Submitted by Luke Nielsen

Luke Nielsen is an educator and strength and conditioning coach at Saint Ansgar High School in Saint Ansgar, Iowa.  He received his Master of Sports Science degree from the United States Sports Academy, and is currently pursuing a terminal degree through the Academy.


Purpose: This article was adapted from an unpublished essay previously submitted by the author as a course requirement for SAB 571: Sports Coaching Methodology at the United States Sports Academy in Daphne, Alabama.  This article offers an examination of research related to the games approach, which for the purposes of this investigation will be identified as the implementation of coaching tactics that utilize open-skill training techniques that closely mimic the physiological and psychological demands of competition.  Specifically, this essay explores the efficacy of a games approach to coaching high school American football and offers suggestions for the effective implementation of games approach techniques.  Methods: An extensive collection of existing research was examined for this literature review.  Research related to general tactical sports training, the possible influence of a games approach to sports training, and specific games approach techniques were examined.  Special consideration was given to research that was deemed highly applicable to high school football.  Results: Athletic performance is comprised of physical, technical, and tactical components, yet performances in closed-skill technical assessments do not necessarily translate to performance in open-skill competition.  However, games approach techniques can be implemented to effectively address all three components of athletic performance, and guided discovery learning techniques were found to be most effective in eliciting positive gains in actual competition performance.  Conclusions: High school coaches can effectively overcome many of the constraints facing secondary athletics programs and address the physical, technical, and tactical components of football by incorporating guided discovery learning into games approach training techniques.  Applications in Sports: High school football coaches are charged with the task of training young and inexperienced athletes—many of whom must fulfill a variety of other academic and extracurricular commitments—to effectively perform the many highly complex tasks that comprise American football.  This can be a difficult task.  This essay summarizes existing research findings regarding games approach athlete training techniques and provides coaches with suggestions for the effective and efficient implementation of such tactics.


 Successful performances in athletic competitions are often elusive and complex in nature.  A near limitless number of factors contribute to the successes or failures of athletes in competition, especially in sports that require anticipation and decision-making in open-skill situations.  Open-skills are those that are performed under relatively unpredictable conditions.  Most sports require a tactical element beyond the effective execution of sport-specific skills, but coaches often dedicate a large majority of time and effort to the explicit instruction of technical skills in closed drills.  Closed drills require predetermined movement patterns.  Success in American football is dependent on a unique blend of physical ability, technical execution, and tactical understanding; and high school coaches must contend with significant time constraints and diverse athlete ability levels.  The games approach to coaching supports the use of open drills that mimic the physiological and psychological demands of actual competition, and games approach techniques can be adapted to provide efficient and productive training programs.

The games approach to coaching is a prudent method for efficiently addressing the diverse physical, technical, and tactical demands of high school football; and judicious application of these techniques must consider the role of tactical training, the benefits of games approach techniques, and which specific games approach protocols will most effectively meet the needs of high school football athletes.


An extensive collection of existing research related to general tactical sports training, the potential influences of games approach techniques on sports training, and specific games approach techniques were examined.  Research findings were then compiled, summarized, and disseminated in a clear manner intended to allow the target audience—high school football coaches—to quickly and effectively adopt games approach techniques.


 Tactical Training

Many coaches dedicate the majority of training time and effort to the development of technical skills and physiological conditioning.  However, technical and physiological assessments alone may not serve as accurate predictors of competition performance, especially in sports that require a high degree of tactical ability (10). Kuzmits and Adams (10) examined the effectiveness of the National Football League (NFL) combine at predicting actual success in the league.  The study examined combine performances from 1999 to 2004.  In total, 306 athletes were utilized.  The athletes selected as test subjects were drafted into the NFL and played the quarterback, running back, or wide receiver position.

Data was collected from the standard tests performed at the NFL combine: the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump, the broad jump, the bench press, the three-cone drill, the 20-yard shuttle, the 60-yard shuttle, and the Wonderlic Personnel Test.  The combine bench press test involves pressing 225 pounds until failure.  The three-cone drill requires the athlete to run a designated pattern around cones placed in a triangular formation.  The 20-yard shuttle requires the athlete to sprint five yards in one direction, 10 yards in the opposite direction, and five yards back to the starting point.  The 60-yard shuttle is performed in the same manner as the 20-yard shuttle, but distances are increased.  The Wonderlic Personnel Test is a general intelligence test that requires an athlete to respond to 50 questions in 12 minutes.

Draft position and statistics from the first three years of NFL experience were also gathered to assess performance.  Salary and games played were considered for all three position groups; average yards per carry was measured for running backs; average yards per reception was measured for wide receivers; and quarterback rating was used for quarterbacks.  With the possible exception of a correlation between sprint times and running back success, combine performances did not effectively predict NFL success.

Elferink-Gemser, et al. (2) also explored athlete performance indicators and discovered significant differences in tactical ability between elite and sub-elite field hockey athletes.  In total, 126 field hockey players were utilized as test subjects.  An equal number of male and female athletes were represented, and the mean age of all participants was approximately 14 years.  All subjects were considered talented, but elite and sub-elite categories were formed.  All athletes were members of prestigious field hockey clubs, but those athletes considered “elite” were chosen for a youth selection team of the Dutch Field Hockey Association.  The study examined the influence of numerous factors on field hockey performance.

