Implementing a game model “in-full” over the course of a season – a coaches reflection.

Despite having worked with GAME models in my coaching practice now for the last 3/4 years, prior to this season just gone (21/22) I have rarely been able to implement my GAME model ‘In-full“. I use the term ‘in-full’ to describe using the GAME model within the planning, delivery and analysis stages of football practice, which may be considered its intended purpose from its creators. This may also be described as using a GAME model in ‘its entirety”.

Now If you have followed my writing and appearances on podcasts you’ll be aware that a GAME model can be used in any context, at any level of sport, which is the great benefit of this concept, especially with the football game. Many football coaches that I know and have conversed with over the last two years through purchasing my HOW-TO-GUIDES on GAME models often only use the concept ‘in-part‘. Some examples include:

  • Using the GAME model to map out their playing philosophy across the four phases of the GAME.
  • Using the GAME model to create their tactical principles for their team and develop their coaching sessions from them.
  • Using the GAME model to develop a contextualised GAME model for their club and progress the principles at different ages and stages.
  • Using the GAME model to inform feedback and other coaching behaviours
  • Using the GAME model principles to analyse performance

The way the GAME model concept is incorporated by a coach is perhaps down to the context, and the constraints of said context. For example, the use of analysis may either not be relevant for a low-level grassroots teams, or analysis tools (such as a camera and analysis software) may not be available to the coach/club. In either case, the GAME model is not required to be implemented ‘in-full’ (for planning, delivery and analysis). This is not to say that a GAME Model used ‘in-part’ (such as the examples above) is not successful nor beneficial to players. Many coaches may only use the GAME model in planning stage of coaching, likewise others may only use it in the delivery stage. I have had success using the model ‘in-part’ in the past, as have may football coaches within their own unique contexts. However, I have always believed through my teachings on the masters degree, that the GAME model concept is most beneficial though being utilised in-full.

What is a GAME model? Check out my previous blog here

My initial GAME model for football
My previous experiences of implementing a GAME model ‘in-part’

As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, prior to the season just gone, all of my experiences of implementing a GAME model were ‘in-part’ in some form or another. Having briefly learned about GAME model’s in my third year. I first introduced the concept with a local grassroots team I was coaching at the time back in the 2018/19 season. This model was very brief, and was mainly constructed through looking at statistics that led to successful performances/results. As this was my first time using a GAME Model and really teaching myself how to use it, I only really flirted with introducing principles and working on them within the training sessions.

The first GAME Model I created

I always remember one game when we won something like 7 – 3 (not that results matter at grassroots!). I mention the result because I noted that 4 of the goals had come from the principle of ‘an isolated player’ that I had introduced in training in many times. After the game I remember thinking to myself ‘it works’. I saw on the pitch how the theory had worked in practice, and lead to a great performance and win for my team. In this moment it became obvious to me that this concept works, and that I needed to develop over the next couple of years in my coaching, and knew it would bring a more aligned level of coaching practice compared to what I had done in the past (mostly folk pedagogy – which I refer to later in this blog post).

Moving on to a year later, the first presentable GAME model that I created was for my MSc module submission, and I based it on the private football academy that I was coaching for at the time. This academy was as expected working with high level football players who where on the fringes of making an professional academy, which if you check out my GAME model page can see this reflection in my model. I built this GAME model with the companies playing philosophy in mind. Although this company had all the tools to be able to utilise a GAME model in full, unfortunately due to my position within the company, I only used this model to inform my coaching behaviours (feedback, questioning etc were based around the principles).

My GAME model – with principles translated (or contextualised) at different age groups.

The main success from the GAME model in this context was that it removed my ‘folk pedagogy’. Folk pedagogy refers to a coach saying the same things they always have, which if you begin to progress from an amateur to professional level in coaching, may no longer be useful or relevant feedback to players. For example I would often shout the word ‘chase’ (meaning press) all the time when my team was out of possession. This related to my experience as a grassroots player then later a grassroots coach, and was relevant to the level I coached and played at the time – in which (with all due respect) was a basic understanding of the football game (i.e when I am out of possession I must try to regain the ball immediately).

However, as I very quickly found from first hand experience, this feedback was irrelevant and actually inadequate feedback to academy level players who had a much more developed understanding of the game. Players at this level either want or need to know which type of press to use, when to press, pressing triggers (which relates to the pressing sub-phase of defensive transition), or when to instead concede possession (relating to the recovering formation sub-phase of defensive transition). Without having my football mental model and game model in place, I would have lacked understanding of how these higher level youth players saw the game, and would not have been able to teach the players how to perform the company philosophy through the principles of the GAME model.

