Stop wasting your practice time

By William James

As coaches in Europe, we are faced with a limited amount of time to help athletes improve. We are usually given two to three opportunities a week to practice the game of football.

As most people know, football is a strategic sport. It requires understanding a playbook and high situational awareness.

In many cases in practices, coaches spend a great deal of time running “indys” or individual position drills which are designed to improve the specific skillset of those athletes and that position.

During these indy periods, it’s common to see pre-choreographed drills, such as defensive backs performing breaks on cones, or reacting to a coach’s cue to run in a certain direction.

Who and what are indys for?

What if I told you that doing these drills can be a waste of time?

The problem with doing these drills is that they lack the contextual information that athletes use to determine their movement solution, that is, where they need to go. By removing the visual elements (opponents) and reducing them to cones or coaches pointing in a certain direction, we are doing little to help athletes become skilled at their sport. Athletes need to understand who and what they are relating to on the field. One of the major differences between novices and experts is their ability to scan the opponents/field for the 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 is this quote telling us? It is telling us quite literally that team sports require some form of cognition or problem solving to produce a positive outcome. When a coach runs a pre-choreographed drill, it is about as helpful to an athlete as it is to a student who’s doing a math test with the answer key next to the test. They already know the answer so there is no need to learn how to find the correct solution for yourself.

More than one movement solution?

Another issue we discover with pre-choreographed drills is the idea that there is a singular “optimal movement” solution. When we perform 45, 90, 135, and 180 degree drills with DBs for example, and coach their foot placement during these drills, we are implying that these are the only angles that occur on the field. What we need to understand is that there are ultimately too many variable movement options on the field to approach it in such a reductionist manner. Instead, as coaches, we should guide athletes into a “bandwidth” of acceptable movement states. Find ways to drive the athlete’s intent to get from point A to B quicker and they should self-organize.

Now that we have established that sports are problem-solving activities, we can follow up with the logic that cone drills and pre-choreographed drills are the coaches’ way of handing athletes the answer to the test, or simply killing time (possibly unintentionally). This begs the question, what can we do to help improve on-field performance? And what should the coach be doing?

The role of coaches should be to help athletes in a guided discovery approach, to find their best movement solution. Help your athlete understand task and purpose, and after that expose them to the correct environment (drill) that will allow for exploration of that task. This will lead to a more realistic transfer of training to game performance.

Problem solving

A simple movement solution for taking away the inside would be to line up two yards inside the wideout would it not? Not so simple. The offense/wide receiver would obviously notice this and just spend the entire day running vertical routes or out routes, which leaves the defensive back in no man’s land. What we need to do as coaches then is to construct an environment that brings out knowledge of 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 option of running a slant or a fade and let the defensive back discover through reps and the knowledge of results (catch or not catch) what he needs to do to solve the problem.

If we discover that athletes are continuously making the same mistake it indicates that for some reason, they have a bigger “attractor” state which is a fancy way of saying that they are comfortable. A good option here is to get them out of their comfort zone by attempting to limit some aspect. For example, limit them by having them holding their hands behind their back, limit their starting position to something entirely new, etc. This forces them to explore new solutions and helps re-wire the brain out of that attractor state.

In conclusion

The point of this article is simply to help coaches and teams engage more athletes by utilizing each other as opponents. Enrich the practices by using each other in different tasks and environments. It is more fun and cognitively engaging when athletes have to figure it out for themselves. What we might see long term are athletes who are more autonomous, more driven and 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 reason for your drill selection and when to use what. Cones and pre-choreographed drills have their place too, but it is not during the season with limited time.

About William James

William James played and studied at the University of North Dakota and graduated with a degree in kinesiology. He has played football for a number of teams in Europe and currently plays for the Leipzig Kings of the European League of Football. He has coached for both the Uppsala 86ers and RIG Football Academy in Sweden.

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