Anthropometric measurements were taken, and several performance characteristics were evaluated.  Physiological characteristics were measured through peak shuttle sprint performance, repeated shuttle sprint performance, slalom sprint performance, and interval endurance capacity.  Technical characteristics were assessed via field hockey skill activities, and trainers evaluated the technical characteristics of the athletes.  A questionnaire was used to assess psychological characteristics.  All athletes achieved generally high scores in all tests, and both elite and sub-elite players demonstrated similar anthropometric and physiological scores.  However, elite-level subjects displayed superiority in technical, tactical, and psychological characteristics when compared to sub-elite athletes.

With the high degree of tactical ability required for success in many athletic endeavors, training programs that implement open-skill activities are essential to optimal athlete performance.  Memmert and Roth (11) examined the effects of both non-specific and specific training programs on tactical creativity.  In total, 135 children with a mean age of approximately seven years completed all of the measures of the study.  The children were divided among different specific or non-specific training groups, and all subjects were tested prior to training, after six months of training, and following the complete 15-month program.  The subjects were recorded on video during participation in various “game test situations” (11).  A panel of experts then analyzed their performances.  Tactical creativity was the primary focus of the assessment.  Creativity was based primarily on the originality of solutions and the number of different solutions utilized.

The participants were divided into four training groups and a control.  Fifty subjects were placed in a non-specific treatment, and the other youth athletes were divided among three sport-specific training groups.  Twenty-one subjects were placed in a specific handball treatment.  The handball protocol focused on the skills associated with handball, and the overall treatment was very technique driven.  No position-specific drills were utilized, and the subjects rarely trained with game-type activities.  Twenty-one other children were placed in a soccer-specific treatment.  The soccer-specific training program utilized both technical and tactical drills, and the subjects routinely participated in actual competition.  Another 23 students were placed in a specific field hockey group.  The field hockey protocol also utilized a combination of technical and tactical skills, and the field hockey subjects participated in competitions.  The remaining 20 students were placed in a control group that participated solely in the school sports program twice a week.

All of the athletes in the non-specific groups improved general creativity; the soccer group improved soccer-oriented creativity; and the subjects in the field hockey treatment demonstrated improved field hockey creativity.  The handball group and the control group, however, did not display improvements in tactical creativity.

Research examining the successful practices of elite-level coaches also supports the use games approach techniques (1).  Bloom, et al. (1) examined the coaching practices of Coach Jerry Tarkanian, an experienced and highly successful Division I men’s basketball coach.  The study examined twelve coaching behaviors: technical instruction, tactical instruction, general instruction, hustles, praise/encouragement, scolds, nonverbal punishment, criticism/reinstruction, modeling, nonverbal rewards, humor, and uncodable behavior. Data was collected during practice sessions held over the course of the 1996-1997 regular season.

The findings of the study support the benefits of a tactical approach to coaching.  Tactical instruction was the coded behavior most frequently utilized by Coach Tarkanian.  Twenty-nine percent of all identified behaviors fell under the tactical instruction heading.  The next three most commonly utilized behaviors were, in order, hustles, technical instruction, and praise/encouragement.  Hustles were identified as verbal statements used to “activate, intensify, or energize the athletes” (1).  Perhaps the most important finding of the study was the overwhelming percentage of tactical instruction identified.  Hustles, the second most widely identified behavior, comprised only 16 percent of the total coded behaviors, 13 percent lower than tactical instruction.

Effects on Performance

The games approach to coaching has displayed a potentially profound effect on athlete performance in a number of areas.  That is not to say that skill-specific protocols do not have a place in sports training.  Skill-based training programs have been effectively utilized to improve technical performances and sport-essential skills.  Gabbett, et al. (6) examined the effects of an eight-week skill-based training program performed by 26 junior volleyball players.  The participants had a mean age of approximately 15 years, and all subjects were scholarship athletes with the Queensland Academy of Sport, Talent Search volleyball program. The study revealed significant improvements in sport-specific skill performances, athlete speed, and agility.

However, of even greater significance are findings that have supported improvements in tactical performances through the use of games approach techniques.  Turner and Martinek (15) examined the effects of the games approach to athletic instruction when compared to the technique approach.  Seventy-one male and female sixth and seventh-grade students served as test subjects; and the students were divided among three training groups: a games for understanding group, a technique group, and a control group.

Both the games for understanding group and the technique group trained for field hockey, a sport with which all students were unfamiliar.  The control group participated in a softball unit during the study. All subjects competed in a pretest game prior to the training programs and a posttest game following the 15 lessons.  In the posttest game, athletes from the games for understanding group displayed greater declarative and procedural knowledge, better passing decisions, greater ball control, and more effective passes when compared to the athletes from the technique group and the control group.

Decision-making and anticipatory abilities are crucial to successful tactical performances, and games approach research has indicated a strong influence on said abilities (7, 14).  Smeeton, et al. (14) investigated the effects of different instructional techniques on anticipation skills of youth tennis players.  In total, 33 junior tennis players with a mean age of approximately 10 years served as test subjects.  Participants were placed in an explicit instruction group, a guided discovery group, a discovery group, or a control group.  Anticipation skills were measured prior to, during, and following the training interventions; and all three intervention groups displayed improvements in anticipation ability.  However, the subjects in the guided discovery and discovery learning groups performed significantly better under anxiety-provoking conditions when compared to the explicit instruction group.

