You tighten your laces, flip the hair out of your face, and smile. It’s practice time and there’s nothing you enjoy more than running out onto a wide open field, feeling the wind against your back, and chasing down a disc. But when start your warm up, what are you thinking about? What do you focus on? How much energy and emotion are you putting into the next few hours?
Today we’ll explore these very questions and attempt to answer the question: how should we practice?
The final question I posted to athletes contributing to this series was “what do you think would translate well from the way you practiced or trained for the sport/competition you used to play to ultimate?” A majority of responses (nine out of 11 athletes) stated a desire to see ultimate practice more “focused”, “intense”, and “disciplined”.
“Having a tough mindset at practice transfers [to competition],” said a former swinner. “Knowing that you can push yourself to certain levels during practice gives you the confidence to go the extra mile during meets and games.”
“The reason I loved soccer so much is because it pushed me to my limit almost every practice,” said another athlete. “I could feel myself improving in every sprint I did, and in every lap that I had to run around the field. Sometimes I feel like conditioning workouts in ultimate are too far apart in practices, and that I’m missing the high burst of continuous intensity for those 20-30 minutes that I had in soccer practices.”
The athletes I talked to think ultimate has yet to reach the “next level.” Adjusting practice focus and intensity can increase the quality of how we play on a field.
If we want practice to count, we need to make it deliberate. Deliberate practice, which is defined as “not play, not paid work, not watching the skill be performed, not inherently enjoyable, requires effort and attention from the learner, and often involves activities selected by a coach or teacher to facilitate learning.” The same authors who wrote that conducted a study of wrestlers to determine whether deliberate practice had the same impact on skill levels as an initial study conducted in 1993 with musicians (referenced in my previous article, stating that the number of hours practiced directly correlated to the level of skill acquired). The most interesting part of this study revealed that while there was no difference in the number of hours more or less skilled athletes put into general fitness activities, “the big difference, [was] in how many hours of deliberate practice the skilled athletes [were] devoting to team practice.”
Furthermore, after conducting a study on Canadian National and Junior National single skaters to determine the impact deliberate practice had on these athletes, the authors found that the top three most important aspects to succeed in skating were as follows: desire, good coaching, and practice. Skaters also ranked “on-ice training” as the most relevant training activity in their sport, requiring the most effort and concentration, and yet produced the most enjoyment (and rejecting the notion that deliberate practice needs to be unenjoyable).
There is one other aspect of how we play that is more important for those individuals who are just beginning to learn how to play ultimate than for those who have a few years under their belt. Deliberate play, which is also known as structured practice, is “a form of sporting activity that involves early developmental physical activities that are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification, and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.” Deliberate play is a way new players develop skills and allows them to experiment with new ways to improve performance.
Examples of this include 3v3, one score games, using one side of the field, and varying field sizes. Although most of the research surrounding deliberate play references children as the main focus group, most ultimate players do not start learning the sport until they reach high school or college (although this is rapidly changing). Therefore, if we want to draw in more individuals to this sport, we must first revert back to “childhood play activities” and have new players participate in practices that are highly enjoyable and immediately gratifying.
I want to emphasize two main points for applying deliberate practice and deliberate play to ultimate. The first is that when starting a new season, which inevitably brings brand new players into the mix, we should alter practices to mimic deliberate play. Not only will this keep innately talented individuals within the sport, but it will also provide a foundation for players to develop their skills. Those who already have a foundation should be focusing more on deliberate practice (specific skill stations, drills, running on-field plays) with experienced coaches, while maintaining a high level of general fitness, to further develop their level of expertise.
Next week we will take these concepts of deliberate play and deliberate practice, as well as the research behind how often we should practice, and apply it to what we should practice.