Why The Game Isn't Enough

Rich Clarke

‘The only way to develop agility is to play the game’

I have heard this a few times, but don’t agree with it. Of course, the game is very important, as is playing experience. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t construct training to improve certain qualities which contribute to the game.

If game experience was the only way to develop agility, then why would we have such huge differences between performance levels with athletes who have been ‘playing’ for similar amounts of time? Of course, time ≠ experience and we can’t control for everything. But one of the main considerations outside of talent/genetics is that some athletes have just been exposed to better coaching. Meaning they have been exposed to carefully constructed tasks which improve an aspect of the performance puzzle. This has allowed them to learn more and perform better when things get put back together.

One of the common rationales for why agility can’t be developed outside of the competition is that the game has so many constraints in it we can’t replicate. For example, emotional, perceptual and environmental. Therefore, our training isn’t specific enough to transfer. But isn’t that coaching?

Every coach’s skill is based on how to manipulate the task in order to overload a certain component of performance to enhance learning. If none of that transferred and it had to be the game because of all the other interacting constraints, wouldn’t the coach’s role would be pretty pointless?

The main principle here which is worth highlighting is that a representative task is a sliding scale. Not a yes or no criteria.

Our role of S&C coaches is to understand what it takes to win and what physical components contribute to that performance. Then to plan training activities to order optimise those components and make sure they enhance the chances of winning. This becomes a little more complex in the context of agility because of the link between the physical and the perceptual components. And remember these are linked from both a performance and injury prevention perspective. The game or their sports specific training is of course very useful for the physical and perceptual components. So, we should first ask ‘what does their practice already give them?’ Identify what’s needed, but not already provided, and work out how to provide it.

Team sport coaches are mostly focused on the teams technical and tactical components of performance. Therefore, their training design focusses on developing those things. But it isn’t possible to optimally develop everything at once and the physical performance components can be neglected. Hence why the role of an S&C coach even exists. Even from a perceptual skills perspective, there are so many influencing factors (which are also linked to physical attributes) that some of these are also missed (read my previous post here).

Another example links to my post on youth specific considerations for COD. If just playing the game was an optimal development tool for movement skills, we would see better technical improvements from playing time and less athletes with physical limitations and negative habits. A change in skill requires the athlete to have feedback. And when playing a game there is very little feedback provided to an athlete as to whether movement was optimal or not. There is the overall outcome of success in different situations, but there are too many other interacting factors which influence performance meaning their movement doesn’t adopt.

In order for optimal physical development, we need to overload the relevant the systems of the body. For example, to optimise maximal force output, the nervous system and the muscular system need to adapt. Therefore, there needs to be a controlled stimulus of intensity and volume with movements directed to certain parts of the body. To optimise coordination and movement skill there needs to be optimal challenge, repetition and feedback of success. Unfortunately playing the game usually gives us none of these in either circumstance.

In order to overload different parts of the performance puzzle, training needs to be structured appropriately. Some structures are further away from the real thing than others. Drills are the farthest, and games are the closest. But each is used deliberately to challenge a different aspect of performance, and then the puzzle is put back together. In my opinion as S&C’s we need to be better at sliding up the scale towards more representative tasks when it is appropriate and be better at helping to put the puzzle back together.

For me the mentality of ‘the game is the only way to develop agility’ is our modern-day mentality of ‘my job is to just get them strong’ which I think most people have moved away from.


Rich is the founder of Strength Coach Curriculums and an S&C coach who specialised in multi-directional speed. He runs the S&C provision for Bristol Flyers Basketball and consults with clubs across the globe while also leading the MSc programme at the University of South Wales