Prepare to Win Your Practices

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As coaches we would never arrive at a competition without a detailed game plan, and simply put something together on the spot or improvise as the competition unfolds. Yet unfortunately, all too often I still observe coaches showing up to practices without having planned in advance.

Just as they prepare a comprehensive plan to win the game, the best coaches also prepare detailed plans to win their practices.

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, who has spearheaded the team’s remarkable turnaround, spends several hours meticulously planning and preparing for each practice session. And he’s gained considerable respect from his players and coaching staff in doing so. For those of us who aren’t full-time professional coaches, I recommend at minimum a 1:2 practice planning to practice ratio. That means we should spend at least 1 hour planning for every 2 hour practice. You will often find that even that amount of time is insufficient to fully prepare an effective practice plan, but it is a reasonable place to start.

When preparing your plan for winning a practice, focus on three keys to a quality practice: Pre-practice athlete readiness, Practice flow, and End of practice debriefing.

Pre-practice Athlete Readiness

Every practice begins with a physical warm-up, but as coaches we must also consider our athletes’ mental readiness. The transition time in which athletes are changing into their practice gear, checking equipment or stretching is an opportune moment for preparing mentally for practice.

The great basketball coach Dean Smith used to distribute a written copy of the practice plan to his players when they arrived to practice. Listed at the top of the sheet were three things players had to memorize that day: Thought of the Day (non-basketball), Emphasis of the Day – Offense, Emphasis of the Day – Defense.

Players were randomly quizzed throughout the practice, and if a player could not recall any of the three items the entire team would run. Here’s an example of Smith’s readiness prompts for a practice during North Carolina’s 1982 national championship season:

• Thought of the Day: We may be on the right track but if we stand still, we will be run over! Improve today!
• Emphasis of the Day – Offense: No unnecessary dribble!
• Emphasis of the Day – Defense: Pressure on ball – don’t foul dribbler!

Practice Flow

In preparing a plan, consider how the practice will flow. The sequence and demands of practice activities is an important consideration that will impact athlete effort, attention, and motivation. Next time you finish a practice plan, take a few minutes to examine the energy demands to your athletes – both physical and mental.

Repeating an activity that players have done many times before or simple technical skills will require much less energy than when practicing a new activity or complex team tactic. Try charting the perceived energy costs of your practice by drawing a line graph, with the energy cost listed on the vertical axis and the practice activities numbered across the horizontal axis. Does your practice look like an inverted U – low energy cost at the start, slowly build to a peak in the middle of practice, and then ease off toward the end of practice? Does your practice look like a straight line pointing upwards at a 45 degree angle – starting slow and gradually building across the practice with a high energy cost finish? Does the graph look like a series of peaks and valleys, alternating between high and low energy demands?

There are countless options, and no one correct portrait of how a practice should flow. Instead, the practice flow should match your goals for the practice based on athlete needs at that moment in the season.

End of Practice Debriefing

How you end a practice is just as important as how you start it. Research shows that peak and end moments in every experience are most memorable. When preparing a practice plan, ask yourself this question: What is the last thing I want my athletes to think or feel when they leave practice? Awareness of the ‘peak end rule’ is one reason I frequently recommend coaches make a habit of ending practice with something fun or positive. This will help increase athlete commitment to the team and eager to return to the next practice.

Furthermore, consider using the end of practice, during cool-down or immediately before athletes leave to change, to reinforce key messages and sometimes start – but not complete – a new activity. Through trial and error legendary coach John Wooden discovered the value of this strategy. He observed that when he quickly introduced something new at the end of practice his athletes always picked it up quicker the following practice than when he didn’t use this strategy.

This is referred to as the Ziegarnik Effect, named after one of the first scientists to study how temporarily leaving things unfinished often leads to new insights and enhanced learning. This also is why ‘sleeping on it’ is often so effective for creating solutions and strengthening learning. This is particularly true for physical skills, a process known as sleep-related motor memory consolidation.

One final thought to consider when planning practices. When possible, make practice planning a collaborative activity. The lone coach secluded in their office, home study, or corner of a coffee shop piecing together a practice plan is common procedure. Although this often is most practical, challenge yourself to sometimes jointly plan a practice with another member of your coaching staff, coaching peer or mentor. Collaborative practice planning, when possible, will expand your way of thinking as a coach and introduce new and innovative practice activities not likely to be created on your own.


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