What are we talking about? Practice?
Posted by Dean Holden at December 2nd, 2013
by Dean Holden, 2 December 2013
Allen Iverson’s famous entertaining monologue on ‘practice’ – he mentions it twenty-two times during a 2002 press conference – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGDBR2L5kzI – reminded me how important it is to practice purposefully as that will predicate one’s performance in a game.
Watch any NHL game and focus on the line changes; specifically those players coming to the bench. Do you see players skating hard to the bench with a sense of urgency so their waiting teammate can join the play? No; you see players straighten up, coast and put their stick up in the air… all the while their team is giving time and space to their opponents! To me, this
practice behaviour demonstrates that the player is bigger than the team; he is being selfish and lazy. Unfortunately, being ‘cool’ and taking shortcuts seems to be engrained in the hockey culture, especially as players hit adolescence or adulthood.
Coach do you pay attention to details such as these in practice? I refrain from saying ‘little details’ because I think they are indeed ‘big details!’ Do you teach, rehearse and consistently hold players accountable in practice to effort items such as this? If you do – congrats – you are in the minority! If you don’t – it’s time to start re-shaping your team culture because you will gain an advantage over your opponents; not to mention your players will start to develop positive practice habits! It all starts with practice! What you do in practice (make it purposeful and ideally, game-like) is what you are going to get in games! (And yes A.I.; practice will make your teammates better!)
Now look closely at the technical skills and drills you are asking the players to perform during a typical hockey practice. How much time do they spend practicing most of these small movement patterns in isolation; that is, without game-like conditions? Players practicing in isolation will eventually start to stand up straight (losing their hockey stance), look for shortcuts (only handle puck on their strong side), and eventually do something else – stop altogether or start fooling around – because they are bored and/or fatigued. Are they getting better or further ingraining lazy habits? Are the players fully mentally engaged – even after twenty seconds – during this process? Does static practice inspire players to keep practicing?
For most of us adults who aren’t obsessive-compulsive, even one minute of seemingly pointless repetition in isolation from a game feels like an eternity… and it can’t be classified as fun. It is hard work. It might hurt. If we adults find it tough to practice forehand toe drags for one minute, while maintaining a strong hockey stance with head up, perfectly executing each repetition perfectly at speed, with deception when necessary, consistently and on demand, how can we expect a five year old Timbit or a seventeen year old Midget to maintain this focus? As coaches, we have to remember the reality that kids are not mini-adults! Perspective please, people!
How effective will that isolated skill be in a game-like situation when real pressure is added in the form of opponents, teammates, coaches / fans / parents / friends watching with expectations, a scoreboard, standings, officiating calls, and the need to make the best split-second decisions according to the situation? Don’t forget to add all the adults yelling at the kids. (By the way, shut up, for the kid’s sake! Practice biting your tongue and let the players figure things out! Athletes need your emotional support and silence to become independent thinkers!)
Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the role repetitive, technically correct execution plays while learning key individual skills (skating, puck control, passing and receiving, shooting) as one moves towards acquiring their copious hours of deliberate practice – however, it seems that technical skills are almost always first practiced in isolation from the game. Why is this accepted practice? Why couldn’t we play games first, let them succeed or struggle while having playing, then go back to the skills later (and/or ask them to do remedial work outside of practice – ‘sports playwork’), then go back to another game? Consider using this Game – Activity – Game template. It helps reinforce the importance of skill development to the players!
Technique training should occur in brief, intense doses and instead of focussing on the overall time spent on task, one should focus on successfully executing a set number of consecutive perfect repetitions. If they mess up, they go back to zero and start again. Challenge the players to set a baseline score in whatever skill you are practicing, and then try to achieve personal bests! The number should require a stretch and it can’t be too easy to achieve… it is up to the individual to find their own sweet spot of effort. As it becomes easier, players need to adjust their number outwards to create a new ‘reach’.
It is up to the coaches to craft, manage and reinforce this environment. ‘Perfection’ will take time! Many mistakes will be made initially and if the player pays closest attention the moment something goes wrong (the critical moment), their self-awareness will help promote quicker learning. Aim to have your players’ practice their weaknesses twice as much as their strengths; but try to make it fun and challenging. Soon, their weaknesses will become much better!
* Did I beat A.I.’s record for using the word ‘practice’ in one sitting? Thanks for the inspiration A.I.! *