify the pressure for that opponent, such as requiring them to multi-task, scan for multiple items before making an on-the-ball action, or even introduce a stationary object that can work as a defender in their way.

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1-on-1 sessions can be a great way to prioritize the specific needs of a specific player, particularly when it comes to building technical skills and techniques in a comfortable learning environment. But you can incorporate more into those sessions by integrating a defender (of some sort), and the need to scan for various elements on the field (just like they would in the game!). Even individualized training, even at home-training, can become game-realistic.

I’ll leave you with this final note. The best session that I’ve ever seen done in my Coaching course at Western was a sport that 99% of the participants had never played. The coaches called it “Silly Ball”, and as the name suggests, it was straight up silly. This had the potential to be a disaster.

But the magic in the session came from maximizing game-time. They wasted very little time explaining the specific rules or even the technical skills of how to excel in “silly ball”. Instead, they let the players play, and discover how to excel for themselves. Their warm-up included defenders in a game-realistic sense, and then they shifted into small-sided games, before larger group games. Almost the entire class participated on the fun (rather than choosing to observe), and most of the students in the class would likely say it was the most fun they’d had playing a sport in class. Why? Because it focused on a games-based learning approach, providing a novel and unique experience for participants.

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Coaches can do this in any training environment they create. There’s always rewards or intricate tweaks you can incorporate into a games-based learning model that increase challenge and amplify fun. There are always ways to make those games new experiences for players that are still specific to the demands of the game. There are even a countless number of ways to incorporate specific objectives and learning outcomes for players, without reducing them to stationary positions where they’re focusing on technical skill development. A games-based learning model is the most optimal way to train young athletes, and needs to be the priority for coaches as they build their sessions.


I am currently accepting new clients in my coaching & mentorship program. I work with coaches and players from around the world! If you’re interested in learning more about my site or experiencing my coaching, feel free to reach out! đź‘Šâš˝

rhys desmond – founder of themastermindsite

Across the past decade, I have worked with thousands of players and coaches across multiple sports and disciplines. I recognize the value of diving deeper beyond the first glance, and uncovering the deeper-lying ways to enhance performance. I make a commitment toward positive reinforcement, research-backed insights, and making the experience fun for those that work with me.

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