Making sense of Aussie Rules coaching

ShaneAustralian Rules Football is in the process of rethinking the way it approaches coaching and teaching the game, and Flinders University’s Dr Shane Pill is among those leading the charge.

Dr Pill (pictured), a senior lecturer the School of Education, was a keynote speaker at the pre-season AFL National Coaching Conference at Etihad Stadium. His message to the 400 delegates was delivered partly as a TED Talks-style presentation on the principles of the Game Sense coaching approach, and partly as a practical demonstration using “miked-up” coaches and players from the Dandenong Stingrays.

A one-time league football player with West Torrens, Dr Pill is literally rewriting the book on coaching – he is the author of Play with Purpose: The Game Sense Coaching Approach for AFL, a textbook that is currently supplied to every coach undertaking Level One accreditation in the South Australian National Football League (SANFL).

Dr Pill says Game Sense is a method of coaching that shifts the focus away from the traditional directive or “command” style in favour of a player and game-centred model, which encourages decision-making and problem-solving by the players on the field.

As well teaching the vital in-the-moment competencies and skills, Game Sense aims to encourage the ability of the players think logically in terms of tactics, strategy and movement response.

The approach draws on ideas already practised internationally in other codes of football and other sports, Dr Pill said.

In terms of learning the basics of the game and skills acquisition, the time-honoured drills will still have their place, Dr Pill said, but Game Sense puts movement skills mostly into the context of a game, where their value and relevance become immediately apparent.

“The underlying philosophy and pedagogical approach is that the best way to learn to play is to play,” Dr Pill said.

“Practice sessions using Game Sense coaching will look very different – it won’t be a matter of a couple of laps around the oval, then a series of repetitive drills with a game as a final reward: it’s a game, or a form of the game, right from the start,” he said.

This doesn’t mean a full-scale, 36 man contest – rather, it may mean game-play among smaller groups, with the coach adding levels of complexity and pressure by introducing more players or ramping up time constraints. The approach aims to encourage players to draw on their own knowledge and skills to respond to the difficulties they’re faced with on the field.

“We want players to develop the ability to play with purpose, and to read the game with a tactical and strategic understanding,” Dr Pills said.

Sessions are interrupted for “tactical time outs”, when the players are asked to reflect on, and contribute to, alternative tactical approaches that will improve team and individual responses to play. If particular sets of movement skills are relevant to improving play, this is the time when drills are performed.

The result, Dr Pill says, is players who are quickly aware of the possibilities and potential of play, both on and off the ball.

“Natural athletic ability will of course always be important at the elite level, but the premise of Game Sense coaching is that you can educate players to have a real ‘footy brain’. It’s all about time, space and movement – the best players make the best decisions more often, ” Dr Pill said.

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