How Often We Practice

by | October 6, 2014, 7:16am 11

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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  • guest

    oh that last paragraph: practice makes you better. or does it? there are other things too.

  • Syrus

    If the question being posed is "how often should we practice?", then the article should have some sort of answer. Now, I understand that it is a difficult thing to quantify success' relation with practice, but a part of this should be putting forward your educated opinion from the research you have done.

    • Archer the Moderator

      Sometimes asking the question is hard enough. Like "how great am I?" I don't know how great, but I know that it's a question worth asking.

  • Guest

    Not what I was hoping for. She just described the law of diminishing returns, which is pretty obvious. If she was able to identify the point at which practicing would become harmful instead of being simply less helpful, or perhaps what the ratio of individual to group practices should be, that would have been more interesting.

  • Leslie Wu

    I started writing an article about practice but haven't quite finished editing it down yet #doh.

    A preview:
    'Third, when and how much you practice matters. Colvin discusses research performed at the Music Academy of West Berlin. Researchers found that top violinists practiced about 24 hours a week whereas the good ones practiced "only" nine hours a week. Olympic athlete, Dan Gable, reportedly has said "If it is important, do it every day, if it isn’t, don’t do it at all.”'

  • Guest

    "Although practice eventually becomes asymptomatic…improvements continue even after years of involvement.”I think the author meant to use the word "Asymptotic" and not "Asymptomatic". Completely different meanings.

    • Grammar B

      Thank you Guest, that bit of semantics threw me off, although I understood what Jen was trying to say..PROOFREAD

      • Give Me a Break

        1) The editors do proofread, but once you've read an drafts of an article 5 times, it gets harder and harder to catch errors. They all have day jobs. Cut them some slack.

        2) Guest – learn to read the italicized print: "For grammatical, factual, and typographic errors, instead of leaving a comment, please e-mail our editors directly at editors [at]"

  • Wally

    This basically says we should practice as much as we can in order to become the best we can be, but I'm sure there's a lot more to it. For starters we're amateurs so don't have the time to train all day, and usually don't have the desire. There are other things going on in our lives. So it must be about finding balance, but that balance will be different for different people or teams. Are there any theories on how we might find that balance? Further insight into this topic would be interesting.

  • I like that these articles are being written, as I think that Ultimate has a long way to go, certainly in terms of quality of practice, but I think we need to recognise that the questions being posed are pretty big ones, that are under continued and developing research, and as such there is no one "answer". No research paper ends with "And so this is the definitive answer to the question, no further research is required, and our recommendations are x,y and z" (ok, very very few). A snapshot of a few bits of research and some expert opinions does not provide a definitive answer either, but it is the start of a discussion that will need to be had if progress is to be made. So let's accept it as that rather than expecting the definitive guide to practice. I think it's fair to say that the general consensus is that more (deliberate, purposeful) practice is good (in general), but more complicated questions like "how much is too much?" are harder to answer, and inevitably depend on HOW you are practicing, which is an article yet to come.

  • serenadn

    a great book on the power of practice is called "Bounce" by Matthew Syed. it's definitely worth questioning it and not being completely brainwashed into only believing its point of view (that "talent" is a myth and that by practice you can be the best, essentially) but it's a really good read and definitely a good motivator to get out and spend more hours practicing