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International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching Volume 3 · Number 4 · 2008

489

Skill and Physiological Demands of Open and Closed Training Drills in Australian Football

Damian Farrow 1 , David Pyne 1,3 and Tim Gabbett 2 1 Australian Institute of Sport, PO Box 176, Belconnen ACT, 2617, Australia Email: damian.farrow@ausport.gov.au 2 Brisbane Broncos Rugby League Club, Queensland, Australia 3 University of Canberra, Australia

ABSTRACT This study compared the skill and physiological demands of open- and closed-skill drills commonly used in Australian football. Junior male players (n=30, age 16.7 ± 0.5 y, height 1.88 ± 0.07 m, mass 79.7 ± 6.5 kg; mean ± SD) completed two different training sessions involving a series of three open and closed training drills. Movement demands were quantified with global positioning system (GPS) technology, while physiological responses were assessed with heart rate, blood lactate concentration and self- reported ratings of physical exertion. Skill demands were quantified by video analysis and self-reported ratings of perceived cognitive complexity. Two of the three open drills were substantially more demanding in terms of distance (metres) covered (p < .05), rating of perceived physical exertion (p < .05), and relative intensity (p < .05). All open drills had significantly more moderate velocity efforts (p < .05) than their closed counterparts. There were no differences in post-session lactate concentration between the drills or formats, but heart rate was higher in the open format for the third drill. Analysis of skill demands revealed that while the number of ball disposals were equivalent in two of the three open and closed drill formats, there was a significantly larger volume of game-like decisions required of the participants in all open drills. Higher cognitive complexity scores were reported in the open drills (p < .05). In conclusion, the open drills were generally more physically and cognitively demanding than the closed drills commonly used in Australian Football. Coaches and conditioning staff should prescribe open drills to elicit higher physical and cognitive training loads in a game-specific context.

Key words: Australian Football, Game-Based Conditioning, Global Positioning System, Movement Patterns, Skill Drills

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INTRODUCTION High-intensity intermittent team sports such as water polo, football, and hockey require well developed speed, muscular strength and power, agility, and maximal aerobic power [1]. However, athletes also require highly developed technical skill and decision-making capability. Team sport coaches have the dilemma of balancing the development of skill and physiological requirements of the players. In Australian Football, coaches address these competing demands through the compartmentalizing of training. Training for fitness has traditionally focused on interval and running-based training or drills, often without any ball involvement. Similarly, skills training employs highly repetitious drills where the focus is skill execution with decision making removed. This form of drill is referred to as ‘closed’ in contrast to ‘open’ where the skills are performed in a more game-like environment with decision making and greater unpredictability. In recent years, an alternative approach called game-based training has evolved that combines the skill and physical elements in a coordinated and combined approach [2-6]. The use of games in training is based on the “specificity of practice principle” where the greatest improvements in performance occur when the physiological demands and movement patterns replicate the demands of the sport as closely as possible [7]. Put simply, transfer of practice to the game environment depends on the extent to which practice or training resembles the game [8]. Hence, practice sessions need to replicate actual game events and phases of play so players are repeatedly exposed to the intensity, decisions, processing speed and skill execution required in the competition setting. The use of game-based training simulates movement patterns in a competitive environment where athletes must perform under pressure and fatigue [3]. Game-based training offers an additional challenge to team- sport athletes not normally present in non-skill related conditioning activities.

PHYSIOLOGICAL DEMANDS AND MOVEMENT PATTERNS OF GAME- BASED TRAINING Several studies have investigated the physiological demands of game-based training [5, 9, 10] and compared these demands to competition [3]. In a study of rugby league players, Gabbett [3] found similar heart rate (152 beats.min -1 vs. 155 beats.min -1 ) and blood lactate concentrations (5.2 mmol.l -1 vs. 5.2 mmol.l -1 ) during competition and training consisting entirely of skill-based conditioning games. Sassi et al. [6] reported similar heart rate and blood lactate responses to game-based training and interval running without the ball in elite soccer players [6]. Finally Hoff et al. [11] reported similar heart rate responses of first division players to soccer-specific and conditioning training. Although game-based training can replicate the overall demands of team sport competition, this form of training may not replicate the high-intensity, repeated-sprint demands of competition [12]. In a study of elite female soccer players, no substantial differences were evident in the relative amount of time spent standing, walking, jogging, striding, and sprinting between small-sided games and international competition [12]. However, players performed significantly fewer repeated-sprint bouts in game-based training (1.0 bout per player) than in international competition (4.8 bouts per player). It appears that game-based training offers a specific method of conditioning the overall demands of team sport competition, but may not replicate the high-intensity, repeated-sprint demands of competition. There is also anecdotal evidence that ‘lazy’ players may ‘hide’ in game-based activities, thereby reducing the amount of physical work (e.g., number of high- intensity efforts, distance covered) performed.