Gabbett, et al. (7) investigated the effects of video-based training on the tactical decision-making abilities of elite-level softball players.  Twenty-five athletes participated in the four-week training program, and the subjects were placed in a video-based perceptual training group, a placebo training group, or a control group.  Athlete decision accuracy and decision time were evaluated prior to and following the training protocol in both laboratory and field settings.  Following the training protocols, the perceptual training group demonstrated faster and more accurate decision-making in both laboratory and field tests when compared to placebo and control groups.

Additionally significant to the prudent coach is the role of athlete physical conditioning.  Research data supports the use of games approach strategies in effective conditioning programs (3, 5, 9).  Farrow, et al. (3) discovered that open drills most similar to actual competition elicited greater heart rates when compared to closed-skill training drills.  Thirty male subjects gathered from the Australian Institute of Sport-Australian Football League program with an approximate age of 16 years completed the study.  The participants completed both familiar open and closed drills developed for Australian Football; and the open drills produced greater physiological stimuli, required more movement, and demanded a higher level of cognitive effort.

Gabbett (5) utilized 12 male and 13 female athletes with an average age of 15 years for a study examining skill-based conditioning drills.  All subjects were competing at national and international levels; and testing included anthropometric measurements, sport-specific skill performances, and fitness assessments.  After initial assessments, the athletes were placed in either a skill-based conditioning games group or an instructional training group.  Skill-based conditioning protocols presented physiological demands more closely associated with competition and elicited greater gains in fitness when compared to instructional training programs.

Skill-based conditioning protocols have even elicited positive physiological effects from elite-level athletes (9).  Gamble (9) examined 35 professional rugby union players from South Africa and the United Kingdom.  The athletes participated in skill-based conditioning games throughout a nine-week preseason training program.  Percentage of heart rate max elicited by a sustained submaximal workload and heart rate recovery scores were measured.  Heart rate responses were measured once a week throughout the training protocol, and the conditioning games were open-skill activities designed to mirror competition skills.  Following the training program, the rugby players demonstrated improved heart rate responses.

Training Methods

Training programs that utilize games approach principles can be developed and organized in an endless number of ways, and coaches must examine effective training strategies when examining the games approach.  Gabbett, et al. (6) implemented an eight-week skill-based training program.  Training sessions utilized a combination of technical instruction and skill-based games to emphasize volleyball-specific technical skills, game tactics, and positioning.  The training program produced significant improvements in volleyball-specific skill performances, athlete speed, and agility. However, anthropometric measurements, muscular power, and aerobic capacity were relatively unchanged.  The Gabbett, et al. (6) study supported the use of training programs that incorporate technical instruction and game-skill tactical activities as an effective means of improving athletic performances.  However, the need for additional energy system training was also indicated.

Fortunately, games approach conditioning techniques, when effectively utilized, have been shown to significantly improve physiological characteristics and performances (3, 5, 9).  Farrow, et al. (3) contrasted open-skill drill and closed-skill drill formats performed within identical field dimensions for the same duration of time, and skills and objectives of both drill formats were closely matched.  Levels of unpredictability and required decision-making were the key variables between the two protocols.  The study sessions required one group of 15 participants to complete the closed drill protocol on the first test day, and the remaining 15 subjects completed the open drill protocol.  A recovery day followed the first test day, and on the second day of testing, each group completed the other protocol. The closed drills did provide a greater number of individual skill repetitions for each athlete but required less physiological stimuli, less movement, and lower levels of cognitive effort when compared to the open-skill format.  Furthermore, the closed-skill conditioning protocol essentially eliminated the decision-making component of the open drills.

Games approach conditioning drills utilizing open skills have even been shown to elicit physiological improvement among well-conditioned elite-level athletes (9).  The conditioning drills utilized by Gamble (9) duplicated the continuous nature of rugby and required bursts of maximal exertion associated with competition.  The athletes demonstrated improved heart rate responses following the prescribed training program.  Gamble (9) also noted that the test subjects were elite-level athletes, who were in excellent physical condition prior to the study, and an increase in athlete intrinsic motivation was contributed to the game-play elements of the conditioning drills.

Gabbett (5) examined both instructional training and skill-based conditioning games. Training sessions consisted of one hour of general practice for all athletes followed by the hour-long specialized protocols.  The instructional training sessions focused on the development of volleyball specific skills and focused on one skill at a time.  The skill-based protocol utilized open training drills that more closely mimicked actual competition.  Following training, the athletes who completed the instructional program demonstrated greater improvements in technical skill performances. However, the skill-based conditioning games more accurately synthesized the physiological demands of competition, demonstrated a strong level of training specificity, and elicited greater gains in fitness.

In addition to serving as effective tools for improving technical skills and physiological performances, games approach techniques serve their greatest importance for their effects on tactical abilities.  French, et al. (4) indicated that tactical skills could be learned through game play even without direct strategy instruction.  The study utilized 48 ninth-grade students as test subjects and focused on singles badminton skills and tactics.  The students were divided into four groups: a skill group, a strategy group, a combination group, and a control group.  The skill group received technical instruction explicitly; the strategy group received tactical instruction only; and the combined group received technical and tactical instruction.  The control group participated in a softball unit.  Subjects participated in 15 lessons over three weeks, and all treatment groups displayed similar tactical abilities following training.

