Effective Practice Planning

It’s always enjoyable to see the excitement that kids and coaches bring back at the start of an athletic season.

The start of our seasons are as good a day as any to remember the difficulties we face in effectively teaching athletic concepts to “kids these days.” (These are the same difficulties that teachers face in the classroom, so the guidelines in this post will apply there, too.) Because of the varying personalities and preferences of our coaching staffs, I can’t pass along a stock practice plan; however, I can offer some reminders that will aid in creating effective practice plans and implementation.

First and foremost, coaches, if you are running your practices to look the same as they did when you played, you’re probably losing a majority of your kids. Society has changed enough even in the past 10 years to render our previous experiences as largely archaic. Hopefully I can offer some helpful information to update or tweak what you’re doing at practice.

  1. Kids value relationships with their bosses. The old adage that students “don’t care what you know until they know that you care” is especially true now. These students have been raised in a world where they are told often how valued they are. I’m not suggesting that you coddle them or misrepresent their roles, but if they don’t know that you value their presence, they won’t perform for you. Go out of your way to build an appropriate non-sports related relationship with your roster.
  2. The old mantra of “Because I said so” isn’t going to work. They’ve grown up in a world where information is readily and instantly available. They aren’t very good at distinguishing credible sources yet (which is why you need to build a relationship with them), but they want to know the “why” to everything. Explain why you do what you do: scheme, strategy, practice drills, etc. If you find that you can’t explain why, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it anyway.
  3. On average, kids can stay engaged on one task for about one minute per one year of age. For the purpose of a high school practice, 15 minutes is the absolute longest that you should spend on any single drill. In fact, if you aren’t planning your practices based on timed segments, I suggest you start immediately, then post that practice plan for coaches and kids and stick to it. Coaches and kids will practice more urgently, you’ll finish on time, and everyone is better prepared for the practice.
  4. Along with No. 3, keep your athletes constantly engaged. If you’re doing any drill that involves a single line of kids waiting to perform/practice a skill, you’re not only wasting rep times for all of them, you also have a team full of kids who are bored. They won’t “learn by watching” like you think they should be; you have to get them “doing.”
  5. Because of the fast moving nature of society, kids can learn new concepts very quickly (when they know the “why”). However, they struggle with long-term commitments unless they have definite, well-defined goals. When you teach them a new skill or scheme, make sure you also tell them what it will look like when it’s done right, when they will use this skill, and what they can learn after mastering this skill.
  6. Along with No. 5, kids need instant and continuous response, both positive and corrective. If they’ve done something correct, you need to provide an immediate gratification if you want them to repeat the performance. When something needs to be fixed, tell/say/show them where they went wrong, and also provide them the tools, direction, and support to get it right the next time.
  7. Communicate EVERYTHING excessively. Seriously, everything.
  8. Everything you do during practice needs to be done with patience, support, and acceptance towards the athlete. You can place high expectations and high standards for your athletes, but you need to understand that those come with high stress as well.
  9. Within skill learning and scheme performance, kids want/need independence and autonomy, but you also have to provide them with responsibility and accountability.
  10. Kids want to know that their role/job really matters. As most of us know, kids aren’t interested in “paying their dues” or “working from the ground up.” They not only want to be important, they want to be important NOW. Athletics is one of the few places where they can be immediately important; it’s your job as coaches to make sure they know why their particular role is just as important as their peers’ roles.

My takeaway – kids won’t conform to your practice; you’ll need to conform your practice to best suit the kids, but you don’t need to sacrifice your coaching style or any character-based learning to do so. We just need to get our practices to more closely resemble the “outside” world in which they live.

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