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Shaping practice makes play suitable for every performance level

This is an excerpt from Play Practice-2nd Edition by Alan Launder & Wendy Piltz.

Shaping Practices

Every major game is shaped by rules that define the size and shape of the playing area, how goals or points are scored, and the number of players. At the end of the 19th century, James Naismith manipulated just these variables to create basketball to meet a specific need for a game that could be played indoors during cold winters in Springfield, Massachusetts. William Morgan, also looking for an indoor game that minimised the importance of physical power, did the same thing when he invented minonette, the precursor of volleyball. Morgan's idea of separating the opposing teams by a net eliminated the physical contests that had led to deaths on the football field, while his use of a balloon instead of a ball made this game easy for ordinary students to play. Both are examples of games shaped to achieve specific objectives by manipulating critical variables.

Shaping play practices follows a similar pattern, except that it is possible to manipulate an even larger number of variables to develop an almost infinite range of learning situations that are suitable for every performance level. With beginners, the shaping process is used to simplify games and challenges, while at the elite level, it can replicate real game pressures in practice situations. The ideal is to employ play practices that retain the essential feel of a sport but are shaped to improve specific elements of skilled play with a specific group of players.

Here it is important to remember that in many games, the critical variable in skilled performance is time. While elite performers can short circuit the skill process and so minimise the time required to complete it, novices must work through the process cognitively and sequentially. Therefore, they do not always have time to complete the process before the situation has changed. So, teachers must continually monitor the variables that affect the time players have to be skilful as they play and practise. Consider the following equation:

Space = Time = Skilled play of value (good decisions and sound execution)

Interactive Team Games

While every effort must be made to create successful situations for beginners, once youngsters are committed, it is important to change the emphasis and to challenge them. At the elite level, practices should be structured to stretch players up to and beyond the edge of failure. This is the only way they will continue to improve. In interactive team games, this can be done by manipulating any or all of the following variables.

Number of Players

The fewer players involved in any game, the more opportunities there are for each to be involved. Games with a 3v3 setup ensure a good balance between improving technical ability and developing games sense in basketball, korfball, and netball, while 5v5 is an almost perfect learning laboratory for soccer, hockey, and lacrosse. While youngsters can cope with 2v2 in basketball and netball, it is still advisable to use 3v3. This format encourages decision making and helps players learn how to spread the defence by using width and depth.

In the rugby codes and American football, the game must initially be stripped back to 1v1 with beginners. This minimises both the technical and the tactical demands and allows students to play almost from the beginning. However, when introducing American football in a country where it is not part of the culture, it may be necessary to begin with some throwing and catching challenges.

Attacker-to-Defender Ratio

In a real game, the attackers may hold the numerical advantage, if only for an instant. The classic fast break in basketball pits 3 attackers against a single defender. With good passing, it usually results in an easy score. However, normal games are often chaotic because young players are pressured by defenders. So, they never have the space and time they need to execute the skill process.

To encourage beginners to pass the ball and help them to develop technical ability and games sense, attackers must always be given a numerical advantage. In basketball, where the ball is easily controlled, a single-player advantage is enough. However, in games such as soccer, hockey, and lacrosse, where controlling the ball is more difficult and where ball players must continually switch their focus from ball to opponent, it may be necessary to begin with 4 attackers against a single defender or possibly 5 against 2. But even here, it is important to understand that a second defender can present major problems for beginners in these games.

This is because beginners can watch both a single defender—or at least their feet—and the ball. However, a second defender completely changes the equation! Now ball players have to continually check where the second defender is before deciding where to pass the ball, all the while dealing with more pressure from the first defender who now knows that he has cover from behind! This is not a problem in basketball or netball, where the ball is more easily controlled and players can continue to read the play even as they prepare to pass to a team-mate, but it is a serious problem in games where the ball is more difficult to control.

Note that at the elite level, defenders may be given the advantage. For example, if a basketball team knows that their next opponents will probably employ aggressive full-court or half-court pressure defences, they can practise with 5 attackers facing 7 defenders. In this way, both the ball handler and the next logical receiver will be double teamed, with no one else completely open! Practice under those conditions should begin to prepare a team for any kind of pressure. It is interesting to note that in March 2000, as Michigan State prepared for their NCAA Final game with Florida State, a team whose strategy was based on intense pressure defences, they used exactly this approach. Another example of this was the strategy used by Coach Hayley, the volleyball coach at USC, as he prepared for a top-of-the-table battle with Washington State in September 2010. Recognising that the latter were a great blocking team, he used 4 front-line blockers in his practices instead of the usual 3.