An example of how the principles would inform my session activities, practice design and coaching behaviours. The process allowed me to remove my folk pedagogy over time, and only work on sessions and provide feedback that related to the princples of the GAME model.

If you want to read more on folk pedagogy I suggest reading the work of Abraham & Colins (2011).

“The detriment of Folk pedagogy its experiential source often means it is without theoretical or critical basis meaning coaches will inevitably default to using heuristic based solutions when problems arise”.

(Abraham & Collins, 2011, P19)

Moving on again – after the first covid lockdown I took up the manager position of a local amateur women’s team in Leeds, England. I redeveloped my initial GAME model for this team, but quickly realised over a period of 2 months that my football mental model did not reflect how my players saw or thought about the football game, and that the principles I was attempting to coach where infact far too in-depth and unsuitable for the team at the time.

My first experience coaching in amateur women’s football in Leeds, England, UK

Having eventually contextualised the GAME model to use 8 main principles across only the attacking and defending phases of the game (check the slideshow below), my main useage of the GAME model was to develop weekly training sessions from the principles, and similarly use the principles to form the basis of my feedback and coaching behaviours during both training and games. Although it took much longer than I initially expected, over my short period at the club (around 6 months) we eventually began to see some of the players incorporate some of the principles into their play during both training and in matches. This was the main success of incorporating the model ‘in-part’ in this context, and eventually lead to the team winning our first league game of the season prior to my departure soon after.

My next club was a good platform to implement the GAME model in-full. As soon as I got offered the job I began to redevelop my initial game model once again to align to the clubs playing philosophy. Having learnt from my previous experience and as we entered the team mid-season, I initially decided to focus on 4 principles in the attack phase and 4 principles in the defensive phase for the remaining part of the season. Yet, feeling that the club would have players of a higher standard and more developed understanding of the game, I built a contextualised the GAME model with 32 principles that I aimed for my players to learn over the coming seasons.

It actually ended up that myself and my coaching team all worked from the GAME model. Myself and my assistants would plan the training sessions each week initially based on the 8 initial principles, but over time working on the principles from the GAME model. As in the last context we would plan both our coaching behaviours and any feedback to the chosen principle. But this was only one part of what we were doing. Having brought in a mental skills, technical coach and S & C coaches to the club, they developed their own plans related to the requirements of the principles from the GAME model (see slideshow below). This was in line through my belief in using the tactical periodisation approach in coaching practice, and creating an aligned coaching plan for all our staff.

I also brought in an performance analyst with the club to assess the players performances against the principles through watching the games back, and providing the players with a post-match slideshow each week. Through doing all of this we immediately began to see the performances and eventually results in the close season, and was a good sign that the GAME model concept once again worked, on this occasion being close to being implemented “in-full”. I could tell the benefits of having some clear principles that some of the key players had understood, and those that bought in with the analysis provided also began to see great improvements in their performances againsts the GAME model principles. This was a good starting point to see how a GAME model could benefit player DM, performances and results over a period of time. However, the GAME model process was still not implemented in full. I wanted the youth coaches at the club to teach the players in the youth teams the principles from the game model too, in order to prepare their progression up the first team, but unfortunately there just wasn’t the buy-in their at the time.

So, what had I learnt during this time? Well it was obvious to me that the concept of GAME models worked! As I progressed through coaching over those 3 years I had learnt how to use the GAME model concept, and been able to implement further parts of the GAME model in each context, and observed how this had benefited players in both performances, results and general game understanding of my the playing philosophy. However, although I had a chance to implement the GAME model closer to its intended purpose at my last experience, I just didn’t feel that I had enough buy-in or understanding from the coaches, players or club as a whole of how this could concept could benefit their teams for years to come. The biggest reflection I made was that although we had analysis at this club, it wasn’t me conducting the analysis, or presenting it back to the players. There was never an opportunity (or requirement) for players to sit in a classroom and allow me to talk through and explain the principles through using analysis. So, when searching for my next move, I knew it needed to be at a higher level, where players perhaps expected coaches to plan, deliver and analysis against a certain playing philosophy.

