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Understanding the game in new terms

The previous blog argued that dance is a way of moving that has been looked at through a limited viewfinder. It has been pigeon-holed as ‘being’ for a certain type of person. If you dance, therefore, you must be a certain type of person. The very act of being a dancer positions you (in the eyes of many including the reluctant male dancer) as being effeminate and almost certainly homosexual. It concluded by suggesting that we need to overcome our own sense of ‘who we are’ and imagine ways for all of us to “move in other ways” – ways that don’t predict who we are.

This week’s blog looks beyond the apparent importance of techniques in physical education and club sports and argues that, as practitioners, we need a fuller understanding of what makes up a game. We need to understand the interplay of competition and cooperation and the interactions that occur between teams, groups of players, and individual players (often simultaneously) and how these, and not just skills, influence how students learn about games and gameplay.


Volume 4: The curriculum and the subject matter of physical education

Paper 80:

Gréhaigne, J-F., Godbout, P., & Bouthier, D. (1999/2012). The foundations of tactics and strategies. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume IV. (pp. 159-177) London: Routledge.


My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

As a teacher, one of the messages that always seemed to emerge from my reading about games was that the traditional “skills and drills” approach didn’t work. However, while alternatives were presented I often felt that the papers, books, and/or articles were not always very approachable.

Let me explain.

One of the things I set out to achieve when writing this blog was that it was approachable. In other words practitioners would feel comfortable coming back again and again in order to engage, with me and each other, in a debate of ideas. This often meant that I needed to watch my P’s and Qs. Academics, as you may know or feel, have a tendency to use one long and complicated word when two short and every day words would be suffice. It is something I consciously try to avoid in this blog (although Vicky still has to pick me up on it too frequently).  Yet it was this unapproachability that confused me a little as a teacher when trying to read research and, perhaps, slowed my development of a ‘better’ way of teaching invasion games.

This ‘better’ way came through my reading, some 9 or 10 years ago, of Gréhaigne and colleagues book (not this paper). Fundamentally, and to cut a long story short, this book allowed me to clearly understand and then be able to use (in various invasion games) three questions to enhance my students understanding of the game and gameplay.

The first question was “can I score?” - not can I shoot, but can I score.  If the answer to this question was ‘yes’ then the student should try to score. However, at any time during the scoring attempt their ‘yes’ answer could change to ‘no’ and as soon as the answer was ‘no’ then they moved to question two.

“Can I pass to somebody else who’s in a better position to score?” – again, if the answer to that question was ‘yes’ then they should make the pass.  Again, however, if the answers was ‘no’ or changed to ‘no’ then they needed to move to question three 

“Can I move to a better position to either score or pass?” This might involve pivoting to create space to pass, faking to create space to score, or running half the length of the pitch to score or create a passing opportunity. As soon as the movement was taken then the student returned to question one and continued to ask themselves these questions: “can I score?”, “can I pass?”, and “can I move?” The key then became that the students kept asking themselves that series of questions as they played.

In this way invasion games were broken down into both manageable and transferable elements. To me this is one of the key things that we miss (according to the research) in our teaching of games. However, while much research is ‘talking’ about these ideas and promoting an understanding approach (over “skills and drills”) it is not always translated into practical and implementable forms for us to all use. Therefore, this space, PEPRN, provides an opportunity for us to share practice and research. With this week’s blog focussed on game play I ask you to share the questions, practices or strategies you use to help students understand games and gameplay, for the betterment of all of our practices.  Or I ask you to translate something you have read so that we could all use it in our classrooms.


The Paper 

Given the significance of games it is not hard to understand the continued interest in how they taught and consequently how and what students learn about games. However, Gréhaigne and colleagues argue that the dominant approach continues to place importance on acquiring the technical competence felt necessary to play the game (whatever that might be). The authors write “in drill contexts, the mastery of a series of motor skills (techniques) [is] seen as fundamental for the practice of the activity.”  But in this paper the authors focus on “the nature and various aspects of opposition and cooperation in games and sports.”

Fundamentally Gréhaigne and colleagues suggest that it is important to a) understand the similarities and differences between competition between teams and cooperation within teams, and b) the difference between tactics and strategies, which they argue are often used interchangeably and without real consideration of what they mean.

Gréhaigne and colleagues argue that there is an internal logic to invasion games; a logic that positions four notions as essential to gameplay:  opposition to opponents, cooperation with partners, attack on the opponents ‘camp’, and defence of one’s own camp. Put more broadly they argue that games can be considered at two organisational levels - the match and the team. In presenting these two ideas Gréhaigne and colleagues introduced two new concepts ‘the rapport of strength’ (which occurs at the level of the match) and ‘the competency network’ (which occurs at the level of the team). 