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SKILL AND GAME-BASED TRAINING Previous research has not been overly successful in demonstrating the purported positive relationship between game-based training and skill development [13-15]. Despite this, there are pedagogical comparisons of the merits of a teaching ‘games for understanding’ model with a more ‘traditional skills’ teaching model in the physical education setting [16]. A particular concern of coaches is whether a game-based approach reduces the volume of individual skill practice and ultimately limits skill development. However, the limited evidence available does not substantiate this concern. Berry [13] found no difference in the skill execution performance of participants exposed to a 10-week game-based training approach for the sport of Australian football compared to a more traditional direct instructional approach. However, consistent with other naturalistic investigations of this kind, there were also limited differences in respect to the development of decision-making skill. Another issue is whether players (and coaches) derive confidence from the completion of closed “touch” drills given the greater number of skill execution opportunities coupled with minimal decision making. This type of drill typically leads to more successful execution during the training session and as a result players prefer them over open, generally more complex drills, despite the specificity of the open drills. This dissociation between a player’s subjective preference and the objective value of a drill to game performance is analogous to the impact of the contextual interference effect in motor skill learning. In this setting, learners prefer blocked practice conditions despite learning being superior in random practice conditions [17]. These issues are not trivial in the applied coaching setting and coaches are keen to determine whether open drills afford players the practice volume they desire, yet more closely simulate the game demands through the inclusion of a decision making element to the drill. Until now, physiological and skill-related examinations of the relative merits of game- based training have been completed separately. The aim of this study was to compare the physiological and skill components of open and closed drills within game-based training drills commonly used in Australian Football.

METHODS PARTICIPANTS Thirty male members of the Australian Institute of Sport – Australian Football League (AIS- AFL) academy program participated in this study. The physical characteristics of the subjects were: age 16.7 ± 0.5 y, height 1.88 ± 0.07 m, mass 79.7 ± 6.5 kg, and sum of seven skinfolds 51.4 ± 12.7 mm (mean ± SD). Informed consent was obtained from all participants.

EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN A cross-over design was employed with 15 of the participants completing the open drills on day 1 while the other 15 participants completed the closed drills. After one recovery day, the groups swapped and completed the other set of drills. Positional groups (i.e., defenders, midfielders and forwards) were equally allocated across the groups. Each session commenced with an identical 15-min warm-up followed by the completion of an open or an equivalent closed training session. The open and closed drills were completed within identical playing field dimensions and for the same duration. The aims of each drill (i.e., maintain possession of the ball using short kicks or a handball) and skill execution demands (i.e., kick length) were also matched as closely as possible. The amount of unpredictability and decision-making opportunities were the key planned differences

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between the open and closed drills with the physiological demands and volume of skill executions the key comparative variables of interest. All drills selected were familiar to the participants as they represented typical Australian football training drills in relation to drill duration and content, albeit participants had greater exposure to the closed drill variations.

PROCEDURE Closed Drills The closed drills consisted of the following:

3-Man Weave. A three-man handball weave was completed in a 15 m x 25 m playing area for 6 min 15 sec. Participants were instructed to handball the ball to their supporting teammate in a weave pattern as many times as possible in the 25 m length. At the end of the length, they handballed the ball to the next group of three players who would weave the ball back up the field ensuring that the drill was continuous in nature. Square Kicking Drill. A four-point kicking drill was then completed in a 30 m x 30 m square grid that required players to simply kick from one point to another in the square in a clockwise fashion and then follow their kick by running to the next point. This drill was also completed for 6 min 15 sec. Diamond Kicking Drill. This drill required players to kick and follow their ball in a pre- determined pattern (a diamond shape) that simulated a variety of kicking lengths (15-20 m) and movement patterns (i.e., running backwards after taking possession of the ball before kicking over a defensive player) common to the game. This drill was undertaken for 7 min.