The next move – an opportunity to implement the GAME model in full

So, its July 2021, and I have just accepted a new role to become the U15 head coach at Kickabout Performance Academy in Sheffield, England. A development academy for youth football players aged 11 – 16 that aims to move players onto semi-professional and professional academies or youth structures. Fast forward to November, and I got offered the role of Head of Football Development, with my task to develop a new curriculum for the academy. My first step was to create a GAME model, and through discussions with the director and the academy manager we decided to base it on principles that we felt youth players would be expected to perform at an proffesional football academy. The GAME model wasn’t based on a philosophy, it was more about teaching players basic academy principles, meaning each youth team at KPA was very adaptive. The football model reflected the players understanding of and how they saw the football game, and the model was contextualised to reflect what we might expect at both the foundation phase (U11 – U12) and the youth development phase (U13 – 16).

The process of creating a curriculum in line with the KPA vision – my first steps as head of football development

The exciting part of this role for me was that for the first time, I (and the coaches at KPA) were actively using the GAME model process “in-full’ on a regular basis, and everyone had bought into it. On the Monday morning I would plan session based on one of the principles from the GAME model, each coach would then deliver the session and plan their feedback based on the session topic (the principle from the GAME model). Coaches would then encourage this during the teams match on the Saturday and refer to the principles in team talks, and on the following Monday I would then analyse the game using the principles from the game model.

An example of the in possession principles for the Kickabout Performance Academy game model

The huge benefit at KPA was the KPA football centre, that provided the players with a classroom and an opportunity for me to present back my analysis. With the concept being new to players, I initially decided to use analysis sessions as an opportunity to demonstrate the principles to players through previous clips of games I had found. I noted over time that this aided the players understanding of the principles, and eventually both myself and other coaches were able to deliver an analysis session with a report of performance against the GAME model principles.

As I was still the U15 head coach, I noted several key developments in my team, and my coaching practice over the course of the season with my players through implementing the GAME model “in-full”, which were fascinating observations. However, the main observation that I noted throughout the season, was that this process of implementing the GAME model ‘in-full’ with my team fostered the development of a ‘shared mental-model“.

The Development of a shared mental model

The term ‘shared mental model’ can often have many meanings, but to me it essentially means that everyone in the team (the manager, the coach and the players) all share the understanding of the GAME model, the principles, and the resultant playing philosophy. In my opinion for the concept of the GAME model to work, you as the coach have to get to this point with your teams. Prior to my role at Kickabout with the womens team I managed, I remember one of the senior players coming to see me prior to the new season and telling me that my philosophy wasn’t clear with the players. What she was saying was that the team was yet to develop a shared understanding of their roles and responsiblities within the playing style, which was natural as it was a team full of new players with limited experience together. I note this because its important to understand that a shared understanding doesn’t happen straight away, the team may never get to this point (as I found at my last club). This process takes time. If you manager a professional team, I would edge a bet that this period of time is much shorter, due to more contact time with the players. When you train once a week, and play once a week, it takes a lot longer.

Coach Holmshaw delivering a training session

When I first introduced the model with these U15 players, it was obvious they had never come across anything like this before, and it took a good period of time before the team began to play in the image of the GAME model. Kickabout is a really unique from a coaching perspective, as all of the youth players also play for various grassroots teams, and when I first took over you could see that each player played in the playing style of their Sunday team, each decision and resultant action they made reflected their Sunday teams playing philosophy, So as you can imagine the process to getting towards a shared way of playing through the Kickabout GAME model took a good period of time, albeit a little easier as we didn’t have a playing philosophy as such.

A training session with Kickabout Performance Academy in Sheffield, England.

At the start of the journey on the coaching pitch, there was initially a lot of confusion with the lads. They would be introduced to principles in training they had never heard off (half space, wide space is a great example) and be asked to do things differently in games to what they were used to doing in different moments of the game (defensive lines over man making was one of note). As you might guess this lead to some resistance from players, and performances were as inconsistent as results.

My Initial process to help improve understanding of my GAME model was through conversations at training and during analysis sessions as I mentioned, which allowed me to explain and demonstrate the principles both auditory and visually from my conception, and over time explaining how it would benefit the team. Over the next few months the team went through more periods of confusion and more inconsistencies. I had to change the formation based on the players feedback several times, and even change a few of the principles to better suit the players. We had to get on the same page with the language and terminology being used, and go through a further mixed period of performances and results.

Eventually, I first noticed the development of a shared understanding in a fixture in the beginning of December. I noticed some of the lads talking about the principles from the game model, using the ‘Jargon’ and clearly sharing the same understanding as me of what this jargon meant on the football pitch (i.e Half Space, diamonds, triangles etc). From the sideline, I could see in the game the principles being demonstrated by the players, in attack, in transition and in defensive organisation.