Turner and Martinek (15) examined the effects of a technique approach and a games approach to instruction.  The technique approach utilized structured, progressive technical drills and technique demonstrations.  The games for understanding approach used games to model the tactical components of field hockey competitions, and the coaches instructed through cooperative questions and answers with the athletes.  The training protocols consisted of 15 lessons, and the athletes were assessed via their performances in video recorded field hockey games.  Following training, the athletes from the games for understanding group displayed significantly greater tactical abilities than the athletes from the technique group.

Smeeton, et al. (14) examined the effects of different instructional techniques on anticipation skills of youth tennis players, and subjects were placed in an explicit instruction group, a guided discovery group, a discovery group, or a control group.  The explicit instruction group received explicit instructions related to postural cues of opponents.  The guided discovery group was also directed toward mechanical cues of opponents, but the guided discovery group was not told explicitly how cues related to ball position.  Rather, athletes were asked how cues related to shot placement.  The discovery group was encouraged to identify postural cues but was not provided with direct instruction.  All three intervention groups displayed improvements in anticipation ability, but guided discovery and discovery learning groups performed significantly better under conditions of heightened anxiety when compared to the explicit instruction participants.

Research has indicated that video-based tactical training may also have a positive effect on performances (7).  Gabbett, et al. (7) investigated the effects of video-based training on tactical decision-making abilities, and training was focused on fielding.  Test subjects were placed in a video-based perceptual training group, a placebo training group, or a control group.  The perceptual training group watched video footage focused on ball direction related to pre-ball contact, ball contact, and post-ball contact.  Subjects were given cues that directed athlete attention toward indicators of ball direction.  The placebo group was instructed to react to a series of arrows that directed them to move in the designated direction, and the control group received no video-based training.  Following the intervention, the perceptual training group demonstrated faster and more accurate decision-making in both laboratory and field tests when compared to placebo and control groups.

Regardless of the specific training protocols utilized, training should be conducted at high intensities (12).  Roman, et al. (12) revealed a strong relationship between exercise intensity and tactical performance. Eleven elite-level 17- and 18-year-old basketball players in Spain were utilized as test subjects.  Ergospirometry was used to determine athlete ventilatory thresholds; field tests and recorded game actions were used to assess performances.  Game simulations were used to replicate the physical and psychological demands of competition, and the study indicated that, regardless of intensity, game-related drills improved tactical decision-making.  However, as opposition during competition increased, physical exertion and incorrect tactical decision-making increased.  When exercise intensities surpassed ventilatory thresholds, tactical decision-making diminished greatly.

The games approach is also valuable because it is an athlete-centered method of coaching; training techniques that focus on the athlete are beneficial to the athlete and the coach.  Ryska (13) examined the relationships between coaching leadership styles, program goals, and occupational burnout.  The study utilized 245 NCAA Division I coaches as test subjects.  A diverse group comprised of both male and female coaches from various sports and ethnic backgrounds were used.  Coaches responded to questionnaires, and the study identified five leadership styles: directive, supportive, bureaucratic, strategic, and collaborative.  The directive style coach placed primary emphasis on outcome objectives and adherence to authority.  The supportive leadership style was associated with an emphasis on team harmony, often at the expense of task objectives.  A bureaucratic coach tended to keep things on an even keel by avoiding risk and conflict.  The strategic style was associated with a coach who appeased team members by providing the perception of athlete input while maintaining ultimate control.  Collaborative style coaches encouraged participation from all members of the athletic program and actively worked to resolve conflicts that arose.

The study found that coaches who implemented a leadership style high in strategic elements and low in collaborative elements were more prone to burnout.  Conversely, coaches who utilized a style high in collaborative leadership and low in bureaucratic leadership experienced greater personal and athlete accomplishment.  Furthermore, coaches who valued personal growth were generally more successful than those who emphasized public relations and prestige.


Tactical Training

Many coaches dedicate an inordinate amount of time to technical instruction performed in closed-skill settings that do not effectively recreate the physiological and psychological demands of actual competition.  While technical skill certainly plays a role in optimal athletic performances, the vast majority of sports require a high degree of tactical ability.  Tactical ability is especially important in American football,

Kuzmits and Adams (10) suggest that success in closed-skill tests do not necessarily translate to success in the open-skill activities of actual competition; and Elferink-Gemser, et al. (2) indicate that performance distinctions among talented athletes are less dependent on physical characteristics and physiological performances and more reliant on technical ability, tactical understanding, and motivation. Furthermore, Bloom, et al. (1) identified tactical instruction as the coded behavior most commonly utilized by elite-level basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.  Research data indicates that coaches must utilize open-skill training activities in order to effectively develop tactical ability and optimize performance.

High school football coaches work with relatively inexperienced athletes, and training programs at the high school level are often limited by significant time constraints.  While Elferink-Gemser, et al. (2) suggest that sound technical instruction is important, high school coaches must also use available training time for tactical and psychological education.  When working with inexperienced athletes, coaches tend to dedicate the majority of training time to technical instruction.  However, despite sound technical instruction, young athletes often struggle under the open-skill situations of actual competition.