Open Drills The corresponding open drills were completed for the same duration inside the same playing area’s to replicate as closely as possible the aims of the closed drill with the addition of opposition:

3-Man Weave. The drill was almost identical to the closed weave with the key difference being the participants had to use their handpassing skill to move the ball past two defenders positioned in front of them. Square Kicking Drill. This drill required the four players positioned on each point of the square to decide on which was the best kicking option relative to the position of two defenders who were free to move about inside the square. All players spent an equal period of time in the offensive and defensive roles. While players did not have to kick the ball in a clockwise fashion, the dynamics of the drill remained similar to its closed equivalent in that the players had to follow their kick. 5 vs. 5 vs. 5 Keepings Off Game. As the name implies, three teams of five players competed in a 40 m x 40 m playing area with the aim of maintaining possession of the ball through accurate kicking disposal over distances equivalent to the closed diamond kicking drill. Two digital video cameras (Sony HDR-FX1E, Sony Corporation, Japan) were used to track the skill performance of the participants. One camera provided an aerial view of the complete playing area whereas a second camera tracked the movement of the ball. Post-hoc inspection of the video by two of the researchers was undertaken to count the number of possessions, the number of decisions, and the quality of disposal execution or efficiency % (number of disposals that did not reach their intended target / number of disposals). A breakdown of activity level (i.e., players directly involved in the drill) for the open and closed versions of the three drills are shown in Table 1. The open and closed drills were relatively similar in terms of time spent active and inactive.

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Table 1. Ratio of Activity: Inactivity for the Open and Closed Drills

 

Closed

Open

 

Active (s)

Inactive (s)

Ratio

Active (s)

Inactive (s)

Ratio

Drill 1

125

250

1:2

112

263

1:2

Drill 2

75

300

1:4

100

275

1:3

Drill 3

Limited Inactivity

 

Limited Inactivity

Movement and Physiological Analysis A sub-group of 24 players were fitted with a global-positioning system (GPS) unit and a heart rate monitor using a shoulder harness underneath their training shirt. A MinimaxX (Catapult Ltd, Melbourne, Australia) GPS device was inserted into the shoulder harness just before the players took the field. A Polar Heart Rate monitor was also fitted (Pursuit Performance, Adelaide, Australia). Blood lactate concentrations were recorded at the conclusion of the final (third) drill. Ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) of the physical and cognitive demands of each drill were collected immediately after completion of each drill. After the players left the field, the MinimaxX device was retrieved and the captured information downloaded utilising Logan Plus™ software (Catapult Ltd, Melbourne, Australia). GPS data were analysed for total distance covered, relative intensity (i.e., m/min), number of moderate (i.e., 2-4 m/s) and high velocity (i.e., > 4 m/s) efforts and number of high accelerations (i.e., >4 m/s 2 ) efforts. The cognitive scale was developed specifically for the current study and required participants to rate each drill using the following questions as a guide. How much mental and decision-making activity was required in this drill? For example, thinking, deciding, remembering, looking and scanning. Was the drill easy or demanding, simple or complex? The scale ranged from extremely demanding (game like) to not demanding at all.

DATA ANALYSIS Descriptive analysis was completed for the movement analysis, and the physiological and skill demand variables. The movement analysis data are representative of 24 of the 30 participants as only 12 GPS units were available for each experimental group. All other measures included all 30 participants. Both the physical and cognitive RPE data were subjected to paired sample t-tests. Mean differences in the physiological and movement demands between the open and closed drills (and 90% confidence limits) were evaluated with the unequal-variances t statistic. Test scores were log-transformed prior to analysis to reduce bias arising from non-uniformity of error. Magnitudes of standardized differences in physiological and movement variables between the open and closed drills were interpreted with the following criteria: 0-0.2 trivial, 0.2-0.6 small, 0.6-1.2 moderate, 1.2-2.0 large, and >2.0 very large [18]. The mean differences in the kicking and handball volumes between the open and closed drills were evaluated using paired sample t-tests. Statistical significance was accepted at p < 0.05.

RESULTS MOVEMENT PATTERNS AND PHYSICAL DEMANDS Descriptive data for the movement analysis and physiological demands of the open and closed drills are presented in Table 2. The open drills were more demanding in terms of distance covered (m) and the relative intensity (represented by meterage/min). In particular,

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the players covered substantially more distance in drill 2 and at a higher relative intensity (m/min) in drills 2 and 3 in the open compared to the closed format. Similarly, there were moderate to large differences in intensity with drills 2 and 3 substantially more intense in the open format. There were ~20% more moderate-velocity efforts in the open drills, but the number of high velocity and high acceleration efforts were similar between the open and closed drills. The physiological responses were broadly similar for drills 1 and 2. Drill 3 elicited a higher heart rate (albeit not significant) in the open format. Analyses of the physical RPE revealed that closed drill 1 was perceived as more physically demanding than its open equivalent (p < .05) whereas the reverse was true for drills 2 (p < .05) and 3 (p < .05) (see Figure 1). The post-session lactate concentration was similar between the drills, with levels < 3 mM recorded for both the open and closed drills.

