Practice…Are you doing it right?

Practice, the one thing that all coaches do, but certainly don't  do it the same way.  I remember early in my coaching career, my practices looked more like a scrimmage against our back-ups than it did trying to prepare my team for the upcoming opponent.  I remember drawing up plays on the fly and using practice as a "blank-canvas" to see if I could tweak the offense or add a new wrinkle.  While there was value in that, I was missing out on the whole point of practice.  So why do we practice?

The most important reason to practice is to prepare your team for any situation it may encounter during the game.  Practice is a chance for a coach to present situations to their players that they will encounter throughout the athletic competition.  Early in my coaching career, I don't think that I fully understood the opportunity that practice provided me.  It wasn't until later that I fully understood how many "moving parts" there were to my team and that the only chance I had to make sure that those parts would function properly at the moment when they were needed was to "test" those parts in several scenarios.

I have coached several sports throughout my career, and I can tell you that no matter what sport I was coaching, the game can be broken down into several key components.  These components are consistently important in any sport.  From my experiences in coaching football, basketball, baseball, and hockey I can tell you that the game can be segmented using the following components; individual skills, small-group skills, and finally large group skills.  Understanding the importance of these three components and the different scenarios in which they will be applied throughout the competition is the key to preparing your athletes to be able to adjust to any situation.  When it comes to practice, we must allow opportunity to work on all three areas of the game consistently.

Today's article will focus in on the area of Individual Skills.  Over the next few weeks I will breakdown the other two components, Small-Group skills and Large-Group skills.

 

Individual Skills:

First, let's discuss Individual skills.  The most important thing that a coach can do in my opinion is to understand the skills necessary to be successful at each and every position.  For me, I always wanted to focus on what I call the "SAARR's."  The SAARR's stand for Stance, Alignment, Assignment, Read, and Responsibility.  Again these SAAR's can be applied to any sport and need to be understood at each position.  These are the key areas to focus on when developing individual skills.  Stance is really the foundation.  A good stance will lead to a good first movement which is critical.  Alignment speaks to the way the athlete needs to be lined up.  From a football perspective, it would be at the beginning of the play.  From a hockey or basketball standpoint, it may be positioning in the defensive zone.  For baseball it may be a strategy like "infield in."  Assignment is relatively self explanatory.  What is the athlete responsible for while the play is going on?  Read speaks to an "if..then" statement.  If this happens, then do this. Finally, Responsibility speaks to the "job" of an athlete during a particular scenario.  For example: The Defensive End may be responsible for the Quarterback in the option.  The second basemen must cover first if a bunt is laid down on the first baseline, etc.....

As a football coach, I tried to break each position down into the "must list."  The "Must List" was a document that I created and handed to all of my position coaches as well as the athletes at each individual position.  It was also used for player evaluations which I will discuss in a follow up article in the future. The must list is broken down into "Must Be, Must Have, Must Do, Must Understand, and Must Develop.  It contained the "Must Be's" which were the 3-5 things that the player must be.  For example:  a quarterback must be smart, athletic and mobile, and a general on the field.  The list also contained the "Must Haves" which was a list of 3-5 key traits that an athlete must posses to play that particular position.  Using the QB as an example, escapability, a strong arm, and intelligence.  It also contained the "Must Do's" which were the things that the athlete has to do consistently..protect the ball, be a threat, make the right reads.  The "Must Understands" such as defensive coverage, fronts and stunts, as well as the purpose of the play.  Finally, the "Must Develops" which described the attributes the athlete needed to develop such as recognition, leadership and play-making ability.

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My most recent coaching experience has been in coaching young goaltenders in hockey.  When I first started working with a goaltender, I tried to understand what skills were needed to be an ice hockey goalie.  The most important skill is skating.  A goalie must be able to move.  To steal a line from the great Herb Brooks "the legs feed the wolf."  Therefore I knew that I needed to focus on drills that would mimic the movement that the goalies would make in game situations and allow time in practice to focus on that movement and present situations in which the movement can be applied.

The key takeaway when discussing the component of individual skills is understanding what key skills need to be taught, developed and mastered in order for the athlete to be successful at the position.

When it comes to the realm of practice, it is important that we roll all of the things discussed from SAARs to Must Lists to Key Skills and give the athlete an opportunity to develop them.  As a football coach, one of the biggest mistakes I made was not allowing for the proper time for my athletes to develop their skills sets during individual time or "Indy."  Individual time was an afterthought when I first started coaching.  Now I realize it is the single most important part of practice.  If I do not give me athletes time to learn, develop and master the skills needed to succeed at their position, then how are they going to succeed in a game situation?

