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Thinking differently not just well

Tactical creativity is not the same as tactical intelligence. It’s not about coming up with the so-called best answers but with answers that work and surprise.

There are many people who advocate a game-centred approach to teaching and coaching. Well-established approaches (such as Teaching Games for Understanding, the Tactical Games Approach, Games Sense, the Tactical Games Model, the Games Concept Approach etc.) “offer children and students ways of learning both tactical and technical skills in different games”. At the heart of these game-centred approaches lies the idea that the teaching and development of understanding around the tactical dimensions of a game (i.e. what to do) should come before the development of students’ technical skills (i.e. how to do it). 

Exploring game-centred approaches for a thinking/problem solving perspective Memmert argues that their primary aim “is to teach tactical problem solving in different types of invasion games”. The research around these approaches suggests that further attention is needed with regards to:

·      The learners’ perspective (i.e. trying to see the games from the learners’ point of view and knowledge base).

·      Game concept (i.e. how modified games are developed to reflect real world situations).

·      Thinking strategically (i.e. understanding the way in which notions such as time, space, people, position, game state, context etc. impact on the decisions we make).

·      Cue recognition (i.e. seeing gaps in defences, imbalances in terms of skills, speed and/or strength and exploiting them).

·      Technique selection (i.e. how to do it).

·      Skill development (i.e. in order to be more successful what do individuals need to do better).

Fundamentally, Memmert holds, game-centred approaches are defined by two ideas. Firstly “they are models that place the learner into problem solving situations, where decision-making is of critical importance and where skill development takes place in context”. Secondly, “teaching game sense, game playing ability, or even game performance” are the focus of the teacher/coach”. While both of these are seen as laudable and important Memmert argues that game-centred approaches help children to learn convergent tactical thinking and tactical creativity.

So what’s the difference?

In the above approaches there is a focus on developing “contextual, real-world and game-simulated practice to develop both the tactical and technical skills needed to become an effective game player”. In short, game-centred approaches encourage students/players to find ideal solutions that can later be evaluated as to their efficiency. Yes, players are asked to problem solve but they are also asked/expected to come up with the best solution. Like answering an examination question they are expected to draw on their prior learning and find an answer/solution that has worked in the past and apply it to the situation in which they find themselves. In this way, players are encouraged to be convergent thinkers who can assess and analyse the position in which they find themselves and act accordingly. This, Memmert argues, is tactical intelligence or convergent thinking and positions the player (if they are good at it) as an expert decision maker.

To be tactically creative students/players need to be a divergent thinker. In other words, they need to live in a world that thrives on “unusualness, innovativeness, statistical rareness or uniqueness of solutions in a given task”. The tactically creative are celebrated because they respond in “varying, rare and flexible” ways in different situations.

In defining these two ideas Memmert suggests that for creativity to exist in games, players need to deviate from “so-called best solutions” and look to act in surprising, original and flexible” ways. Memmert holds that players with tactical game-intelligence (i.e. convergent thinkers) are able to produce the best solutions while the tactically creative can generate “a variety of solutions in specific individual, group and team tactics situations which are surprising, rare and/or original”.

The tactically creative thrive on unusualness, innovativeness, and statistical rareness

So how and when should tactical creativity be taught?

A body of research in psychology suggest that the best time for tactical creativity to be learned and developed is when children are younger. Indeed evidence suggests that the development of creativity may stagnate in children around the age of eight. Other research suggest that stagnation may occur after the age of thirteen but the bottom line seems to be that children are able to learn about, cope with and be creative in situations we might see as challenging. Therefore, and as Memmert argues, “creativity should be cultivated early in a child’s development”. That is not to say that it shouldn’t be taught/used with older children. Memmert’s research shows that although statistically “the development of tactical creativity stagnates" above the age of thirteen, learners can still improve their tactical creativity over time.

This means that, as teachers and coaches, we shouldn't be so quick to close down imaginative solutions to problems. How many times have we seen a child come up with a solution that works or nearly works and said “good idea but you would have been better doing this” (and then demonstrating the so-called best solution)? How many times do you think you have unpicked and then rebuilt a player’s response to a specific situation? I think I’ve done it hundreds of time and am sure that “yes, but…” has been a strong part of my teaching/coaching armoury. Perhaps its time to learn a new phrase or just drop the “but”?


Memmert, D. (2015). Teaching Tactical Creativity in Sport: Research and Practice. London: Routledge.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Vicky Goodyear for her work as copy editor.  Her 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.