The unpredictable conditions associated with football require athletes to perform skills in continually changing spatial environments that can generate considerable anxiety among novice athletes.  Regulations and other commitments limit the amount of preparation time available to high school coaches.  It is unreasonable to assume that novice high school athletes can develop technical mastery before utilizing sport-specific techniques in open-skill formats.  Yet, coaches of young athletes often follow a strict program of development, moving from progressive, isolated, closed-skill technical drills to more open competition-like conditions.

Closed-skill performances do not necessarily translate to on-field performances (10), and high school coaches cannot afford to squander precious training time.  The games approach to athletics provides an environment highly conducive to tactical exploration and learning, and Memmert and Roth (11) indicate that general and sport-specific tactical training can significantly improve tactical creativity.  By recognizing the need for, and benefits of, tactical education and training, coaches can begin to understand and appreciate the value of the games approach to athletics.  Before implementing games approach techniques, however, coaches must examine the potential effects that the games approach can have on athletic performance.

Effects on Performance

Elferink-Gemser, et al. (2) indicate a need for technical skill training, as well as tactical development.  Fortunately, research has identified the games approach as a sound approach for enhancing the technical and tactical skills of athletes (6, 7, 14, 15).  Gabbett, et al. (6) effectively utilized a combination of technical instruction and skill-based games to improve athlete speed, agility, and sport-specific skill performances.  The Gabbett, et al. (6) findings indicate that a games approach to training can positively affect sport skill performances, especially when supplemented with technical instruction.

Turner and Martinek (15) compared the effects of the games approach to athletic instruction to the technique approach among youth athletes learning field hockey, a sport with which all participants were unfamiliar.  The study revealed superior tactical ability among the subjects from the games approach training group when compared to the members of the technique training protocol.  The findings support the use of a games approach to coaching, specifically when dealing with novice athletes.

Smeeton, et al. (14) examined the effects of several instructional techniques on anticipation performance and found that discovery learning techniques lead to stronger anticipation performances during settings of high anxiety.  The findings support the use of games approach discovery learning protocols when preparing athletes for the rigors of actual competition.  Gabbett, et al. (7) discovered that even video-based perceptual training could positively influence decision-making time and accuracy in actual competition.

Games approach techniques have also been effectively utilized to improve athlete physical performance (3, 5, 9). Gabbett (5) indicates that skill-based conditioning programs may elicit greater gains in fitness when compared to instructional training, and Farrow, et al. (3) found that training techniques that closely mimicked the physiological stimuli of competition elicited greater heart rate responses than closed-skill training formats.  Research has also revealed positive heart rate responses by highly conditioned elite-level athletes participating in open-skill conditioning programs (9).

Coaches often blindly adhere to commonly used training methods simply because those methods were the protocols prescribed to them as young athletes.  High school coaches with limited backgrounds in physiology are especially prone to such practices.  However, the cyclical regurgitation of archaic training techniques is shortsighted and limits optimal athlete performance.  Coaches must take innovative approaches to training and utilize scientifically supported techniques specific to the physiological and tactical demands of competition.  In order for coaches to effectively develop games approach protocols, they must recognize and understand the effects that such programs have on athlete performance.

Games approach training methods have been shown to positively impact both novice (15) and elite (7, 9) athletes, and games approach techniques can be used to develop both technical (6) and tactical (7, 14, 15) performances.  Furthermore, open-skill games approach protocols can improve physical conditioning (3, 5, 9).  Sound technical skill, high tactical aptitude, and peak physical conditioning are all essential to optimal athletic performances.  While coaches may recognize the importance of said components, the struggle for all coaches comes with the challenge of effectively applying training techniques to elicit improvements in all necessary areas.

It is not uncommon for athletes or entire teams to demonstrate clear strengths in one of the necessary components of optimal athletic performance while displaying significant deficiencies in the others.  High school coaches may even consciously decide to focus limited training time on the development of one component in an attempt to compensate for shortcomings.  However, any deficiencies can be exposed and exploited by opposing competitors.  By recognizing and understanding the ways in which games approach training techniques can positively influence technical, tactical, and physical performances, coaches can begin to identify, develop, and implement sound training methods that optimize athletic performances.

Training Methods

Technical skill, physical prowess, and tactical aptitude are all essential to optimal athletic performances; and research has supported the games approach as a sound method for improving all three components among athletes of all experience and ability levels (3, 5-7, 9, 14, 15).  Clearly, the adoption of games approach techniques is a prudent practice for all coaches, but coaches must examine and experiment with training protocols to effectively adapt games approach theories to meet sport-specific needs.

Gabbett, et al. (6) utilized games approach techniques by implementing skill-based games in conjunction with technical instruction to improve sport-specific skill performances, speed, and agility.  The findings support the incorporation of technical and tactical instruction, but physiological measurements were relatively unchanged following the prescribed training program.  Gabbett, et al. (6) indicate the need for supplementary strength and conditioning protocols, and games approach techniques have been effectively used in conditioning programs (3, 5, 9).

