The way you practice is the way you will play
Posted by Dean Holden at November 10th, 2012
Jack Blatherwick, Let’s Play Hockey Columnist, 25 October 2012
Anatoli Tarasov, John Wooden, Herb Brooks, Vince Lombardi and Ivan Pavlov – five of the greatest names in coaching – yet the most important lessons taught by these geniuses can be lost in the Hollywood glitter created by filmmakers who characterize their coaching careers with two-second sound bites.
There is one coach, however, whose football team keeps popping up near the top of the ratings because of the way they practice. Maybe someone will study his approach, because he gets it. Chip Kelly, head coach of the Oregon Ducks, has installed a practice philosophy straight from the scientific literature that Pavlov started more than 100 years ago. We might recall that Pavlov was the famous coach of rats and dogs, and ‘conditioned’ them to behave in a predictable way with repetitions he planned in advance.
Hmmmm. Getting a team to perform in a predictable way based on practice repetitions: That sounds like a winning formula. It also sounds like ‘Pavlovian Conditioning,’ which is a better approach than traditions which have incorrectly grown out of biochemistry textbooks about aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Kelly’s Oregon Ducks compete so fast their competitors find themselves out of their own ‘Comfort Zone.’ This is what the Soviet teams did when they dominated international hockey for four decades. I call this ‘Overspeed’ practice of skills.
Brooks knew the uncomfortable feeling from playing on several national and Olympic teams. The Soviets prepared so fast and so thoroughly that games were a cakewalk. Tarasov made sure his players were never comfortable in practice. But in games, it was a nightmare for opponents. It was like competing against eight players; the Soviets were everywhere, and the tempo never slowed down.
So Brooks planned a conditioning strategy in the summer of 1979, to match the Soviets. He knew his team of college players could not make up for the difference in experience. After all, the Soviets were professionals who played together in groups of five – some of them for two decades. Brooks was determined that the U.S. team would not be out-conditioned. This meant they would develop their own high-paced comfort zone from two-hour practices that were legendary. They skated up and down the ice relentlessly, passing, making plays and shooting, and this was repeated at a pace that satisfied the head coach … or else.
The two-second sound bite came out in the film Miracle, in which the name itself is deceptive. Herb’s temper was short when the practice pace slowed down, and he resorted to endless stops-and-starts as punishment, not as part of the conditioning plan. Brooks would join Tarasov, Wooden, and Lombardi in warning against the misconception that incredible achievements are somehow magical or miraculous. Their philosophy of coaching boiled down to one word, “Preparation.” More specifically, “The way you practice is the way you will play.”
Chip Kelly’s football team practices like the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team, or like the Soviets, or the UCLA basketball team that won 10 NCAA Championships in 12 years. They practice the way they want to play. The Ducks don’t stand around for a minute. Instead, they run plays up and down the field at such a high speed, the assistant coaches have to be in good shape to keep up, and they learn to teach on the fly. In the National Championship game two years ago, they lost to a star-studded Auburn team, and it was obvious the numerous TV commercial timeouts interrupted the flow and negated the Ducks’ conditioning philosophy that worked so well in regular season games.
Kelly was himself a hockey player when he was younger, and if he or Brooks saw a youth hockey practice today, in which the players were standing still listening to a lecture on systems, they would ask, “What kind of game are they preparing for? Certainly not a game of high speed skills.” Keep in mind that lectures by the coach can be done when ice rental isn’t a factor, using a gym or chalkboard.
Pavlov’s disciples, the four Hall of Fame coaches and Chip Kelly, would advise youth coaches to use ice time for repetition of skills – perfect repetition at a pace that will leave opponents wondering how many players you are sneaking on the ice.