Total Game and Physical Education


 Total Game 2

I am inspired by Total Football to affirm my beliefs about teaching holistically, teaching with the mission to instil something permanent and progressive in learners. Total Football “…is a tactical theory of football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. It was made famous by the Netherlands national football team in the 1974 FIFA World Cup…” ( This simple perspective of Total Football represents an understanding approach to coaching and playing that amazes me when it is not so obvious to others. The obvious genius of any team is the individual technique demonstration of its star players isn’t it or so say the opponents of such a roundabout way of equipping a team.  (Wouldn’t dare go any further into this potentially more emotional topic than religion – Football!)

Total Game to me will represent the ideal situation of the learner knowing the game through understanding. Intuition tells you that this only happens when the learner makes a decision that supports wanting to know more or testing what he already knows. The simple preceding statement represents a situation where the learner achieves the eureka moment, albeit may not be of the Newtonian levels, of understanding and of knowing exactly what he knows and correspondingly knowing what he doesn’t. This awareness is probably the holy grail of what all advocates of student-centered processes are gunning for. As you can imagine, when leveraging on human responses for different stimuli, it is a complex process involving many factors. When we look at games, the factors include from task, environment and individual (borrowing form Non-Linear Pedagogy terminologies). In team games, the interaction between different individuals adds an extra dimension to the complexity. Total Football speaks, some will say theoretically, of the ideal situation when everyone is clued in to each other’s actions and decision making rules. This allows strong predictive abilities in all that enhances the use of appropriate tactical concepts. Opponents of this approach lament about the dearth of technical focus which is never meant to be I believe.

Teaching for understanding suffers the same reputation among those who don’t understand it fully. What happens next is that the poor baby is thrown out with the bath water! I once sat through a presentation from a senior education leader who showed a short clip, perhaps 5 to 10 seconds, of a Physical Education (PE) class in action. The scene showed students in seemingly random activities with a couple or two engaging in conversation. Based on that, it was declared to be an unsuccessful teaching session with no obvious on-task activities and students talking.  A preceding clip was deemed excellent showing coordinated replication movements of students following an instructor demonstration. To me, this demonstrated the very real focus on instant gratification that may be seducing some stake holders that gets in the way of effective PE practices.

The idea of non-linearity in all areas of existence is pretty well talked about. From economics to consumerism to climate and so on and so forth. Recently I was reminded of this importance in non-direct approaches when reading some articles ( even on developing athletes in individual pursuit events like in track and field. One article spoke about the abilities of basketball players to do incredible well in jumping field events. However this ability erodes the moment dedicated jump training takes place in lieu of basketball training. The explanation for this is the development of muscular power that is varied in basketball training but lacking in specialised training. The coordination of the various muscle groups may be grossly predictable but not at the finer level. The different planes of component forces produce by the body are infinitely varied and this is not easily replicated by repetitively similar drills. There is also the psychological effect of no longer enjoying the game when it is taken away for the game player. For me, this reflects complexity that prevents total part-by-part breakdown of action behaviour and building it up without understanding interplay between parts that are never totally linear.

So what the preceding paragraphs tells me is that the non-linear complexity in game teaching considerations is a universal phenomenon. There is however a tipping point when the ‘economies of scale’ are reached and part-by-part focused training can happen, a more linear approach. For this to be effective, I will say players need to have reached an understanding maturity, a highly skilled learner, which allows them to do their automated minute changes based on direct instructions. You will see this happening at higher level games and events training that may give an observer the impression that direct instructional processes are the best. I see this happening with youth coaches and teachers who follow religiously training methods of much higher levels. Take an example of a freeze-play coaching strategy that is carried out often in football and in fact many other invasion games. While observing a local youth football training session, I noticed the very direct instructions given and the intentional repositioning at every freeze to accommodate the coach’s instructional objective for that play, i.e. coach-centric perhaps. (Disclaimer: No judgements meant as it is not fair to only observe for short time and try to evaluate). At that youth level, the players either understand perfectly what the curt instructions imply or they are following directions without any cognitive understanding. The cognitive load to process the instructions either hinders the beginner or is manageable for the more competent. So, an awareness of learners’ ability level to take on instructions meaningfully, i.e. cognitive loading, needs to be considered.

At school level, I can imagine the issues we will have if we keep being guided by coaching strategies that focus on a different clientele. Without doubt, a lot of work done in coaching and teaching are closely related and, for a lot of times, aligned and similar. I am not advocating a ‘versus’ comparison but rather understand who we working with and always be reflective in our interactions.

So the Total Game is about the building up of information gathering abilities for the learners. This is a very powerful catalyst for own learning that we want to imbue in learners. Just focusing on this by the teacher will probably take care of all teaching needs. In order to achieve this, the repertoire of information gathering arsenal that teachers need, and we can assume they should be well trained in using, must be broad. It is about effective interaction between student and teacher. For a very, very long time the comfortable model for teaching is a classroom, one-way approach. In hoping to achieve the Total Game, this has to be seriously relooked. All the prerequisites are already there I believe. We teachers have been using all types of teaching styles catering for many learning styles for a very long time. The difference is to bring this out to the forefront and hopefully match progressive outcomes that caters to this kind of teaching and learning, i.e. think pedagogy, content and assessment.

One of the interesting point that came up a few times recently is the role of talking during teaching and coaching. Very experience coaches and teachers have been known to voice out against the need to take precious time out from training and teaching to talk. I think we give too much attention to this ONE element of interaction, an interface to the operating system that is the pedagogy. Seeing, talking and listening are biologically primary skills. Visual observation is probably the most short-term influencing factor for influencing behaviour changes, if the volition is there for the learner. The fact is there is a need to give instructions for teachers and receive confirmation that it is understood. This can take many forms, verbal and non-verbal. For the teacher, observation is also a form of information gathering tool that may suffice at times. To the casual observer, the verbal form seems to take up a lot of time that could be put to better use. What really needs to be ask is not if too much talking is taking place but rather if there is enough interaction between teacher and learner to ensure instructions are understood and learning takes place. This means that the interface with the learner needs to meet the expectation of pedagogy used. Talking is one facilitative interface tool for information giving and gathering. Do we want to limit talking the action or talking the information gathering interface?

Instead of the word ‘Talk’, let’s use the word ‘Interface to ensure Understanding’. If we do this, then all teaching tips that limits talking in lesson to ratios will seem very silly indeed (I have seen ratio of 20:80 for talk : action being recommended for a successful PE lesson). It is easy to get excited, or lack of, with the way we engage students using different interfaces, e.g. talking, using Information Technology, checklist, etc. We shouldn’t get carried away with the appropriateness of the interface without evaluating the pedagogical approach behind it.



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