I would rather look at this topic more from a ‘personal engagement’ perspective first before jumping into my thoughts on tactical creativity vs tactical intelligence in PE. Whether it be net/wall games, invasion games, target games, adventure challenge or movement composition, I believe that my ultimate responsibility as an educator is to ensure that I have created a nurturing and supportive environment that encourages my students to take risks to explore and to learn multiple ways of being active and moving their bodies with and without equipment. 

In trying to achieve this aim, I need to be very aware of the mindsets, attitudes, thinking patterns, and skill levels that my students bring with them into the PE environment. As I observe and learn as much about them as possible, I begin to develop a better understanding of how they learn best and ways that I can motivate them to be more engaged at a personal level in their PE classes. 

As I endeavour to create a warm and supportive environment in my program, it is an absolute priority to encourage my students to take risks and put themselves out there in order to experience all of the ups and downs that come with being totally immersed in the games and activities done in PE. It is only then that they can experience obstacles and roadblocks that they must be able to overcome through problem-solving, experimentation, and identifying certain skills that must be improved upon in order to more effectively participate in the games and activities played with their peers. It is at this point that they begin to learn the true value of collaboration as well. 

Developing tactical creativity is an absolute must in PE and can only be done in a supportive environment. As educators, we need to minimize the need or desire to step in and to judge decisions made by our students when engaged in the modified games and activities played in class. I agree with Ash that it is necessary for us to reflect on how often we commend students for their response in a game situation, but then turn around and tell them that there was a better way to do it. 

As a consultant, I was asked to work with a PE department at an international school helping to better develop their program. I was observing one teacher’s class who was in the middle of an invasion games unit. The teacher had set up a modified invasion game that had elements of both handball and basketball embedded within the activity. As I observed the game, I noticed that there was one girl who wasn’t overly skilled but kept getting herself in the right positions to receive the ball and score. Although she had dropped the ball a few times, she persisted with her efforts and near the end of the game caught a pass from a teammate then kind of awkwardly jumped up while slinging the ball around the side of her body with a straight arm. The ball took off and went in the top corner of the goal. 

Her joy was immediately evident as she cheered with both arms held high in the air and her teammates cheered as well giving her high fives. It was a lovely scene to see unfold. How proud the girl must have felt. Her teacher immediately commended her for scoring but then took two minutes out of the class explaining to her that jumping up in the air wasn’t necessary. He also added in that the next time she throws, she should remember to keep her elbow up and work on throwing like they do when they practice.

Although the teacher had the very best of intentions and was trying to get her to remember proper throwing fundamentals, the student had shown great creativity and innovation when she scored. She was off balance when she caught the ball. She was also very aware that she had little time before the defenders closed in on her. She responded with getting the ball into the goal by generating whatever force she could in throwing the ball. It may not fall into the classic textbook definition of what tactical creativity is but it was a creative response to the game situation that was presented to her. 

The teacher had stepped in to address her way of performing in an effort to suit the ways in which he believes the game should be played. Instead of simply celebrating her success, he had to follow it up with the dreaded “yes, but…….” as Ash described in the last paragraph of his post. 

In fostering the development of tactical creativity, we must resist the urge to step in and dictate what we feel to be the most efficient means to get the job done in the games and activities played in PE. It is essential to our students to innovate and create on their own terms and at levels in which they can handle if we are to get them to understand and embrace the joys of participating in physical activity and sport. I’m certainly not trying to downplay the importance of tactical intelligence as convergent thinking is also a critical part of sport. However, in the long run, I want my students loving to play sport and to find the joy associated with being physically active. I want them to ultimately identify ways to stay active that interest them and keep them moving into their teenage years and beyond. I think that there is a greater likelihood of them finding the value in participating in sport and physical activity if we allow them the freedom to make their own mistakes, to experiment, and to tap into their own levels of creativity and innovation in the process. 

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On Thursday 03 December at 17:27 Cherie Genower said

I totally agree with what Andy has said here, in order for creativity to develop, risks must be taken. Children need to 'put themselves out there' as you said in order to experience all of the ups and downs that come with being totally immersed in the games and activities done in PE. I agree that we need to resist the urge to step in and dictate what decisions children make in PE however in Andy's example where the student was off balance when catching and throwing the ball, should we simply ignore things like this and see them as 'creativity' just to enourage children to participate in PE? I agree completely we need to focus on children's success and foster a love of PE in all but it just got me thinking, do we have to turn a blind eye to every mistake a child may make, seeing it as creativty in order for children to enjoy PE? 

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