Stop wasting your practice time
Graphics: Igor Lazarevic Photo: Jonas Domfors
By William James
As coaches in Europe, we face a limited time to help athletes improve. We are usually given two to three opportunities a week to practice football.
As most people know, football is a strategic sport. It requires understanding a playbook and a lot of situational awareness.
In many cases, during practices, coaches spend a lot of time performing “indys” or individual position drills designed to improve the specific skills of those athletes and that position.
During these indy times, it’s common to see pre-choreographed drills, such as defensive backs taking breaks on cones or reacting to a coach’s cue to run in a certain direction.
Who and what are indys used for?
What if I told you that doing these exercises can be a waste of time?
The problem with these exercises is that they lack the contextual information that athletes use to determine their movement solution, i.e. where they need to go. By removing visual elements (opponents) and reducing them to cones or coaches pointing in a certain direction, we are doing little to help athletes become skilled in their sport. Athletes need to understand who and what they are talking to on the court. One of the main differences between Novices and Experts is their ability to analyze opponents/terrain for relevant information and determine the best way forward.
Defining team sports
“Sport is a problem-solving activity where movements are used to produce the necessary solution” – Verkhoshansky and Siff in Super Training.
What does this quote tell us? This literally tells us that team sports require some form of cognition or problem solving to produce a positive outcome. When a coach performs a pre-choreographed exercise, it is about as useful to an athlete as it is to a student taking a math test with the answer key next to the test. They already know the answer, so there’s no need to learn how to find the right solution for yourself.
More than one motion solution?
Another problem we discover with pre-choreographed exercises is the idea that there is a single “optimal movement” solution. When we perform 45, 90, 135, and 180 degree drills with DBs for example, and train their foot placement during those drills, we imply that these are the only angles that occur on the court. What we need to realize is that there are ultimately too many variable movement options on the pitch to approach it in such a reductionist way. Instead, as coaches, we should guide athletes through a “bandwidth” of acceptable states of motion. Find ways to stimulate the athlete’s intention to get from point A to point B faster and organize themselves.
Now that we’ve established that sports are problem-solving activities, we can follow the logic that cone drills and pre-choreographed drills are how coaches give athletes the test answer, or simply to killing time (perhaps unintentionally). This begs the question, what can we do to help improve performance on the pitch? And what should the coach do?
The role of coaches should be to help athletes in a guided discovery approach, to find their best movement solution. Help your athlete understand the task and the goal, then expose them to the right environment (exercise) that will explore that task. This will lead to a more realistic transfer from training to game performance.
A simple movement solution to remove the inside would be to line up two meters inside the wide, right? Not that easy. The offensive/wide receiver would obviously notice this and spend all day going up vertical routes or outside routes, which would leave the defensive back in no man’s land. What we need to do as coaches is build an environment that brings out the results. Instead of only allowing a wide receiver to run an inside route in a situation in which the defensive back knows the counter solution, an environment/drill must be created that reflects the game situation. For example, in a drill, give the wide receiver the ability to execute a tilt or a fade and let the defensive back figure out through repetition and knowledge of the results (catch or not) what they need to do to fix the problem.
If we find that athletes continually make the same mistake, that indicates that for some reason they have a higher “attractor” state, which is a fancy way of saying they’re comfortable. A good option here is to take them out of their comfort zone by trying to limit certain aspects. For example, limit them by having them hold their hands behind their back, limit their starting position to something entirely new, etc. This forces them to explore new solutions and helps rewire the brain out of this attractor state.
The purpose of this article is simply to help coaches and teams engage more athletes by using each other as opponents. Enrich practices by using each other in different tasks and environments. It’s more fun and cognitively engaging when athletes have to figure it out for themselves. What we might see in the long run are athletes who are more empowered, more motivated, and more creative in how they view the game on the field. Let’s help our athletes be creative and make football practices more fun.
Finally, understand the context and rationale for your selection of exercises and when to use what. Cones and pre-choreographed drills also have their place, but it’s not during the season with limited time.