How do we implement this policy into practice?  For me it all comes down to answering the question of skill vs. scenario.  As a coach, I wanted to make sure I spent significant time during the pre-season developing as many individual skills as possible.  I also wanted to make sure that I was able to tie the skill to a scenario in which it is used.  For example: an offensive linemen's most important skill is knowing how to block.  However,  there is a difference between run blocking and pass blocking.  Therefore I would take the skill and break it down into parts.  Footwork, and hand placement for the offensive linemen are key components of the blocking skill.  However my footwork is different on run blocks vs. pass blocks.  I will also use different footwork when I pull vs. when I am blocking straight ahead.  The best advice I can give is to break each position down into the lowest possible level of skill and then begin to tie that skill with as many different scenarios as may come up during competition.  The example above with offensive line is perfect to use.  I will only give you a few of the many:

Footwork vs. Head up defender in the run game
Footwork vs. Play side shade in the run game
Footwork vs. Back side shade in the run game
Footwork vs. a Linebacker in the run game
Hand Placement vs. Head up defender in the run game
Hand Placement vs. Play side shade in the run game
Hand Placement vs. Back side shade in the run game
Hand Placement vs. a Linebacker in the run game

Once this relationship between key skill and scenario is understood, it is even more important to allow ample time in practice for an athlete to develop and eventually master the skill in each and every scenario.  This is why practice is so important.  We as coaches must give our athletes the opportunity to learn the skills needed to succeed in every scenario.  Anything less is unacceptable.

A majority of my readers are football coaches, so from here out I will focus on the football coaching side of practice, but hopefully coaches of other sports are able to correlate what I have outlined above.

From a football coaching perspective, I think I have presented enough evidence to prove the importance of having "Indy" time built in to practice plans.   For me, I wanted to make sure to build in at least 20 minutes of every practice to focus on individual skills.  I also broke that segment down into Run Skills and Pass skills. In a future article I will discuss "practice planning."

Below are some examples of the practice segments in which I incorporated individual skill development time.


Football Practice Segments

OFFENSIVE SEGMENTS

INDY PASS:
This period is for the offensive positions to work on individual pass techniques.  We refer to this as the pass game techniques period.  This is the period in which the basic fundamentals and footwork drills are taught.  This is the opportunity to work on hand placement, release drills, footwork etc.
For the OL it may be pass protection footwork, for the WR it could be ball drills, release drills, or footwork.  For Running Backs, they may work pass protection fits, or footwork drills. They may also work on running routes.  For the QB it is passing drills, footwork, etc.
INDY RUN:
This period is for the offensive positions to work on individual run game techniques.  We refer to this as the run game techniques period.  This is the period in which the basic fundamentals and footwork drills are taught.  This is the opportunity to work on hand placement, release drills, footwork etc.
1 ON 1:
In this segment the Wide Receivers and Corners will be working one on one drills.  The WR will run a pre-determined route with QBs while the Defensive Back can work on either man or zone technique.
POST PRACTICE:
This is used after practice, usually no more than two sessions, to work on any fundamentals or drills that aren't worked during the normal practice.  This is a great time to work on skills that were missed or may need to be re-learned.  This period is similar to the Indy Run or Indy Pass Periods.
PRE-PRACTICE:
This is an opportunity for the players with/without direct coaching to work on individual skills before practice officially begins.  Examples may be snaps between C and QB.  Could be exchanges between QB and RB.  Could be individual stance and starts, etc...This period is similar to the Indy Run or Indy Pass Periods.

DEFENSIVE SEGMENT

INDY PASS:
This period is for the defensive positions to work on individual pass defense techniques. This is the period in which the basic fundamentals and footwork drills are taught.  This is the opportunity to work on hand placement, footwork, pass drops, swim or rip techniques, etc.
INDY RUN:
This period is for the defensive positions to work on individual run game techniques.  This is the period in which the basic fundamentals and footwork drills are taught.  This is the opportunity to work on hand placement, run fits, footwork etc.

SPECIAL TEAMS

There are two different parts of the Special Teams in practice. We would work on both Individual techniques and team vs. scout team.  We treat special teams as a vital part of practice.  For individual time, we would work on a specific area.  For example in Punt, we might have gunners work on releases. We would also work on individual blocks on the interior.

 

Hopefully, I was able to stress the importance of individual skill work at each and every position each and every day.  Stay tuned for more articles about practice, practice planning and coaching in general.

Coach Anthony Pratley

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