Teaching games for understanding

Children playing games
Author:  Shane Pill, Flinders University School of Education and President, SA Branch, Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation
Issue: Volume 29 Number 2

Sports have traditionally been taught using the skill and drill or progressive part method. Sports are broken down into their component skills and these are then taught. This technical approach, developed after World War 2, taught the skills isolated from the game and then the skills and the game are put back together.

This method assumes there is only one right way to perform a skill, but we know from observation of elite sportspeople that frequently they don’t kick the ball or swing the racquet like the ideal model. Successful sport athletes often do not have perfect stylized technique, frequently having individual technique differences and successful unorthodoxies. The other problem with this technical approach is that the thinking and problem solving aspects required for successful game performance are not central to the initial learning as the technical requirements are isolated from the game in skill drills.

This traditional technical approach begins with the question, “How is this skill performed?” and then focuses on teaching the skills of the game before putting the skills into practice. It conditions participants to attention technique during activity and not the joy of being active. It emphasizes correction of movement patterns rather than enhancement and, for many beginners, the most important thing they learn is that they cannot perform the complex skills necessary to be successful. The reality is that the majority of children wish to play and have fun, and so coaching with excessive emphasis on the technical requirements of the game tends to lessen motivation and enjoyment.

An alternative approach: learning through enquiry - guided discovery

The Game Sense approach is one method which develops the broader meanings of sport and physical activity as it focuses on developing thinking through problem solving using physical activity. The Game Sense approach is a variation of Bunker and Thorpe’s Teaching Games for Understanding model. The Game Sense approach became prominent in Australia following a visit by Rod Thorpe to Australia in 1996. The focus of the Game Sense approach being to place the participant in situations where decision making and problem solving are central to successful performance. The central strategy for teaching/coaching using the Game Sense approach is the use of questioning to stimulate thinking about the game instead of using more direct teaching/coaching approaches. Games are stopped at regular intervals and participants challenged to reflect on their participation in order to mature the play.

The Teaching Games for Understanding approach to the teaching of sport/physical activity is a holistic model because it focuses attention on the individual and not with the sub set of activity specific skills for the activity in focus. Learning the skills of the game are placed in the broader context of the game itself. The nature of the game is taught first, and the skills are added at a pace manageable by the participants. By doing this, the thinking and problem solving aspects of the game are taught in tandem with the skills. The result is a participant who is skilled in the broader sense of understanding the game rather than simply being skilful at the game.

The Teaching Games for Understanding approach is a method that can be used with all ages, from beginners to elite. By manipulating time, risk and space elements of performance with questions to make participants think through the various aspects of performance, a rich understanding of the game is developed.

Instead of “How is this skill performed?” Teaching Games for Understanding begins with a different style of question: “Why are we doing this? and “How can we do it better?” The Teaching Games for Understanding approach is a holistic model where learning the skills of the game are placed in the broader context of the game itself. By manipulating time, risk and space elements of performance, combined with the use of key questions, participants think through various aspects of performance. A rich understanding of the game and the person as a player within the game is developed. Teaching Games for Understanding shifts thinking away from an assumption that once the skills have been taught a person can play the game. It turns traditional coaching for beginners “upside down” as it begins with the game, and not the skills of the game.

Teaching Games for Understanding in action

Below is an example of how to introduce a sport to beginners by reducing the technical requirements of the game through the use of the Teaching Games for Understanding inquiry approach.

Session 1: volleyball modified game - rules
  • Underarm throw over the net to begin
  • Catch the ball above the head.
  • Pass with a two handed overhead throw to a team member.
  • Third pass must go over the net.
  • Loss of point if the ball hits the ground on your side of the court, ball goes over before third pass, third pass goes into net the net and lands on your side of the court or the ball lands out of court.
  • Rotation and volleyball scoring applies
Examples of key guestions guiding the inquiry approach
  • What is the purpose of the game?
  • What are the advantages to your team from using all three passes allowed?
  • What do you have to do with your body in order to catch the ball above your head?
Possible game progression: new rule
  • Third pass must be from one of the front court players  or, add bonus points if the attack (third pass) is from the front court and it wins the rally.

After the game has progressed, further examples of key questions guiding the enquiry approach could include:

  • From where on the court is it most difficult to return the ball?
  • Where is the best place to serve the ball?
  • Where is the best place to target the third pass over the net?
Possible game progressions
  • Do not allow players to move their feet once they catch the ball
  • Reduce the time allowed to hold the ball before a pass is made
  • Allow the third pass to be a self set spike
  • After the first catch, all passes must be a self set
  • After the first catch and self set, the next two passes must be sets or a self set spike
  • Eliminate the self set for the spike, the spike must occur from a set
  • Introduce the forearm pass; bonus points if the serve reception is a forearm pass
  • Introduce the serve; bonus points for a deep serve to the back court
  • Introduce the block; bonus points for winning a rally from a block

The successful implementation of the Teaching Games for Understanding model revolves around the use of key questions to guide the conceptual, strategic and tactical requirements of the game, combined with game modifications that allow players to learn the game without having to excessively attention technique. When sport specific skill acquisition occurs, players understand the significance of the skills within the game because they understand the game first. This is the key to the Teaching Games for Understanding inquiry approach.

When teaching skills, the contextual nature of the skill is not lost in a series of drills from a textbook because the game has first been introduced in a modified, skill and age appropriate way. The skill learning is occurring through guided discovery in a fun way. When individuals need skill attention to enhance performance or correct a technique likely to lead to injury, the coach can remove players from the game being played and attention the individual without the whole group needing to stop.

An openness to experimenting with ideas and a flexible approach towards planning so that guided discovery through inquiry can occur are needed for the Teaching Games for Understanding approach. Use small sided games to maximise participation and to construct the environment for the game understanding that you wish to develop. Most importantly, move your thinking from the skills of the game to thinking about the nature of the game and the understanding of the game to be developed through a
game-question-reflect-practise if appropriate-game cycle (as opposed to the traditional: practise -instruct-practise-culminating game cycle]

The Teaching Games for Understanding approach will challenge the way you think about coaching sport. It will challenge you to match content with context, to coach with meaning through reflective practice, and to coach players to think, analyse and problem solve. It will lead you away from a didactic and direct technical skill and drill approach to instruction with a guided discovery and enquiry approach.


The Australian Sports Commission has a number of resources available that can assist coaches in applying a Game Sense approach to their coaching.  These include:
- Playing for Life Resource Kit, including DVD RRP $109
- Additional copies of Playing for Life DVD RRP $10
Both are available from ASC Publishing at http://www.ausport.gov.au/participating/aasc/resources 

A small selection of the Playing for Life Activity Cards are available to download for free at http://www.ausport.gov.au/participating/coaches/tools/activity_cards


Den Duyn, N 1997 'Game Sense, It’s time to play', Sports Coach, 19(4), pp9-11

Den Duyn, N 1997 Game Sense - Developing Thinking Players Workbook, Australian Sports Commission, Canberra.

Den Duyn, N 1996 'Why it makes sense to play games', Sports Coach, 19(3), pp6-9

Griffin, L. Mitchell, S. & Oslin, J 1997 Teaching Sport Concepts and Skills: A tactical games approach. Human Kinetics, Illinois.

Thomas, K 1997 We love games, but when do we teach technique? Sports Coach, 20(2), pp4-5