How Often We Practice

by | October 6, 2014, 7:16am 0

Last week, I introduced the idea of changing the way we think about practice, which was the beginning of a short series on the amount we practice, what we practice, how we practice and practicing for competition. This week, we are going to delve into the world of how often we practice and try to determine if more or less is better.

For this article, I am defining practice as the time a team spends together on the field learning systems, doing group conditioning and skills development, and focusing on how to play as efficiently and effectively together as possible. For the moment, ignore the idea of self-training (training to become a better individual player)—there are plenty of people (Ren Caldwell, Tim Morrill, and Melissa Witmer to name a few) who are already making impressive strides in this arena. On top of time spent at pre-series tournaments, team practices provide tremendous opportunities for skills development and cohesion throughout the season. The amount of time ultimate teams spend together varies significantly. Attempting to find the ideal number of hours becomes increasingly difficult, especially when taking into consideration the factors that could contribute to a team’s success (player skill level, leadership, coachability, strategy, injuries, line calling, tournament conditions) and failure (injuries, mental and physical fatigue) during a single season.

Before I could answer how often we should practice, I started reading about the power law of practice, which describes the relationship between practice and achievement as follows: “rapid increases in achievement are evident during initial stages of practice, but over time these increases become more difficult to sustain. Although practice eventually becomes asymptomatic…improvements continue even after years of involvement.” Think about it this way: new ultimate players typically improve dramatically in their first year, which then tapers off but does not completely stop as years pass.

This research describes long term development in players, but what does this mean in respect to the number of hours a team should practice in a season?

Instead of trying to answer this question by researching the number of hours well-performing ultimate teams practice each season, I looked at the way other sports address this issue of practice hours. I started with online journals and articles surrounding one of the most researched areas available: professional sports. I want to emphasize that ultimate players (for the most part) are not paid professional athletes and therefore don’t have the resources (money, time, trainers, equipment) to train as such, but I do think it’s helpful to look at the pinnacle of athletic training.

Kathy Rakel, who turned pro as a triathlete in 2010, told me she typically trains seven days a week for 1-5 hours each day, spending only one day a month “taking a true rest day.” In a new report, Kathy said she would do “5000 meters of swimming, 2-3 hours of cycling, 4-5 miles of running, and then I might do an easy swim later on.” Knowing Kathy from school, I’m not surprised she spends this much time training: she’s a hard worker, a perfectionist, and driven to do whatever it takes to win. Kathy’s training is one example of what the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports: paid professional athletes practice more than 40 hours per week during their seasons (team practice, strength and conditioning, team strategy meetings, etc.) and continue to train rigorously throughout the off-season.

Surveying college students in 2006, the NCAA found that despite restricting the number of hours per week allowed for practice (20 hours) athletes consistently ignored these regulations (although it was difficult to determine if it was their own initiative or pressure from team coaches). While some athletes practiced 30-35 hours per week, football players spent more than 44 hours a week with their teammates conditioning, lifting, reviewing footage of games, and running plays. Another interviewee, who played Division I softball, reported that during her season, she practiced 4-5 days per week, with each practice running four hours. In addition, she was in the weight room for an hour twice a week.

While conducting interviews with female athletes of a number of sports and levels, it was pretty obvious that the number of hours a person participated in a sport depended on the level she participated in. High school and college athletes typically reported practicing 10-12 hours, although hours did range from six hours (basketball) to 24 hours (gymnastics) per week. Those participating on club teams practiced less, averaging 6-7.5 hours per week. I did not ask why the number of hours changed so drastically from high school and college to club, but I might surmise that teams are able to demand more hours from players while they are students then when they are a part of a community club team.

The question remains as to whether increasing the number of hours you practice translates to increased success on the field. The same authors that described power laws of practice also supported a correlation between hours of deliberate practice and level of ability (citing a study correlating hours practiced by violin players by the age of 18 and their level of expertise), however in unique cases this may be disputed. Although there is no definitive answer, our limited research shows that more elite athletes in other sports practice at a much higher quantity than those at lower levels. More practice equals better players equals a better team. It is still important to remember that there are still many other factors contributing to team’s success during the season. Next week we’ll take a look at how we practice and the differences between deliberate practice and deliberate play, as well as our intentions and focus during practice.

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