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Practice?  We Talkin' About Practice?

by Jeff Eastham-Anderson

Epic rants by NBA legends belittling the importance of practice aside, there is a wealth of evidence that points to the importance of practice, both quantity and quality, when it comes to improving athletic performance. Many people have noted that athletes seem to require at least 10 years from the time they begin a sport until they are able to reach the top of their game. Others have taken this analysis further. Malcolm Gladwell observed in his book, Outliers, that top performers can only manage to practice effectively for about 1,000 hours every year, thus arriving with the often quoted "10,000 hour rule" which must be satisfied in order to master a complex task. Matthew Syed takes this observation a bit further in his book, Bounce, by pointing out that those practice hours must be purposeful, and filled with failure; simply going through the motions and not challenging yourself to the point of failure does not lead to sustained improvement. 

What qualifies as practice is still a bit murky to me, but there are two numbers to consider which helps put things in perspective. First, a 40-hour work week equals about 2000 hours a year. To hit the 1,000 hour a year mark, you need to be putting in about 3 hour days, seven days a week, for a whole year. Second, some very sketchy calculations suggest that during my 13 years playing Ultimate, I’ve logged between 5,000 and 6,000 hours on the field. I think it’s safe to say that a vanishingly small number of Ultimate players have to worry about practicing too much, or satisfying the 10,000 hour rule. 

So, the question of how to get the most out of a practice is extremely valid. For my part, I’m going to focus on four basic principles to keep in mind when figuring out how to practice, along an example or two. It’s up to you and your team to figure out how to apply them. 

Get Everyone on the Same Page:
This goes without saying to a certain extent, and comes in a variety of forms; playbook meetings, moving discs around on the ground, on-field examples, etc. The team should be presented with concepts in a controlled setting where questions are easily asked and answers are quickly given. Simply put, the majority of this explanation should take place before your team warms up, or at least after any substantial breaks during practice. Further, someone should have spent enough time thinking about that concept to the point where they don’t have to think about the answer, or consult the playbook. 

Maximize your reps:
In a word, drills. The function of drills is to allow everyone on your team to cement basic concepts and movements through repetition. Entrusting your team to learn by just playing games is not sufficient. An entire game may only present an individual player with a handful of opportunities to implement a certain concept, while the majority of their time is spent between points, watching from the sideline, or executing other concepts (hopefully) to perfection; time which is not spent improving on newly learned concepts. The drills don’t have to be perfect, but you definitely need to think about both how best to convey the strategy you are trying to teach, and the logistics of people moving through a drill in order to maximize the number or repetitions. Additionally, consider making a substantial portion of your warm-ups for practices and tournaments a drill your team has run recently. 

Take it up a notch:
Once your team has the basics down, your drills and games need to be modified to make things more difficult in order to push beyond your limits. This is where the aspect of failure as an important aspect of practice comes into play. Only by changing the set-up of your drills, or the rules by which you play your games to make execution more difficult will you be pushed beyond your limits to the point of failure. At that point, every failure should be treated as a learning opportunity. Shortening the stall count to force moving the disc faster, or a designated poacher on defense are just two examples, but there are lots of creative ways to make things more difficult. Finally, there should be sufficient downtime incorporated into a drill or game for people to register mistakes, discuss what happened, and think about alternatives. 

Follow it through:
During the course of a season, there are a lot of things to cover, and there is an innate tendency for coaches and captains to assume that once a concept is explained and executed successfully once, it is time to move on to the next one. Remember, it takes 10,000 hours to "master" a sport, and the vast majority of that is repetition. Concepts should be serially revisited, and teammates held accountable for not carrying forward past lessons. 

Anecdotally, two months is a ballpark amount of time you should allow for a reasonably complex task, like a particular zone defense, or even a complex set play. This comes primarily from my observation that of all the concepts introduced after Regionals, at most one in ten was ever implemented at Nationals.

huddle issue031

Mon February 28th, 2011
Practice? We Talkin' About Practice?
by Jeff Eastham-Anderson

Full Focus, Full Effort
by Greg Husak

Practice Planning Musts
by Tyler Kinley

Take Control of Your Practice
by John Korber

Managing Intensity, Concepts, and Fun
by Peri Kurshan

Getting More Out of the Practice Warm-Up
by Pat McCarthy

Planning Youth Practices
by Shannon O'Malley

Parts of a Whole
by Shane Rubenfeld

Three Easy Targets
by Ben Slade

Planning Ahead
by Ryan Thompson

Minutes Are Precious
by Ben Wiggins

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Throwers: How to Plan a Throwing Practice
by Melissa Witmer




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