TGfU: Back to the Basics


On Feb 11 2013, Dr Len Almond came to the university to talk to our students about TGfU, the original ideas that informed the approach, and where he felt we should be going in the future. It was a very stimulating talk, and I’ve tried to summarise what were, to me, the main points below.

  • We need to develop young people who truly understand the nature of games;
  • We need to develop players with game intelligence;
  • We need to help players appreciate the translation of knowledge in games (i.e. when, how and why to use techniques and tactical principles);
  • We need to develop games players who are playful and confident to experiment at will;
  • Good games players need to have tactical understanding AND technical prowess (i.e. what is tactically desirable must be technically possible – Alan Launder in Play Practice);
  • In order to achieve this, we need to  start by teaching children in very basic game forms…

The final point is of vital importance since it is something very few teachers and coaches currently do. Creating developmentally appropriate game forms often means:

> Reducing tactical complexity to make decision making easier (before gradually increasing it);
> Increasing opportunities for success (and therefore building confidence);
> Focusing on a much smaller range of possible techniques than is normal.

This challenge – of creating units of work around very basic game forms – therefore presented the impetus for three weeks of practical work from the students who were given the following practical task:

Create a 6-week unit of work for complete beginners in one of the four game forms drawing on the pedagogical principles of exaggeration, representation, tactical complexity and sampling.

In order to assist them in their task, the students were given a map of the basic tactical principles involved in each sport form along with a slide to suggest ways in which they might modify their games to using the pedagogical principles (see below).

STEP modification slide

Below I have summarised the output under the headings of the game forms. I include the unit plans developed by each group and some videos of selected games they decided to demonstrate.

Target games

The group decided to have a indoor golf-themed unit of work, and devised the following games. Some example videos show how two of the games might work.

Week Tactical principle Game
1 Hand-eye coordination Throwing to targets
2 Stance and footwork Lilly pad putting
3 Calculating distances Cliff hanger
4 Choosing a target River crossing
5 Risk-reward calculations Bunker buster
6 Culmination of weeks 1-5 Create your own mini-golf course

Net/wall games

This group decided to have a tennis-themed unit of work, and devised the following games. Some example videos show how two of the games might work.

Week Tactical principle Game
1 Appreciating court length Long and thin
2 Appreciating court width Short and fat
3 Using court length with racket Length and accuracy
4 Using court width with racket Width and accuracy
5 Stroke accuracy Full court game with targets
6 Culmination of weeks 1-5 Full court game with higher net

Striking/fielding games

This group decided to have a baseball-themed unit of work, and devised the following games. The example videos show how two of the games might work.

Week Tactical principle Game
1 Short fielding Strike out
2 Long fielding Wall catch
3 Base running Running rings
4 Hitting for accuracy Hand squash trios
5 Hitting for power and accuracy Multi(base)ball
6 Culmination of 1-5 Rainbow baseball

Invasion games

This group decided to have a netball-themed unit of work, and devised the following games. The example videos show how two of the games might work.

Week Tactical principle Game
1 Maintaining possession (simple) Keep the ball
2 Maintaining possession (and advancing the ball in areas) Four corners
3 Maintaining possession (against defense) Four corners (overload) 5v3
4 Appling pressure to the ball Four corners 4v3 (or 4v4)
5 Positional play Passing sequences
6 Appling basic netball rules High-5 netball


I also asked that the students to think ahead, into the following few years, to suggest how they might draw on Bruner’s notion of the spiral curriculum to develop a longer-term series of units that, over time, would form a whole school PE curriculum. By way of example, I’ve created an outline for invasion games PE curriculum over three years, below.

Invasion spiral curriculum

The students drew on two main resources for inspiration in developing their units. First, the original text by Thorpe, Bunker and Almond from 1986 that contains example units of work for basketball and tennis; and second, Mitchell, Oslin and Griffin’s 2005 text on Teaching Sports Concepts and Skills.

However, most of their games are original and they tried hard to show how each game met the requirements we’d set out for simple game forms (reduced tactical complexity, more opportunities for success, focus on a small set of techniques). Of course, we’ll never really know if the unit plans are effective until we try them out in schools, but I hope that, if Len were to have seen our games, he’d be satisfied that we were moving in the right direction. That is to say, I hope we’ve been able to capture the original intentions and spirit of the TGfU movement in our short experiment.

‘Spiralling’ out of control? Getting a grip on your coaching curriculum

I was recently at an event for PE teachers, the purpose of which was to collectively design a new curriculum for PE in the county. No small feat! On the day, various groups of teachers were tasked with developing schemes of work for different sports to cover an entire key stage (or three years). Many of the teachers were experienced in such matters, but nevertheless struggled with the task. They tended to fall back on existing schemes for given sports, ignoring, to a large degree, the new guidelines that had been laid out for the new curriculum. What struck me most, however, was the general lack of thought and discussion going on in the room. Much of this was due, no doubt, to the tight time frame allowed to complete the task, but guiding principles were also conspicuous by their absence. So I began to wonder: what could have helped the teachers in their task? And do coaches face the same sorts of problems in organising seasons of work? My answer below is twofold: yes and yes. And to help me answer these questions, I draw on and combine two important ideas in education: ‘the spiral curriculum’ and ‘threshold concepts’.

