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The way you start practice sets the tone for the rest of the training session. The goal is to start practice, much like a competition, with enthusiasm and high energy. This builds positive momentum that will carry over into the rest of the practice, increasing the likelihood of having a quality training session with high athlete focus and engagement.
Activate the Body and Mind
In addition to the traditional time set aside prior to or at the start of a practice for physical warm-up, practices should also include a mental warm-up. Consider having athletes do a visualization exercise prior to their physical warm-up (e.g., the morning of practice while eating breakfast, when they are coming to practice, while they are getting changed in the locker room). Then, during physical warm-up, encourage athletes to visualize themselves performing well in practice with high energy and intent on every drill. Starting practice with brief fast-paced small-sided games is another great way to enhance athlete readiness. Vigorous physical activity also stimulates the release of important neurotransmitters that prime the brain for learning.
Each athlete chooses what type of energy she or he brings to practice. Positive body language–walking tall, making eye contact with teammates and coaches, smiling–all convey an excitement to be there and eagerness to participate. This triggers a self-fulfilling mechanism, whereby the positive attitude reinforces positive thoughts that results in more frequent demonstration of positive body language. A positive attitude also stimulates positive emotions and body language in others. Indeed, research shows that positive attitudes and emotions are contagious, as are negative attitudes and emotions. So bring an upbeat message, bounce to your step and a smile to practice and your athletes will probably do the same.
Trust in the Practice Plan
Athletes are also more likely to fully engage in a practice if they believe in its design. So consider sharing the practice plan, along with a brief rationale for its design and selection of training activities, with athletes prior to starting practice. You may elect to share this information electronically the night before or morning of practice. Alternatively, you could post a printed copy of the practice plan in the locker room or the training area, and then give a quick explanation immediately before starting practice. Practice activities can then be reviewed by athletes during the practice, and further explained prior to starting each drill. An ice hockey coach recently told me that he tapes printed copies of each drill, with a diagram and quick description, on the glass around the boards of the rink at each practice. When you raise athlete awareness of what and why you are asking them to practice you are building their confidence and trust in the practice plan. This in turn will translate to better focus and higher levels of concentration and effort in the practice.
Turn on the Tunes
During pregame, and even in competition, listening to music is a long-standing tradition in many sports. And for good reason. Research consistently shows that music has a direct influence on emotions and behaviors. Music is most influential when it has personal meaning to the individual. Consider having one of your athletes assume the responsibility of compiling a team song list. Each athlete should contribute 3-4 songs that energize him or her. Several variations of a practice playlist can then be created, ensuring that each athlete has at least one of their songs included in each playlist. The music can then be played in warm-up and perhaps the first drill to set the tone for practice. Some coaches like to play music through the entire practice to help keep the team’s energy level high. How much, and how often, you play music during practices is a personal choice, depending on the sport, purpose of each practice and how your athletes respond to it.
Paise from Coaches and Teammates
Praise is a very powerful energy-building tool, provided it is genuine and contingent on demonstrated behavior. Create some team rules of engagement for ‘building each other up’. These rules can include specific words or phrases you use on your team. When you create words or phrases that have unique and special meaning to your team this has the added benefit of building distinction and team cohesion. Consider assigning ‘encouragement buddies’ periodically in practices. Partner-up athletes up before practice before practice and assign them the goal of actively looking for partner behaviors that warrant praise. Assign ‘encouragement teams’ to particular athletes when needed (e.g., you notice an athlete is showing signs of fatigue, emotional distress, or disconnect from the team). Most importantly, the best way to teach athletes how to give praise is to model it. You and your staff should prepare an encouragement plan, either at the start of the week or before each practice. Self-reflect and hold a brief discussion with staff if you have one, on which athletes might most need encouragement. You may also find it helpful to bring a team roster with you to practice and tick off each time you give encouragement to an athlete. This will raise awareness of your praise tendencies and which athletes you may inadvertently be neglecting.
Regular use of one or more of these practice jumpstarting coaching strategies will raise your athletes’ energy and enthusiasm levels. It will also benefit you, providing a spark of excitement and sense of confidence about the practice from having properly prepared.
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