In my recent presentation to the Massachusetts PE teaches, the MAPHERD convention, I focused on how we can create better practice plans that actually taught instead of just keeping players busy. The great John Wooden said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.”
The problem that was addressed was the common scenario of coaches putting together their practice plans that had 8-10 unrelated and randomly organized drills. Players would have a warmup, then a passing drill followed by a shooting drill. Usually there were some transition drills, followed by a defensive drill and then another shooting drill. Last, of course, was a scrimmage. There is no buildup, sequencing or progression of skills. In previous articles I call this the “A la Carte” approach where coaches just grab random drills that relate to various parts of the game. Many coaches fall into this habit and are really good at keeping players busy and active. If you consider, from the players’ perspective, their mindset when they get to practice, you’ll understand the need to simplify and slow things down. Most students will go from one 45 minute class to another 45 minute class to another and another. Some schools, without Block Scheduling, have 6-7 classes per day. These classes are totally random, totally unconnected and the pace of the day is hectic. Imagine going from an upper level math class and the thinking required to an English Comp class with a totally different thought process. Then going to a foreign language and then to a science class. Again, all different, all different thinking and all totally unconnected. Players arrive at practice mentally exhausted. So what do coaches do when those players arrive for practice? We do the same thing and conduct practices that are hectic, unconnected and random. It’s a wonder that the players can absorb any information or develop that vision.
The coach may be covering a lot of the parts of the game but how effectively is the coach doing so? They are focusing on Breadth instead of Depth of coverage. There is a better way but it requires a commitment from the coach to focus on Depth instead of Breadth.
Now, before coaches can get into the Depth of teaching skills, there are a few organizational steps they first need to do. Part of that talk was on one of the preliminary steps in organizing your Master Skills Inventory. Looking at all of the skills that you want your players to possess at the end of the season is a necessary step as you determine How to teach those skills. This is a task that can be completed once, recommend doing with entire coaching staff present, and then refined each year.
Most coaches will simply list out all of the skills using the Types of skills as way to organize. For example coaches will write down all of the Technical skills (those skills needed to play that sport) Tactical Skills (Applying the Technical Skills to Games), Athletic Skills (Skills that transfer over to other sports like speed and quickness) and of course Life Skills (why we are really coaching sports). At the end of this Master Skills Inventory, there may be anywhere from 40-75 skills generated. Of course the number is determined by the age and previous skill set you are getting.
After listing out the skills based on the type of skill, coaches should then go through and determine the 3-5 most important skills. These 3-5 skills should be what the coach spends most of their time teaching in what is called the 80/20 rule. 80% of practice time should be on the most important 20% of the skills. Have your players become Great at the important skills. Note that you’re still going to teach the other skills, but you’re focused on becoming Great at the 3-5 most important skills. For most “invasion” sports, the top 3-5 may be passing and catching, dodging/dribbling, shooting and of course defense. Coaches can take their Master Skills Inventory and highlight these 3-5 Important skills to emphasize their importance. Coaches should discuss with their staff what are those skills that the program will be known for teaching and what skills will your players be Great at?
Coaches should then re-organize the Master Inventory from one based on Type of skill to one based on these 3-5 Important skills. For each of these 3-5 skills, listing the supporting skills or skills related should be placed underneath. For example if the important skill is shooting, think of the skills needed in order to shoot. You have the mechanics of shooting stationary and then with movement in both directions. For example, players could shoot off a pass, off a pick or off of a dribble/dodge. You have to get open in order to shoot so all of the Getting Open skills like V-cuts, screens etc… would support the Shooting. Then you have to have the athletic skills to create separation as well as the tactical skills of knowing when and where to shoot. Organizing your skills into this hierarchy creates a Skills Taxonomy.
What the Skills Taxonomy allows the coach to do is to visually see the relationship of various skills. Coaches can then use the Taxonomy to create practice plans that are logical, connected and focus on 2 concepts per practice, instead of 8-10 which is most common. Coaches can pick 2 of the Important skills and see the supporting/related skills that also need to be taught. Creating logical progressions and buildups can then be easily envisioned. Coaches could start with the Important skill and work “backwards” or start with the supporting skills and progress to the Important skill. For example, coaches can start with shooting mechanics, add shooting off a screen, setting proper screens, shooting off a V-cut, and then add defenders in to build up to a 3v3 shooting small sided game. Or the coach could start by teaching the screens and V-cuts and then slowly add the shooting into the mix and buildup to a 3v3 game. The key is the focus is on the shooting and related skills needed in order to shoot. For that first half of practice everything is about shooting, the main concept.
Taking the Master Skills Inventory and developing a Skills Taxonomy requires an investment of time of the coaching staff. Once completed, the Skills Taxonomy can stay with the program and just requires a brief touch-up each year. The Taxonomy will impact your practices as the coach will no longer randomly select drills but will follow a sequence and progression based on the Skills Taxonomy. The impact is that the players will also understand the relationship between the skills and further develop their overall understanding and skill set for that sport.