I have this blue notebook that I keep next to my bed that is so worn and tattered, it’s hard to call a notebook anymore. But I can’t seem to throw it away because it’s two years worth of practice plans, leadership notes, and strategy diagrams from when I captained and coached in Arizona. Planning practice is such a time suck, keeping a notebook like this around makes it a little bit easier: I can pull ideas for previous drills, scrimmage sessions, and skills progressions if I ever end up coaching again. But after all the research I’ve done on practice, I’ve realized that there are a few important things to keep in mind the next time I take out my battered old notebook to write down a plan.
The first most important part of planning what to practice is to have one to two main objectives for the day. Will you be focusing on utilizing the breakside? Aggressive defense on cutters? Endzone flow? The fundamentals of throwing and catching? According to Ben Wiggins, because of the way our minds work, especially when expending incredibly amounts of energy during exercise, we can only process a single item every hour we practice. We can successfully achieve these objectives by stating them loud and clear at the beginning of practice, and maintaining the team’s focus throughout practice. One way to maintain a team’s focus is to designate a line (preferably drawn, but can be imagined) where general chatter, social plans, or personal issues are on one side, and intention, hard work and focus are on the other. Before each practice, players should physically step over from the “disruptive” side to the “engaged” side.
Once you’ve determined the focus, the next step is to start writing down the specific flow of practice, and the amount of time it should take to complete them. Ren Cadwell had an excellent point in one of her previous articles about allowing players 3-5 minutes of individual time at the beginning of practice to mentally and physically prepare. Giving players a chance to clear their head, without demanding they come early to do it, is a great way to keep practices running smoothly.
Next comes the oh-so-important warm up. Nowadays, athletes are integrating soft tissue work (self myofascial release), static stretching, mobility, and muscle activation drills into their warm ups to reduce the risk of injury. There are plenty of articles, blog posts, and programs that extensively discuss and provide examples of how we should be warming up, but the main point to take away is this: warm ups are an extremely important part of what we do at every practice, they should not be skipped or shortened, and they do take time. For example, it took me approximately 40 minutes to do my soft tissue work, static stretching and dynamic warm up while training last spring. This is a lot of time to dedicate to a single practice (especially when paying for fields) so having players come early to complete their soft tissue work is a must.
Once players are warm, it’s time to start drilling. Ben Wiggins had a great example of how to run progression drills, which can make the most of how we learn and develop new skills. Drills should initially isolate the skill, then add in decision-making, and finally implement the skill in live play. For example, if you wanted to practice break mark throws, first have players throw with partners to get the correct form and curve of the throw, then add a mark, then add a moving cutter. Creating or using drills that mimic core movements, specific skills, and mental processes during a live game of ultimate are going to be the most beneficial. Footwork drills, drills that involve a lot of repetitions (which you can do by dividing into smaller groups), and drills that work on specific skill development (ex: inside-out throws) are also extremely useful for teams of any level.
One thing to keep in mind is the amount of time you spend on these drills, as well as the rest between them. For example, the Philadelphia Eagles run practices incredibly fasted paced, with a countdown clock to mark the end of each of their 26 practice periods. Drills should take approximately 8-10 minutes to run, although new drills are going to take longer, since players are still learning. Rest between each drill should be minimal, but utilizing them to help refocus the team is a great use of time.
Scrimmaging is another crucial part of practice because activities that mimic what we do during a game are incredibly important for how we perform in competition. But just scrimmaging at practice isn’t going to help a team get to the next level. Players need to scrimmage with purpose: have a specific focus that can be directed by a coach or captain. An example of a focused scrimmage is allowing one up field throw but then requiring the handlers to dump and swing. This is a way to help teams learn how to use every side of the field to their advantage. While this is going to be mentally and physically taxing on players, adding in short but fun segments, like free scrimmage, mini, games to 1, can help alleviate some of the strain, while allowing players to continue to exercise and experiment with new ideas and skills.
Planning practice is an incredibly complex and important part of any sport but should include three main components: They should prepare players to mentally and physically perform at their best, teach skills that develop footwork, muscle memory, and specific skills, and use focused scrimmages to let players put it all together. Next week in my final segment I will take all of these ideas and talk about a new way of how we should structure practices around tournaments.