Table 2. Movement Patterns and Physiological Demands of Each of the Three Drills in Both Open and Closed Formats

Measure

Open Mean ± SD

Closed Mean ± SD

Effect Size (± 90% CL)

P value

Distance (m)

Drill 1

639 ± 75

674 ± 144

0.33 ± 0.50

0.26

Drill 2

570 ± 153

496 ± 69

-0.86 ± 0.63

0.03

Drill 3

721 ± 189

645 ± 152

-0.69 ± 0.72

0.11

Meterage (m/min)

 

Drill 1

102 ± 12

107 ± 23

0.33 ± 0.50

0.26

Drill 2

90 ± 22

78 ± 10

-0.83 ± 0.58

0.02

Drill 3

114 ± 71

92 ± 20

-1.32 ± 1.22

0.08

Efforts @ 2-4 m/s (n)

 

Drill 1

22 ± 3

19 ± 3

-0.89 ± 0.46

0.00

Drill 2

16 ± 5

13 ± 4

-1.27 ± 0.92

0.03

Drill 3

25 ± 8

19 ± 5

-1.78 ± 0.89

0.00

Efforts @ >4 m/s (n)

 

Drill 1

13 ± 4

16 ± 13

0.30 ± 0.49

0.31

Drill 2

8 ± 5

7 ± 3

-0.06 ± 0.45

0.83

Drill 3

8 ± 7

10 ± 4

0.38 ± 0.54

0.24

Accelerations @ >4 m/s 2 (n)

 

Drill 1

2 ± 1

2 ± 1

-0.13 ± 0.70

0.76

Drill 2

1 ± 1

1 ± 1

-0.17 ± 0.79

0.72

Drill 3

2 ± 1

2 ± 1

-0.30 ± 0.86

0.56

Heart Rate (bpm)

 

Drill 1

169 ± 8

174 ± 11

0.30 ± 0.44

0.58

Drill 2

164 ± 14

156 ± 8

-0.59 ± 1.25

0.40

Drill 3

178 ± 5

165 ± 11

-0.82 ± 0.80

0.09

Lactate (mM)

Drill 3

2.7 ± 1.2

2.3 ± 0.9

-0.29 ± 0.55

0.37

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Science & Coaching V olume 3 · Number 4 · 2008 495 Figure 1. Physical RPE

Figure 1. Physical RPE for Each of the Three Drills in Both Open and Closed Formats Error bars represent standard deviations. There is a significant difference between each open and closed drill format (p < .05).

SKILL DEMANDS Descriptive data for the skill demand variables are presented in Table 3. There were a significantly larger number of handballs and kicks in the closed drills 1 and 2 relative to their open equivalents. However, the practical significance of the difference in kick volume in Drill 2 is questionable. Drill 3 demonstrated no difference in kick volumes; however, the open drill generated a greater volume of handballs. Not surprisingly, the number of game- like decisions required of the participants was greater in all open drills. The rates of efficiency were comparable for the open (M = 95%) and closed (M = 95%) versions of drill 2 whereas open drill 3 lead to a notable reduction in efficiency % (M = 72%) relative to its closed equivalent (M = 96%). Consistent with the increased decision-making load in the open drills, analysis of cognitive RPE’s revealed that the participants found the amount of decision-making activity required to complete the open drills significantly greater than their equivalent closed drill (Drill 1, p < .05; Drill 2 p < .05; Drill 3 p < .05) (see Figure 2).

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Table 3.

Three Drills in Both Open and Closed Formats.

Kicking, Handball and Decision-Making Volumes for Each of the

Measure

Open Mean ± SD

Closed Mean ± SD

P value

Kick Volume

Drill 1

0

0

Na

Drill 2

6.53 ± 0.86

7.00 ± 0

0.00

Drill 3

4.20 ± 0.99

3.96 ± 0.18

0.22

Handball Volume

 

Drill 1

11.03 ± 3.51

24.26 ± 4.36

0.00

Drill 2

1.13 ± 0.43

6.90 ± 0.30

0.00

Drill 3

1.60 ± 0.77

0.10 ± 0.30

0.00

Decision Volume

 

Drill 1

8.03 ± 2.76

0

Na

Drill 2

4.00 ± 0.74

0

Na

Drill 3

5.80 ± 0.71

0

Na

± 0.74 0 Na Drill 3 5.80 ± 0.71 0 Na Figure 2. Cognitive RPE for

Figure 2. Cognitive RPE for Each of the Three Drills in Both Open and Closed Formats Error bars represent standard deviations. There is a significant difference between each open and closed drill format (p < .05).