Farrow, et al. (3) effectively used open-skill drills with elements of unpredictability and decision-making to elicit greater physiological stimuli than comparable closed-skill training activities.  Gamble (9) effectively mimicked the physiological demands of rugby with open-skill conditioning drills that required maximal exertions similar to those necessary for competition.  The implemented training protocols elicited improved heart rate responses and intrinsic motivation among highly-conditioned elite athletes.  Gabbett (5) also implemented skill-based conditioning drills that replicated the physiological demands of competition and improved athlete fitness.

While isolated close-skill training drills may also effectively improve general technical execution and physical ability, games approach techniques offer their most significant contributions to athletic performance in the area of tactical ability.  French, et al. (4) found that general game play, even without direct instruction could improve tactical ability.  Test subjects received explicit technical instruction, tactical instruction only, or technical and tactical instruction.  Following the training protocols, all subjects displayed similar tactical abilities.

Turner and Martinek (15) effectively utilized training games to synthesize the tactical components of field hockey competition.  Young athletes unfamiliar with field hockey served as test subjects, and those who participated in the games approach training protocol tactically outperformed athletes trained with technical drills and technique demonstrations.  Smeeton, et al. (14) further supported the use of games approach techniques for training tactical performance by using discovery learning protocols.  Smeeton, et al. (14) found that while explicit instruction, guided discovery, and discovery training programs all improved anticipation ability, the guided learning groups performed significantly better under pressure situations similar to competition.  Elements of the games approach can even be utilized during supplementary training, such as film study.  Gabbett, et al. (7) was able to improve decision-making in field tests by providing tactical cues during video-based instruction.

While the games approach clearly provides benefits for athletes, Ryska (13) revealed that the athlete-centered format of the games approach might also benefit the well-being of coaches.  The study indicated that coaches who utilized collaborative leadership experienced greater personal accomplishment, supported greater athlete accomplishment, and were less prone to burnout than contemporaries low in collaborative leadership.

Clearly, games approach techniques can be effectively implemented in a wide variety of ways.  Following an extensive investigation of games approach training programs, coaches can begin to adapt elements of the games approach into their practice plans.  The games approach is an ideal method for addressing the diverse technical skills, tactical elements, and physical demands of American football.  Furthermore, the athlete-focused discovery style required by the games approach is ideal to the relatively inexperienced athletes competing at the high school level.

High school football coaches can adopt games approach techniques into every aspect of training.  Success and safety in football do require sound technical execution.  Gabbett and Ryan (8) found that tackling technique was positively associated with dominant tackles and negatively associated with missed tackles, and French, et al. (4) suggested that superior technical skills might assist with creating a tactical advantage.  In the badminton example utilized by French, et al. (4), the ability to produce more forceful shots placed opponents in more defensive positions.  However, high school football coaches often waste precious practice time developing technical skills by way of isolated closed-skill drills.  Explicit technical instruction is not without value and is necessary with the introduction of new skills.  The problem with such training techniques is that they eat up valuable practice time without accurately representing physiological and tactical demands of the competition environment in which the skills must be performed.

High school football coaches should work to incorporate explicit technical instruction into other aspects of training.  Warm-up time offers a perfect opportunity for coaches to provide direct technical instruction.  Football requires the effective execution of a diverse set of technical skills.  Pass blocking, run blocking, passing, catching, and punting, among other skills, require sound technical execution, but athletes must be able to execute the skills of their positions within the contexts of the game.  Nearly every coach utilizes some form of warm-up at the beginning of practice or training sessions; by incorporating position-specific skills into warm-up routines instead of focusing on general movements, coaches can provide explicit technical instruction while maximizing practice time.

During the warm-up period, linemen can work on different blocking steps; running backs can practice taking handoffs and hitting running lanes; quarterbacks can do drop steps; receivers can run routes; the possibilities are limitless.  By making technique practice a part of warm-ups, athletes are also afforded a high number of repetitions that may not be possible to attain through designated practice drills.  In an examination of rugby tackling performances, Gabbett and Ryan (8) suggested that athlete experience was positively associated with tackling technique; athletes who had received at least three years of technical instruction displayed superior tackling skill when compared to those who had received fewer than three years instruction.  Those who played in the highest number of National Rugby League games displayed the strongest tackling technique.  By incorporating position-specific techniques into off-season training warm-ups, high school coaches can also provide the opportunity for athletes to practice technical skills over the course of the entire year.

By utilizing warm-up time for technical instruction, novice athletes can also develop unfamiliar position-specific techniques at progressive speeds without fear of failure.  When using specific practice drills to develop technical skills, coaches often have limited time to stop and correct mistakes.  All athletes need repetitions, and practice time is limited.  By developing new skills during warm-ups, athletes can make mistakes without negatively effecting team performance, and coaches can provide instructions without slowing practice.

Strong tactical ability is essential to success in football, and traditional football practices are fairly conducive to tactical training.  Team scrimmage drills offer a close representation of the physiological demands of competition, and through scouting, coaches can reproduce the offensive and defensive sets of opponents.  By mimicking the strategies of opposing competitors, unpredictable game situations can be developed, and tactical decision-making can be trained.  Commonly used position-specific drills can also be utilized to isolate specific tactical components of competition.  Offensive linemen can work combination blocks with different defensive looks by utilizing half line drills, and seven-on-seven passing drills can help quarterbacks read defensive coverages, among other things.