The rapport of strength refers to the oppositional links that exist between several players or groups of players – for example the front rows in rugby or the goal attack and goal defence in netball.  The rules of the game, in this way, “impose on both teams an organisation where location, movement, and replacement (the chance of a player being replace, for example, after one has been overcome)” need to be considered whether in attack or defence.  These rules place enablers and constraints on teams, groups of players, and individual players and determine what might happen in a given situation.  For example, in a scrum the rapport of strength is initially decided by the two front rows and then by the two packs of forwards working through their respective front rows. There are limits to what can and cannot happen but nearly half the team, i.e. the backs, play no part in this aspect of the game. Opposing packs work, throughout the game, to ascertain the respective strengths and weaknesses of their opposition and use this knowledge to limit their effectiveness.

Gréhaigne and colleagues argue that the competency network “refers to the students in game related conducts and behaviours” and the role they adopt or are afforded in the game. This role (self awarded or given by teachers and/or peers) influences what the student thinks he or she ought to do and how he or she chooses to work in and for the team. In some instances this means doing more and in others doing less. Gréhaigne and colleagues argue that “cooperation in team sports, as in other aspects of life, goes far beyond simple goodwill and an easy-going way of looking at sport. For the competency network to be at its peak, there is a need for both efforts and restraints on the part of many players, if not all of them.”

With regards to tactics and strategies Gréhaigne and colleagues believe that “if teachers are to encourage critical thinking on the part of their students during the teaching of games and sports they should use clearly delineated concepts so that students know exactly what they are talking about and vice versa.”  The terms tactics and strategies come from “war vocabulary” and relate to different things.  The tactician “conducts the battle, the operation in sight, adapting the action, combining manoeuvres, deciding on the engagement of the different means of combat.”  In games terms this is what happens in the moment, in the here and nowness of the match, it is what happens at the level of the team. In contrast the strategist “determines the whole act of war and [sets a] goal corresponding to the object of war.”  In other words he or she considers the resources of both teams, considers beforehand where the various rapports of strength may favour his or her team and lays down the pre-game plan.  In simple terms this occurs at the level of the match.

In considering games as both areas of competition and cooperation, and at both the level of the team and the level of the match, we begin to look beyond a crude notion of games as a series of techniques to be mastered. Instead we see them more as ever-changing worlds where competency and strength walk hand-in-hand.

What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor and Routledge (part of the Taylor and Francis group) for donating a copy of the Physical Education: Major themes in education series. Their respective help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.