Primary and Secondary Rules

The fundamental structure of every game is determined by its primary rules, rules that cannot be altered without creating a different game. With beginners, start with as few rules as possible to allow play to flow, and introduce new rules only as they are needed. Modify any rule if it will make a play practice simpler and more enjoyable for novice players, but introduce the real rule as soon as it is feasible to do so.

Game Conditions

Play can be shaped in many ways, but especially by applying conditions that take on the power of rules for the duration of a specific practice. Very often, an apparently simple condition will have an immediate influence when first applied but will continue to shape the development of both tactical and technical ability over time. An example of this is the one-touch rule in soccer.

At the elite level in basketball, a game could be conditioned so that ball handlers can only go one on one to score, with no screens or give-and-go moves allowed. There will be a rapid improvement in their ability to operate from the triple threat position, combining outside shooting with fake and drive moves for the layup or the pull-up jumper. This condition can set the scene for a whole range of technical and tactical development when used by a knowledgeable coach. A precise sequence could focus on improving one-on-one defensive skill, then defensive help, in-and-out cuts to get open, offensive spread and balance, penetration and pitch-out moves, defensive recovery by the helping defender, drive-and-dish moves, and so on, until a whole range of skilled play in basketball has been explored and developed.


Since the goal defines the objective of the game, it can be used as a powerful tool in shaping the nature of a play practice. With this in mind, the goal can be whatever the teacher decides it is. The only rule is that with beginners, scoring should always be easy!

An easy goal encourages shooting, while a difficult goal tends to encourage more passing, so a game of basketball in which the goal is the backboard would immediately lead to far more shots. It would also quickly force defenders to put pressure on the ball and to stay much closer to opponents at all times. There would be no zone defences!

In the rugby codes, the goal is the whole width of the pitch, but it is possible to use such a goal in practices for many other games. When developing one-on-one dribbling skills in soccer, hockey, or basketball, the goal of the dribbler can be to get the ball over the goal line at any point. This forces defenders to be honest and to try hard to prevent the dribbler from going past them.

Very large goals in soccer encourage players to lift their vision and shoot from long distances, while very small goals encourage them to inter-pass or dribble for a good close shot. Four-goal soccer encourages attackers to switch play from one side of the field to the other to counter defenders, who use the principle of concentration to stop them. In lacrosse, attackers must learn how to play behind the goal, so turning the goal around encourages players to use this space.

Differential Scoring

Differential scoring systems can be a valuable tool in shaping play. In basketball, the 3-point shot was introduced to help resolve some of the problems the professional game faced when defenders jammed the scoring lanes.

With beginners, the problem is worse because of poor shooting ability. Allocating 10 points for an outside 5-metre (15 foot) shot that hits the rim and 20 points for a basket forces defenders to play honestly. This in turn opens up other attacking options, such as a layup for 5 points! One idea that has yet to be developed is the notion of allowing players to add points or goals to their score in a practice for specific aspects of skilled play—for example, exhibiting sporting behaviour or executing a specific tactic.

Playing Area Dimensions

The basic rule is that while beginners need plenty of space to play effectively, good players must learn to play in limited space. The first soccer game for beginners should have no boundaries, so space is almost unlimited. On the other hand, a game of 5-a-side soccer played on a 20-by-30-metre (70 by 90 feet) pitch encourages players to value space, apply the principles of play in attack and defence, support the ball player intelligently, and pass accurately. Five-a-side long soccer, played on a pitch 80 metres long by 30 metres wide (260 by 90 feet) and with 20-metre (70 feet) goals, develops long passing and long shots for goals, provides many opportunities for players to control high balls, and forces players to lift their vision.


Balls used in invasion games should be appropriate to the age and experience of players. Even the simple modification of using a volleyball in the early stages of teaching soccer immediately encourages a more open game instead of the moving scrimmage that develops when a regulation ball is used. When teaching American football, the black max mini ball allows youngsters to throw farther with greater accuracy, thus opening up greater tactical possibilities.

Reining in Star Players

To ensure that every child has an opportunity for meaningful participation, it may be necessary to limit players from becoming stars. This can be done by restricting the dribble in basketball, allowing only two touches in soccer or hockey, or stating rules that players can never move in front of the ball in attack or should not shoot at the goal. This strategy promotes inclusive practice. Handled properly, it encourages leadership, brings less-able players into the game more, and actually helps the stars improve their own play. It can be extended to team conditions in a similar way.


Limiting the time of games minimises the endurance demands, keeps the score closer, and maintains player commitment. The following sections deal with this concept in more detail.

More Excerpts From Play Practice 2nd Edition