Regardless of the specific drills utilized, the vast majority of training protocols for football should be open-skill activities that present physical and psychological stimuli similar to that experienced in competition (3, 5, 9, 12).  Farrow, et al. (3) found that open-skill training protocols required more movement, elicited greater levels of cognitive effort, and produced greater physiological stimuli when compared to closed-drill formats.  Gamble (9) and Gabbett (5) also support the use of open-skill training techniques as effective methods for generating optimal athletic performances.  Roman, et al. (12) suggested that training protocols should provide the substantial opposition and require the high intensities of athletic competition because decision-making diminished greatly when exertion surpassed ventilatory thresholds during tests.

Many traditional football drills are conducive to tactical development, but coaches often neglect real tactical instruction.  French, et al. (4) indicated that general tactical improvements could take place without direct instruction, and Smeeton, et al. (14) supported the overall effectiveness of discovery learning protocols.  However, Smeeton, et al. (14) also revealed that direct instruction and guided discovery learning protocols brought about more rapid performance improvements when compared to discovery learning protocols that did not provide tactical cues.

Guided discovery learning appears to be most effective for quickly developing anticipation ability and maintaining performance during anxiety-inducing situations.  Yet, many coaches, either out of perceived lack of time or lack of personal understanding, provide little tactical guidance.  Real tactical development is far more than letting athletes play ball; effective tactical training takes significantly more front-end preparation than technique-focused instruction.  Coaches must possess a deep understanding of the tactical components of their sports and be able to effectively communicate necessary decision-making processes.

Effective tactical training requires coaches to guide athletes toward an authentic understanding of required decisions and tactical objectives.  Turner and Martinek (15) utilized cooperative questions and answers to develop tactical understanding among athletes.  Ultimately, sound tactical training requires the coach to work cooperatively with athletes to develop understanding.  However, many coaches simply tell athletes what to do, and football practices are often designed to generate the highest number of drill repetitions without developing understanding.  Coaches should certainly optimize training time; but by minimizing the time spent on closed-skill technical drills, coaches are allotted more time to develop sound decision-making abilities.

Post-practice training time can also be used to address tactical learning.  By utilizing open-skill activities that mimic the demands of competition, practices can be conducted efficiently.  Extra time following practice can be set aside to address tactical situations in a cooperative environment that allows athletes to ask questions without slowing the pace of practice segments.  Coaches can use post-practice time to correct poor tactical decisions made during practice, as opposed to stopping the flow of practice to fully discuss such incidents during team drills.  Drills during practice should be designed to replicate the physically and mentally taxing situations experienced during competition.  Post-practice discussions, however, allow athletes to ask questions and explore tactical elements of competition in a low-stress environment.  Technical skills can also be reinforced during post-practice activities.

Film study, a widely used and important part of successful football programs, can even be used to develop tactical ability (7).  Film study is a commonly used technique, but many coaches simply roll film without educating athletes.  Film time should be used to guide tactical development.   Coaches should direct athletes toward certain indicators of specific tactical decisions and encourage athletes to identify cues and prudent decisions.

High school football coaches should also supplement traditional conditioning techniques with games approach techniques that develop tactical skills while enhancing physical prowess.  Farrow, et al. (3), Gamble (9), and Gabbett (5) effectively utilized open-skill conditioning programs that more accurately replicated the physiological demands of competition and elicited greater fitness gains when compared to closed-skill conditioning techniques.  Gamble (9) also noted an increase in intrinsic motivation associated with the game-play elements of open-skill conditioning techniques.

Physical conditioning is certainly of great importance in football, but many coaches finish practices with conditioning drills that do not effectively replicate the physiological demands and decision-making components of competition.  Games approach techniques used throughout practice elicit greater fitness gains via increased physiological demands; and coaches can replace traditional running drills with open-skill drills, such as pursuit drills or two-minute drills.  Pursuit drills and two-minute drills more closely mimic the physiological and decision-making components of defensive and offensive game play, respectively.  Coaches can also modify conditioning drills by simply adding a tactical component.  Forty-yard sprints can be modified by requiring athletes to break from the huddle, line up in formation, take blocking steps, and run routes before sprinting the 40 yards.

Off-season conditioning drill can also utilize open-skill techniques.  Many coaches implement change-of-direction drills to train the explosiveness and agility required in football, but the drill often create closed-skill environments that do not recreate the demands of actual competition.  Coaches can supplement or replace such drills that require athletes to react to different cues.  Instead of having athletes run agility drills in set patterns around a formation of cones, for instance, coaches can place cones in the desired pattern and provide visual cues to direct the athletes through changing patterns.


 Through an examination of research related to tactical training, the effects of the games approach on performance, and identified games approach training methods, high school football coaches can develop effective games approach training regimens.  Performances in closed-skill technical tests do not necessarily translate to similar performances in open-skill competition, and performance distinctions among talented athletes tend to be at least partially dependent on tactical understanding (2, 10).  In competition, American football skills are performed under unpredictable conditions that require sound decision-making abilities.  As such, tactical development is necessary for optimal performances in football.  Research indicates that elite-level coaches often utilize tactical instruction, and focused tactical training protocols have been shown to positively affect sport-specific tactical creativity (1, 11).