Andy Vasily
About me
On Saturday 09 August at 06:42 Andy Vasily said
I've got to come at if from a completely different viewpoint for a couple of reasons here. Firstly, I teach elementary school PE. I look at what is essential for these young kids to know and understand as they move forward through my program. Secondly, my teaching obviously aligns with my own pedagogical philosophy on what is best for students. Gréhaigne's paper is obviously geared toward older students not those in elementary. Your 3 questions Ash, 'Can I score?", "Can I pass to somebody in a better position?" and "Can I move to a better position to either score or pass?" are questions that I could explore with younger kids for sure. Using questions such as this in small sided modified invasion games can definitely help to prompt our students' thinking. Regardless of unit, we must always break down our teaching and the learning of our students into manageable and transferable elements. This too I agree with. The main question that I have is what exactly is important for students to be able to know and do in PE as the grow older? I don't believe that it's going to be an in depth knowledge of the skills and concepts important in units such as invasion games that will create a lasting impact on our students' lives. I'm not sure of the exact statistic but I recall reading that something like only 5% of people over the age of 25 play team sport to help them stay active and continue to compete. I'm not claiming this to be true, but if it is, we need to totally rethink how units are taught in PE. I'm not implying that the concepts, skills, strategies, and tactics are not important for them to know, but is there a bigger picture here that needs to be explored. Are we missing something that is critically important to our students' development? To what extent does goal setting come into play? To what extent can we allow student to choose areas to explore and learn about? Do we even need units in PE? Can the year be based upon students selecting a couple goals each semester and working toward achieving these goals? Does this mean that they stick with only football all year as being a goal? Certainly not. Can we create an environment where cardiovascular fitness is stressed and goals are set as well. For example, a group of students decide that they will try to improve upon skipping and football during a semester. While learning and improving in these areas, they are ensuring that they are getting a good cardio workout. We then assess them based upon their level of improvement compared to where they were at when they started out. We get them thinking their way through the process of learning. Would this style of delivery better serve them as they grow and develop into adults? Is there a better way? A question to think about.
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On Saturday 09 August at 12:39 Alan Thomson said
Thought provoking and enjoyable as always Ash. The idea of 'can I score?' can be further developed. If not - why not? Why is someone else in a better position to score? What if they are not? Keeping possession and holding play up until some moves into a position, or moves to take the defender away from the person in possession to allow the attempt on goal may in turn work better. Simply put, you are dealing with decision making from an attacking principle - decisions by the person with the ball / team mates who can move etc. The same principle applies to defending. Do pupils students understand what the principles of defending and attacking are. For example defending - stop the other team from scoring / win back possession. How is this done? Closing down space - how / when / where / with whom etc? So in turn, what do the pupils / students needs to be able to know/understand/do? How does the teacher teach this? How does the teacher educator teach the teacher to teach this? From my experiences as a teacher, teacher educator and as a coach, I ask two simple questions of my charges - What is going on here? What can be done to change things? These questions can be applied to ALL practical and theoretical aspects of the courses I teach. 'What is going on' may be more relevant (particularly earlier on), and this will hopefully allow for greater cognitive and contextual understanding of the situations that participants (teacher educators / teachers / pupils / coaches etc) are in. Obviously there are ontological and epistemological issues tied up in this, but it importantly gets the participants to understand decision making processes and question WHY? I appreciate that this may not automatically turn on those that dislike games, but it does develop an understanding, and allow all pupils opportunities to make decisions which is surely a good thing.
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On Sunday 10 August at 20:30 Alex Beckey said
Last year we tried this approach in Year 8 Games. Rather than teach our modules/units of work on football, rugby, water polo, badminton, softball and handball as a traditional skills/drills approach, every member of the PE Department rewrote the scheme of work to be focussed around problem solving, co-operation and teamwork. For all of us in the department (teaching PE over a decade in state secondary schools) it was a very new way of approaching things for us and took us out of our comfort zone. I had Rugby as my SOW and decided on the problem 'How to beat a flat line defence.' The 28 students were split into groups of 7 and investigated the different ways an attacking side could beat a flat line defence from set piece. The first lesson was teacher led and I taught each group 3 set piece moves. They then ran these moves against each other. I recorded the outcome of the moves on an iPad and shared it with the group via Edmodo. Before the next lesson they were to look at them moves and come up with reasons why they were successful or failed. The start of the next lesson was very interesting with students coming up with lots of reasons why the moves had failed: timing, accuracy, angles of run, small against large, poor communication, people not being in the right place etc. Things that usually they don't ever get at all at Key Stage 3 PE. Over the next 5 weeks they were given time in their groups to refine the moves i had taught them and create another 5 set moves. I encouraged them to look on the internet and watch matches on TV to get ideas. The groups got that you could beat a flat line defence by going around, through or over and should have a variety of moves to exploit the weaknesses of the opposition. Every lesson I recorded their moves and shared them with them, for them to analyse both in lessons and at home if they wanted. Watching the students interact with each, communicate with each other and analyse their performance was amazing. I've been trying to get my 1st XV rugby team to speak to each other like that during training and matches. I felt that the vast majority of the students had a better understanding how important set piece moves were for scoring in rugby, and how important every person in the team must know their job and perform it well for a move to be successful. (I even got to say that the best teams recognise the weakness in the opponent and choose the appropriate move to outwit them). Their understanding and appreciation of rugby was more than any class I had taught at that age group. However i did feel that the technical ability of the group had not improved as much as previous classes. Now I know this is subjective, and based on my own opinion but the development of fundamental skills such as passing, kicking, evasion skills and lines of running was not in line with what I usually expect. This was what I felt in all activity areas i taught, apart from water polo. My colleagues within the PE Department felt the same. That the approach seem to give the students a better understanding and appreciation of the games they were playing, but skill development was not as high as usual. Therefore the question we might need to ask is what is the purpose of playing games within PE. Is it to build basic fundamental skills to such a level that all students feel comfortable and confident to actively participate in the sport for health reasons, or is it about developing the 'other half' that you get from games such as teamwork, co-operation, communication etc. As a department we are yet undecided what is the right approach for our students, and we feel one year teaching this way is not enough to make a decision. We will be definitely trying this approach again this year before we make any judgement.

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