The Spiral Curriculum

I have to confess, as a young coach I tended to work in a mainly reactive fashion: dealing each week with what went wrong in last week’s game; only working proactively briefly at each end of a season. Even in developmental coaching, I’d rarely plan more than eight weeks at a time, and then it would be based around coaching fundamental skills, one-by-one, in a fairly boring and predictable manner. It was not until I came across the work of the great Harvard educational psychologist, Jerome Bruner, who had much to say about developmental curricula, that I really began to think deeply and coherently about how I organised my terms and seasons of work. One of Bruner’s main insights for me, was the need to think about and focus on what’s really important in learning a subject, right from the earliest contact.

“We might ask, as a criterion for any subject taught in primary school, whether, when fully developed, it is worth an adult’s knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person a better adult. If the answer to both questions in negative or ambiguous, then the material is cluttering the curriculum.” (Bruner, 1977: p. 52)

One of Bruner’s most important related ideas was the spiral curriculum: a method of designing a course of work around basic yet fundamentally important and recurring themes in a discipline. Bruner was involved in reforming science education in the US in the 1950s and 60s and applied this concept in the highly successful and acclaimed programme, Man: A Course of Study. Below, Bruner explains how fundamental themes in science might be taught to very young children in an ‘intellectually honest’ fashion.

“If the understanding of number, measure and probability is judged critical in the pursuit of science, then instruction in these subjects should begin… as early as possible in a manner consistent with the child’s forms of thought. Let the topics be developed and redeveloped in later grades… Many curricula are originally planed with a guiding idea much like the one set forth here. But as curricula are actually executed, as they grow and change, they often lose their original form and suffer relapse into a certain shapelessness.” (Bruner, 1977: p. 54)

This ‘shapelessness’ was what I had seen at the teachers’ workshop. I therefore wondered if the notion of the spiral curriculum might have helped the PE teachers develop a more effective and original set of plans to teach three years of basketball, for example, to KS3 children. Here is my sketch showing how the idea of the spiral curriculum could help shape three terms of work in a given sport (figure 1, below).

Figure 1. Spiral curriculum

In the example of basketball, “the main themes” are the fundamental tactical problems common to all invasion games, as shown in figure 2, below. These problems are, of course, very basic and abstract. Most coaches and teachers, however, are well capable of thinking of ways to develop the idea of penetration and scoring, for example, over the course of three terms (or seasons). You may begin by teaching the use of a simple attacking dribble in the 1v1 situation in term 1, before moving towards the performance of a screen and roll in a 3v3 situation by the end of term 3.

Figure 2. Common tactical problems in invasion games

This is all fine in theory, but one thing Bruner doesn’t quite explain is that different learners appreciate solutions to problems and develop skills at different rates and often face barriers to understanding with each journey through a loop of the spiral. To better appreciate how learners move from surface levels of understanding to deeper levels, the notion of ‘threshold concepts’ can be instructive.

Threshold Concepts

Imagine now that we were to zoom in on a single “main theme” from figure 1 (above), let’s say covering defence. Negotiating this problem – how to provide adequate defensive cover when on the opposite side of play to the ball? – is important in all invasion games, but basketball has a particularly useful concept known as ‘helpside’ defence that is taught as part of a man-to-man defensive system. When I first learned about ‘helpside’ positioning at a summer camp aged 15, it immediately transformed my understanding of team defence. Switching between stances and positions as the ball moved from side to side quickly became second nature to me. I also transfered this understanding into football, and quickly became a much better central defender as a result.

Understanding ‘helpside’ defence is therefore a threshold concept, a “conceptual idea that is essentially both simple and memorable and yet also highly generative in that it contains richly layered implications for all kinds of educational contexts” (Meyer & Land, 2006: p. 7). Threshold concepts are like ‘portals to a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about things’; they lead to seeing things in a new way; and without them, learners often find it difficult to progress to deeper levels of understanding. Without the concept of ‘helpside’, young basketball players often struggle to understand team defence. They are often capable of defending 1v1, but quite useless when required to defend away from the ball. Figure 3 (below) illustrates how the the two ideas – spiral curriculum and threshold concepts – can be effectively combined to plan for the development of learners over an extended period. It effectively depicts a single “main theme” from figure 1, showing how the threshold concept enables the learner to pass into a deeper level of understanding. Without the portal, the learner remains on the surface.

Figure 3. Threshold concept

In summary, threshold concepts are transformative, irreversible and integrative (i.e. they expose a previously hidden interrelatedness of things). All sports contain them and it is incumbent on us to identify them and work out the best ways and correct times to introduce them.

Coming back to my initial problem situation, had the PE teachers in the workshop asked themselves:

  • What are the main themes (or tactical problems) of the sport? And…
  • What threshold concepts will act as the portals to deeper levels of understanding in each theme?

…I believe they would have been in a much stronger positon to create comprehensive, coherent, integrated and exciting schemes of work. This is not an easy task. It requires in-depth knowledge of a sport and the patience to think about and carefully plan a spiral curriculum that meets the needs of a range of learners. However, the value of doing this kind of work cannot be underestimated for teachers and coaches who are serious about facilitating deep learning.


Bruner, J. S. (1977) The process of education. London: Harvard University Press.

Meyer, J. & Land, R. (2006) Overcoming barriers to student learning: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. London: Routledge.