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DISCUSSION The comparison of open and closed skill drills commonly used in Australian football revealed that the open drills elicited higher movement and physiological loads. While the closed drills contained greater disposal volumes than their open equivalent, the open drills provided the added stimulus of game-based decision-making demands providing greater skill specificity relative to the competitive setting. The open drill or game-based training approach generally resulted in fewer skill execution opportunities or disposals than the closed drills, but a significant increase in decision-making load. These two findings need to be examined in parallel to gain a clear understanding of the drill demands. When disposal volume is separated into kick and handball contributions, the open drills 2 and 3 generated a similar volume of kick disposals relative to their closed drill equivalents, while the number of handballs was reduced. The addition of decision making to the open drills ensured that players had to contextualise their disposal to the game demands. It was not surprising that players elected to kick more than handball in drills 2 and 3 as this was often the most appropriate decision to make. This finding highlights that well designed drills provide a suitable amount of skill practice and are more contextually relevant to the game setting. While players adopt the role of the opponent in open drills for a period of time, they miss some skill execution opportunities, but the length of time required to fulfil this role is minimal if the drill is well organised. Additionally, the player is gaining an opportunity to develop their defensive skills when in the role of the opposition. The cognitive RPE data substantiated the observation that participants were devoting greater amounts of cognitive effort to the open drills given the increased decision-making complexity within these tasks. Increased cognitive effort has been previously associated with greater skill learning and retention in other motor skill literature [19]. Equally, these data reinforce the notion why players generally prefer a closed drill over its open equivalent:

a closed drill provides a more stable practice environment allowing the players to feel like they are developing greater skill control, even if this is not necessarily the case. From an ecological psychology perspective, it is vital to ensure that the perceptual demands of a skill are reciprocally linked to the execution demands to maximise the chance of focused skill learning occurring [20]. Obviously the open drills provide this opportunity to a greater extent than closed drills, and thus coach and player education of the benefits of engaging in more open drills is required. The talent of the coach or skill acquisition practitioner is designing a training session that provides an appropriate level of challenge in an open format. Drills should not be too difficult, otherwise players may feel they are unable to cope with the challenge. This is a particularly important issue to manage across the course of a long training and playing season. This study is the first to quantify the physiological demands and movement patterns of open- and closed-skill training drills in team sport athletes. From a physiological perspective, the present results extend previous work demonstrating that skill-based conditioning games are acceptable substitutes for aerobic interval training to maintain fitness during the competitive season [21]. The most game-like drill (drill 3) elicited significantly greater heart-rates and relative intensity (meterage/min) than its closed skill equivalent. This finding supports the coaching adage that placing players into more game-like scenarios makes them run harder than if required to perform a closed skill activity or isolated running session. Team sport athletes typically sprint over distances of ~ 20 m, with efforts lasting 2-3 seconds [22]. We observed that players performed a greater number of moderate velocity (i.e., 2-4 m/s) efforts in the open-skill activities, than in the closed-skill equivalent drill.

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However, no significant differences were detected between open and closed skill activities

for the number of high velocity (i.e., > 4 m/s) and high acceleration (i.e., > 4 m/s 2 ) efforts, with the numbers of these efforts typically quite low. The similar numbers of high acceleration efforts between tasks suggest that the rapid, short duration sprinting requirements are comparable between open- and closed-skill drills. Equally, the finding of

a comparably low number of high-velocity efforts most likely reflects the playing area of the

drills, with players unlikely to achieve maximum velocities within the relatively small playing dimensions. This study provides a starting point for future research in this area. A key future direction

is the need to include drills that are played up and down the entire field. This form of training

activity should increase the movement and physiological demands of both closed and open drills and reduce the number of skill disposals that a player can gather due to the larger playing area. Researchers are also encouraged to include laboratory-based indices of both physiological and perceptual-motor performance to correlate on-field performance with existing benchmarks.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The authors gratefully acknowledge the cooperation and involvement of the coaches and players of the AIS-AFL Academy program. We also thank staff and students from the Department of Skill Acquisition and the Department of Physiology at the AIS for their technical support in the data collection and processing stages of this project.

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