Athletic performances tend to be dependent on physical ability, technical execution, and tactical aptitude.  Games approach techniques have been effectively utilized to improve all three components of athletic performance (3, 5-7, 9, 14, 15).  Games approach techniques have also demonstrated positive impacts on both novice and elite athletes (7, 9, 15).  The games approach provides the ideal training environment for the development of skills necessary to meet the physical, technical, and tactical demands of football while meeting the needs of a wide range of experience and ability associated with high school athletes.

Games approach techniques can take a variety of forms, but research suggests that guided discovery learning protocols are most effective for eliciting rapid results while still improving performances in high-pressure competition situations (14).  The games approach is not simply allowing athletes to play in game simulations; it requires a great deal of guidance by the coach.  Athletes should be provided with prompts and cues that help develop tactical understanding.  Training protocols should also be performed at high levels of intensity in open-skill scenarios that mimic the demands of competition (12).  Of greatest importance is the understanding of the physical, technical, and tactical demands of the given sport.  Through such an understanding, coaches can develop efficient training protocols that effectively develop more than one component of athletic performance at a time.  Games approach techniques are not simply tactical training techniques; they can be utilized to develop all components of performance in a more efficient and sport-specific manner.  Warm-up drills can be used to develop technical skills, conditioning drills can develop tactical understanding, and competition simulations can be used to effectively develop all components of optimal performance.

Success in football requires a unique blend of physical ability, technical execution, and tactical understanding; and significant time constraints and a wide range of athlete ability levels often challenge high school football coaches.  High school football coaches must develop efficient training protocols that meet the needs of all athletes and develop all necessary components of optimal athletic performance.  Physical, technical, and tactical abilities cannot be effectively trained, however, through traditional closed-skill progressive training drills.  Coaches must be innovative in their approaches to training, and the open-skill scenarios of games approach techniques provide the optimal method for high school football training.


High school football coaches are charged with the oft-daunting task of training young and inexperienced athletes, who typically balance various other obligations and interests, to safely and effectively perform the many highly complex tasks that comprise American football; and high school coaches are typically forced to do so under strict time constraints.  This essay provides the typical high school football coach with a broad overview of research and suggestions related to the games approach to coaching football at the secondary level, an approach that will allow high school coaches to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their training programs.


  1.  Bloom, G. A., Crumpton, R., & Anderson, J. E. (1999). A systematic observation study of the teaching behaviors of an expert basketball coach. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 157-170.
  2.  Elferink-Gemser, M. T., Visscher, C., Lemmink, K., & Mulder, T. W. (2004). Relation between multidimensional performance characteristics and level of performance in talented youth field hockey players.  Journal of Sports Science, 22, 1053-1063.
  3.  Farrow, D., Pyne, D., & Gabbett, T. (2008). Skill and physiological demands of open and closed training drills in Australian football.  International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 3(4), 489-499.
  4.  French, K. E., Werner, P. H., Rink, J. E., Taylor, K., & Hussey, K. (1996). The effects of a 3-week unit of tactical, skill, or combined tactical and skill instruction on badminton performance of ninth-grade students. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 15, 418-438.
  5.  Gabbett, T. J. (2008).  Do skill-based conditioning games offer a specific training stimulus for junior elite volleyball players? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(2), 509-517.
  6.  Gabbett, T., Georgieff, B., Anderson, S., Cotton, B., Savovic, D., & Nicholson, L. (2006). Changes in skill and physical fitness following training in talent-identified volleyball players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(1), 29-35.
  7.  Gabbett, T., Rubinoff, M., Thorburn, L., & Farrow, D. (2007). Testing and training anticipation skills in softball fielders.  International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 2(1), 15-24.
  8.  Gabbett, T. & Ryan, P. (2009). Tackling technique, injury risk, and playing performance in high-performance collision sport athletes. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 4(4), 521-533.
  9.  Gamble, P. (2004). A skill-based conditioning games approach to metabolic conditioning for elite rugby football players.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18(3), 491-497.
  10.  Kuzmits, F. E. & Adams, A. J. (2008). The NFL combine: Does it predict performance in the National Football League? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(6), 1721-1727.
  11.  Memmert, D. & Roth, K. (2007). The effects of non-specific and specific concepts on tactical creativity in team ball sports.  Journal of Sports Sciences, 25(12), 1423-1432.
  12.  Nielsen, L. M. (2010). The games approach and high school football. Unpublished manuscript. United States Sports Academy, Daphne, AL.
  13.  Roman, I. R., Molinuevo, J. S., & Quintana, M. S. (2009). The relationship between exercise intensity and performance in drills aimed at improving the proficiency, technical and tactical skills of basketball players. International Journal of Sport Science, 14(5), 1-10.
  14.  Ryska, T. A. (2009).  Multivariate analysis of program goals, leadership style, and occupational burnout among intercollegiate sport coaches.  Journal of Sport Behavior, 32(4), 476-488.
  15.  Smeeton, N. J., Williams, A. M., Hodges, N. J., & Ward, P. (2005). The relative effectiveness of various instructional approaches in developing anticipation skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 11(2), 98-110.
  16.  Turner, A. P. & Martinek, T. J. (1999). An investigation into teaching games for understanding: Effects on skill, knowledge, and game play. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 70(3), 286-306.
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