I have to admit something.
It’s something I’ve felt for a long time, and I need to put it out there. If you’re a former or current Fever player, please avert your eyes.
Better yet, keep reading. Maybe you can help me help you.
Here it is: I’m not a very good practice coach. Maybe it’s better to say that if I had to choose, I’d choose coaching at tournaments all of the time and coaching at practice none of the time. Part of my difficulty is in running a practice, and part is in planning a practice.
There’s a lot to deal with at practice that I just don’t have to put energy toward at tournaments: stuff like laying down cones, managing the transition between drills, dealing with other sports clubs using our space. I’ve joked that leading a practice is somewhat like herding cats. It’s not quite that bad, but even with other coaches and practice helpers, it is at the very least, a logistical ballet. A lot of energy is spent in keeping things moving in the appropriate direction, and even more energy is spent when rescuing practice if it heads in a less appropriate direction.
Not having an opponent makes practice tough
I’ve tried to figure out what makes coaching in one setting (practice) versus the other (tournaments) so different. Probably first on the list is that at a tournament the action is different. While motivation issues rear themselves at times, the team has more energy and is eager to get on the field to compete. What I see from the team as a whole looks different than what I see at practice. Oftentimes I come away from a moment at a tournament — or even from the entire tournament — thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know we could do that.” The same goes for seeing what progress individual players have made. Couple this with the play being at a much higher level than what we can achieve at practice, and it’s like the clouds have cleared and the sun is out. I can actually SEE what the team is doing.
This works in both directions, too. As a coach on the sideline at a tournament, I also get to see the repetition of bad habits that were potentially masked at practice. The practice mask comes in a couple of forms: players split out for scrimmages and don’t necessarily play the same role as they do on the tournament field, and the level of play is ever so difficult to raise during a practice scrimmage. Sometimes practice is going poorly simply because it’s allmost over, and at that point, I stop the action and we move on to end-of-practice sprints. But sprints don’t tell me where we are as a team on the tournament field.
Successful practice coaching is about structure and variety
I have spent much of my coaching career trying to figure out how to alleviate the nagging ache I have for practice. I have learned and talked through ideas with other Fever coaches past and present, Fever captains and players, and, more recently, with other college coaches. One common thread in all of those ideas has been structure and variety.
The structure part for me is two-fold: an overall plan for practices over the course of several months and the specific plan for each practice. Having ideas of what needs attention at practice before I sit down to write a specific plan is critical. Of course the long-term plan might ebb and flow depending on how the team is performing. But writing a single practice with a swarming sea of ideas is a recipe for disaster. I could tell you right now 10-15 things my team needs to work on. Knowing the long-term goals help bring that number down to a manageable level.
Have a schedule
Within that structure, I plot out time for every “event” at practice to help mitigate logistical ballet issues. I don’t quite have it down to a science — the times I budget for each piece are often blown out of the water. But figuring out times helps keep drills from running into pure boredom (which means lost productivity!). In the structure part of planning, I refer to a running list of drills, how they work, and what they work on. It’s an a la carte menu, and it allows me to more quickly fill in the holes. When I have the time, I plan a full week’s practice and share it with leadership for comment. I’m on the fence about sharing the specifics of the plan with the entire team prior to practice. Knowledge could lead to efficiency, but uncertainty might keep them on their toes.
The variety part seems simple enough, but at times the creative part just doesn’t fire in my brain. Part of that is because drill X really does work on issue Y, and changing that up is impossible. What helps is adding the variety around the must-haves. After drill X, run sprints relay-style. Add a competition to practice events to keep the players’ energy up. Leading into the break last fall, we ran an eight-practice team-based competition, with two or three parts of each practice being “scored.” In the end, we awarded a team winner, as well as individual winners for both our A and B teams. Not only did that help me with practice planning (Hey, I can put scoreable metrics on that drill!), but it helped players’ enthusiasm at the end of the fall semester. And that “competition” idea can be used to create a completely off-the-wall practice to break up weeks of structure. Mind you, I struggle with the creativity creating those practices — another one of our other coaches handles that. It really does take a village.
I continue to experiment with ways to make myself a better practice coach. It’s hard to preach the importance of practice without following that up with effective practices.
At times I experience great success at practices — great flow between parts, excellent energy from the players, and a general feeling of “ah, that was a great practice.” And those “ah” moments are what encourage me to continue to strive to be a better practice coach.
In terms of being a practice vs. tournament coach, perhaps what it boils down to is that difference mimics what it’s like as a player. It’s easy to fall into the practice of “going through the motions at practice,” and then getting excited and energized for playing at a tournament. As a player, I much preferred tournaments. The level of the competition always provided a rush that was unmatched. The rush is different now that I’m a coach, but the preference lives on.