Practice vs Game Reps for Player Development

American Football is growing globally with countries all over the world hoping to develop their local players to the same level of Americans. Some countries like Canada, Mexico, and Japan have developed their players so well their nationalities are considered the same as Americans in terms of class A imports (I will NOT get into import classifications) in select leagues. So the question I ask is: Which is better for player development, practice reps or game reps?

Real Game Experience: Game Reps

In terms of real game experience, there is no substitution for the experience gained by playing in a live game. You can not simulate or imitate the numerous nuances of the game in real time, it’s just not possible. Games provide the reaction element of football that makes it so unique. No matter how hard or how much you practice, you can’t be prepared for when a player zigs when you’re accustomed to a zag. Yes, I used zig and zag instead of a specific football play, because this analogy applies more broadly to the world. Regarding experience of live play, game reps is obviously the preferred method of player development.

Game Play and Preparation: Practice Reps

Photo Credit: OlyDrop

If you only play games, you will eventually get better, in theory. In actuality, playing lots of games without practicing on skills and correcting mistakes from previous games is the football definition of insanity. Think about the recreational league you play basketball in every week. You show up and play your heart out, hoping that you will play better than you did last week. When you win you feel like, YES! I’m getting better! But when you lose you think, DAMN! I need to practice! But in reality, your game did not develop, your opponents changed. If you played the same team every week you would most likely have the same outcome every week, barring any unforseen variables like injuries, change of strategy, etc. Through practice, players develop the necessary skills and abilities to succeed during games. To think you can be prepared to play a game without practice is just asinine. So for game play and preparation, practice reps is the better method for player development.

Specific Skill Development: Practice Reps

Have you ever seen a quarterback learn to throw better passes DURING a game? If you have, please give me the name of that guy, I want him on my team! Throwing, catching, running properly, reading a defense/offense, learning specific plays, and plenty other skills I don’t care to mention are all developed through practice. You practice these skills until you are comfortable enough to apply them to game situations in live games. Specific skill development can only be done through practice reps.

Competitive Advantages: Game Reps

Photo Credit: Sky Sports

Example: You line up at cornerback and Odell Beckham Jr is lined up across from you at wide receiver. No matter how many games you have seen him play, you have no idea how fast or good he REALLY is until you physically play against him. It doesn’t matter how many players you practice against in preparation for him, the only way to learn how to cover Odell Beckham Jr is to COVER ODELL BECKHAM JR! Once you cover him you will find out the subtle things that you can do to be successful against him. No, I don’t know specifically what you can do to cover Odell Beckham Jr, I’ve never played against the guy. But I do know that the competitive advantage that some defensive backs have against him have been learned in game situations through reps against him. The fastest way to gain competitive advantages against opponents is through game reps.

Quality vs Quantity

Just as in anything else in the world, quality always beats quantity. Practice versus game reps is no different. Quality practice reps develops player skills and continually improves overall ability. Compare that to playing a lot of games, where you have a limited time to develop overall but instead learn how to play against your present opponent and have to learn a  new opponent each game.

A great example of this is international game play in Europe. When teams play international games against new opponents the team with better players usually wins, after both teams settle down from the pregame hype. The reason these games play out like this is because when there are a lot of unknowns involved, American Football game play reverts back to the basics (what players have learned from quality practice). Without having past experience or an extensive library of film to study, the two teams have to rely on their 11 on the field versus their opponents 11. If one team is put in a situation they have never experienced in their local league, their practice habits will prove to be the deciding factor in how they respond. For example, If a team has the ball but is losing by 4 points with less than 2 minutes left in the game and 0 timeouts. The avid football fan knows this is time for the 2 minute drill. But what if this team has never lost a game in 3 years and never once practiced or needed the 2 minute drill? Most likely they will not succeed in driving down the field and making the game winning touchdown. On the flip side, what if despite never needing it, they practice the 2 minute drill every week as part of their situational period of practice. Thats the difference between quality practice reps and just playing a lot of games.

Photo Credit: Associated Press/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Quality game reps are a different story than quality practice. Quality game reps helps create those players who call themselves “Gamers”. You know who I’m talking about, that guy who is decent in practice, but is an ALL-STAR on gameday. That guy who makes plays in games that can’t be practiced, and never are practiced. Everyone knows someone like that, a product of quality game reps. With quality game reps a player learns things about playing the game that can’t be learned through practice, no matter how many practices are done. A player can practice one hand catches for hours, but that will not prepare them for that pass they catch in between a defender’s leg while upside down. As freakishly lucky as that play sounds, that is valuable experience for that player because they now have expanded their boundaries of what they can accomplish in a game. The next time a pass is thrown in an unusual place on the field, that receiver has experience of making the impossible possible. Of course if it happens once its pure luck, but if history repeats itself it is definitely quality game reps.

How the Americans Do It

It’s called American Football, so maybe imitating Americans could lead to player developmental success? Let’s give it a try. Strictly speaking in volume of time, the average football player in the United States (I’m using high school players as my average football player) spends three times as much time practicing compared to game play. Do European teams require there players to have the same ratio of practice to game time? Also, is this quality practice developing players’ skills and abilities? Are the games played against quality opponents to help develop live game skills and abilities? I’m asking these questions, because honestly I don’t have the answers to them, but I do know that if it works in the states it might work elsewhere in the world (regarding American Football, lets leave everything else out of this).

Perfect Pervis Appreciates “Mental Reps”

With this being such a wide-open subject I feel obliged to give my personal opinion on the topic as well. In my opinion, players and teams should focus more on  quality practice reps instead of game reps. As an American, I can remember my former coaches constantly talking about “Mental Reps” throughout my playing career. What these coaches meant by that phrase was that the guys who were not getting live game or even practice reps needed to still be focused as if they were playing, to develop without physical reps. It’s the cornerstone of the “next man up” mentality that great teams depend on to be successful no matter the teams talent level. Think of a team like the New England Patriots who constantly win as an organization with players who are basically unknown before joining the team. These guys are usually career backups with little to no stats, but thrive and become household names in the Patriots organization. Until they were given that game time opportunity, all they had was PRACTICE.

Perfect Pervis is a football enthusiast from Texas City, Texas. Perfect currently resides in Finland, playing & coaching American Football and writing a blog about the football culture in Europe.