If you want to play better on game night, you must have productive and efficient training sessions. That’s a “no brainer” statement. The challenge is how to create productive training sessions. I want to provide components of a productive training session that I value. There is no question that there are many practice formats by successful coaches. What I’ve listed below has worked for me, with no judgments on what other coaches do inside their practice environment.
Bring the Energy
The most important thing a coach can do is provide a positive practice atmosphere. The word “positive” is often turned into a coaching cliche. Too often, under the umbrella of being positive, the coach ignores mental errors, lack of focus, not listening, etc. In this format, the practice may fall under the definition of positive, but the session will also be non-productive. Training can be intense, focused, demanding without being negative, critical, and burdensome. I’ve come to this conclusion after being negative and onerous too often in my career.
The coach is responsible for the enthusiasm in practice. If the coach expects the players to have lots of energy in practice, then the coach should mirror those expectations. Don’t have expectations for players that you don’t have for yourself.
Have a Plan
Each practice should have specific goals. The practice content should reflect those goals. Coaches that walk into a training session without a plan are begging for a “train wreck” of a session. A coach can modify the plan as events dictate. But, have a plan!
Make sure the players are aware of the points of emphasis for that day or week. Many coaches design practice based upon time increments. I prefer to plan my activities based on the number of successful contacts (10 good passes in a row). Either format or a combination of both formats is acceptable. Make sure the activities are well thought out and written down.
Movements of the Game
The ability to move correctly and efficiently on the court is a prerequisite for skill development. If one examines the critical movements of the game, the players must be able to run forward/backward, shuffle step, jump, move in the air, land safely, throw, catch and have a command of various postures. Emphasizing these items demands that the coach know how to teach the movements effectively. It is a mistake to assume the players will come into your gym already skilled in these critical movements.
I’m fairly confident that if you examine how your players run, and compare their form with the athletes working with Coach Stucky in the video below, you’d see a wide variety of running techniques. It is important, that not only for running but all the movement skills, the athletes are taught correct technique.
The coach should plan to work on these movements during warmup and game-related activities. When first learning the movements, I may not have a ball involved in an activity. But, I try to include a ball as quickly as possible in all activities where movement is the focus. I would especially emphasize the mechanics of landing, both on one foot and two feet. Landing is an often ignored skill. Laying a foundation of fundamental landing skills will go a long way in preventing potential injury. The same is true with correct throwing mechanics. Poor throwing skills will eventually be a factor in shoulder injuries. Suffice to say, proper instruction of these movements is essential to encourage a high level of play and injury prevention.
Manage Time Efficiently
You want to provide players with as much time as possible to acquire the repetitions needed to advance their skills. With that goal in mind, a coach can save a lot of time if they have drills/activities, teams/partners, court assignments, how a drill is scored, scripted in advance. The coach can put this on a whiteboard for all to see or have it on their practice plan, but you don’t want to waste time figuring out teams or drill organization on the fly. Staying with the time management theme, avoid stopping an activity for twelve players to talk with one player or to pontificate to the group on how much you know about the game.
The more time for repetitions, the better! If you need to speak with a player, pull them off the court to talk while the activity continues. A recommendation that I often make to coaches is to video a training session and evaluate yourself. Make a notation on how often a drill is stopped for the coach to talk. How is time managed between drills? How are water breaks managed? It is not unusual for coaches to be surprised at the time wasted in training. Former USA National Team coach, Toshi Yoshida, would have players take water breaks in small groups. While one group was taking a break, the other players continued practice. The coach needs to make sure the water breaks do not morph into social gatherings.
Repetition Is the Key
Plan all the activities with repetition in mind. Avoid long lines, slow tempo, etc. If you want to play fast, you need to train fast. Generally, when doing a skill activity, never have more than four players waiting in line. Organize drills to have ball chasers, floor wipers, scorekeepers, etc. All players should have a role in each activity.
You want the activities to be as game-like as possible without sacrificing repetitions. Coaches should be aware of individual player ball contacts. Many times in multi-player activities, some players do not receive the contacts needed for improvement. To promote focused repetition, I use a concept that I call “controlled random.” In these activities, I script some contacts to ensure that the focused skills or players receive the necessary repetition.
For example, if the focus is left-side attack, we play 6v6 with only left-side attackers able to spike. The coach can then provide specific feedback to the left side attackers, with immediate opportunities for the spiker to repeat the skill and make corrections. You can add additional layers to the “controlled” aspect. For example, a specific player does all the serving and will serve to a specific player or zone. In this format, the coach makes sure the repetitions required for improvement by all the players are achieved.
As crucial as repetition is to learning, make sure the repetitions are challenging to the player. Players improve the most when the environment pushes them to the edge of their abilities.
Quality Feedback is Essential to the Learning Process
There are many forms of feedback. Unfortunately, most coaches rely primarily on verbal feedback. Although verbalizing feedback has its place, there are undoubtedly other communication methods that can be equally effective when communicating with your athlete. The use of video is underutilized, body language (be careful with this one), statistics, winning and losing, are all ways that information can be presented to players. How and when you are going to provide feedback should be an aspect of your practice plan.
One method of feedback that’s not used enough is player self-evaluation. Have the player watch a video of practice or competition and report back to the coach about what they saw. It is not unusual for the player to be more overly critical of their performance. On the same theme, ask players to provide feedback to themselves. Sometimes, asking pointed questions on an event will allow the player to provide feedback to themselves.
Studies demonstrate there is value in an oral or written examination of the material the athlete should know. Before a player can execute a game plan or a skill, they need to know the critical components of what is expected. I am very Socratic in my practice routine with lots of questions and answers to encourage the athlete to be mentally engaged in practice or meetings. I am a huge fan of providing information to players in advance of practices or meetings, then verbally quizzing them on the content provided.
My general opinion is that bad practices are often the fault of the coach. Not being prepared or having a good feel for the team will lead to poor performance. Hall of Fame basketball coach Pat Riley once said he would take three hours to plan a three-hour practice. I’m not sure that approach would apply to most high school situations. However, the most prepared person in the gym should be the coach.