Over the coming weeks, I noticed jargon was used on the pitch, as a common language. Players began to talk more in team talks discussing the principles, and explaining how to use them in the match to our advantage. Moreover, I noted in the analysis sessions that the players had become more engaged, more interested, and would take part in sharing their thoughts more often.

The team had even got to the point of using the ‘common language’ when discussing the principles is sessions, and actually coaching each other through both session actives and in the games. Through this, I once again began to remove my ‘folk pedagogy’ in my coaching practice. I would only recite the princples, using our developed common language within my team talks, my reflections and my analysis sessions. At the time this was perhaps subconscious, but in reflection my coaching became very aligned to the GAME model, a trait of expertise as Abraham & Collins (2011) might suggest. Collectively, the team had now developed a shared understanding of the GAME model and all the principles. This process had taken about 6 – 7 months.

A virtual analysis session

What followed?

Firstly we got the performances better, and better, and better. I would smile during my analysis sessions watching the games back at how much more aligned the players performances (both individual and team) were to the GAME model. It seemed like each week the team began to perform more of the principles. Then suddenly the team suffered a shock 10 – 0 defeat to a local side and didn’t particularly have a great game, nor demonstrated any of the principles. I remember thinking at the time ‘we have just about got a shared understanding – how has this happened?’. Perhaps there was a multitude of reasons, but as often the skill in coaching is moving past the result quickly and focusing on the next game.

The next weekend the match comes around, I could see the players needed some positive talk, and that was my focus – building them up to feel more confident on the pitch. I remember only briefly going over the principles, and it wasn’t needed. The team wins 4 – 0 and demonstrates the YPD GAME model superbly. it was a magnificent performance and brilliant win – this was the catalyst needed!

We then started to see the results – we win the next game, then the next, then we draw, then we win again and suddenly the team are second in the table. I noted how the shared understanding grew further in each of these games, and did the use of the principles in each moment of the game. I kept noting in each fixture how the teams performances were more aligned to the game model, and the results continued to follow. This shared understanding didn’t just include the princples, but also a understanding of each others roles and responiblites positionally within the model. This was great to see and demonstrated that the concept was really working with the team. We ended up loosing the last two games of the season, but even in defeat I still noted that this team that I had now coached for 9 months was playing in the image of the Kickabout GAME model, and that was the biggest success for me!

Coach Holmshaw delivering a team talk

My last game with the team was against a local U16 side as a post season fixture. The team hadn’t played in 4 weeks, the numbers at training were really inconsistent, and as a few lads were away we had to draft in three players that from some of the players Sunday teams. We had 12 players, and had to play one of our GK’s at left-back. If you were a gambler you would have expected the team to have been on the end of a bad result, and I wouldn’t have bet against you. What happened? We were leading 3 – 0 with 5 mins to go (eventually we win 3 – 2). This was for me the best performance from the team (even though many of the players were actually missing). We had 3 new players, we had one of our GK’s at left-back, against a U16 team that were no push-overs. It was evident to me that the team had developed such a good and shared understanding of the GAME model, or should I say our GAME model, that even with a GK at left-back, and two new lads that we threw into the team for the first time, we won the game, and won it well!

So my conclusion- what did I learn?

Well, through my experiences of using a GAME model in many different contexts, ages, genders, abilities and teams – The concept works. But as I mentioned above this is only in part, and that might be all you want as a football coach, it might be that all your teams needs.

But what did I learn with my U15 team at Kickabout? I learnt that by implementing the GAME model in-full, by using it on a day-to-day basis to plan your training sessions, plan your coaching behaviours (including feedback), plan your team talks and formations and to analyse your team – over time it can foster the development of a shared understanding of your GAME model. Now I add no disclaimer on results, that’s perhaps dependent on your philosophy, but it will certainly improve the performances on both a team and individual level.

As a football player, all I knew was that when I had possession of the ball I had to either clear it or play it forwards to a teammate. And when I didn’t have possession, I had to win it back. As a player I had no clear understanding in my head of my roles and responsbilites in either movement of the game, nor what playing style or philosophy we were aiming towards. This contributed to a very basic understanding of the football game. If you want to create good tactical players, you need to be using a GAME model. If you want players to reflect your playing philosophy, they need to know what this looks like and what to do in every moment of the game – in which the GAME model provides.

However – the key is gaining the shared understanding. I have only ever achieved this with the U15 at Kickabout, which may be through implementing this model in full. Although I’m sure that I could have achieved this with more time in my previous roles implementing the GAME model in part (the analysis just makes it easier haha!).

Thanks for reading!!!

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