Everyone has had a bad experience with a team before where they come into a practice with no idea what to expect and they find nothing short of disaster. The facility is inadequate for the team’s needs; there is not enough equipment to go around; and, worst of all, the coach does not have a clear agenda for the day, so things seem to fall apart throughout the practice.
You, as a coach, are responsible for running the practice, and one of your biggest priorities should be preparing for that practice so that when it actually happens, there are few glitches. Like all leadership roles, the majority of your work will be done behind the scenes, with little recognition.
No one is going to recognize and praise you for the clever architecture of practice that allows players adequate rest time without releasing their minds and losing the focus of the practice. However, without a plan like that, you would most certainly be viewed unfavorably by players and parents alike.
To help ensure that every practice runs as it should, with maximum time utilization, start by planning what resources are necessary for the practice. What do you need everyday? What do you need for special drills that happen once a week? How about unique practices? By planning ahead, you will always be prepared.
Also, think about how to best utilize time and space. Based on the space available for practice, how should you split players up? Is it best to have everyone in a large group or would pairs or small groups work best?
As for time, how can you provide ample time for warm-up, cool-down, and the actual practice, as well as giving time to rest the body, get adequate fluid intake, and have a team meeting? What order works best for your team? By addressing these questions before you ever set foot in practice, you will keep everyone’s attention and gain the respect that you deserve as a well-prepared coach.
Here are some benchmarks to help you plan your practices.
Get Help From Assistant Coaches
Without enough coaches, you will not be able to provide the safe, effective practice environment that your players deserve. Spend the time to accurately predict what staffing you will need and express those needs to your athletic director.
When evaluating staffing needs, keep in mind the safety of your players. Maximizing athlete supervision and instruction ensures that you have a safe team with fewer accidents. Not only does it keep everyone focused and reduces time spent rough-housing or playing around, it also builds mental and physical endurance.
Another way to think about this is the time your players deserve to spend with a coach. They are not coming to practice to figure it out on their own—they are looking to you and other coaches to help them improve where necessary and identify problems in their technique. Without sufficient staffing, you are depriving players of time and attention they deserve to have from a qualified, professional instructor.
Organize Your Equipment and Practice Space
Your practice space is one of the most important elements of the practice, though it is usually overlooked until it is deemed inadequate. To make the best use of your space, think through regrouping of athletes and transitions to new activities.
When you split athletes into small groups to work on technique and skills, understand what it will mean to bring them back together. If one group needs to continue working on their own, will there be space to do that if you bring the rest of the players back together? If not, how can you design the practice so that all groups get enough time to practice but none are bored?
Regrouping is essential in keeping practice flowing smoothly. You need to be able to easily get everyone’s attentions and draw them back to a central location, where you can explain the next aspect of practice and give instructions. Scan the space for the right location to have these regrouping sessions, and try to keep things consistent. If players know to look for you in a specific location, they will be quicker to respond as they build familiarity for the processes.
Reduce Wait Time Between Drills
Before practice starts, you must prepare drills so that you will know how much time each exercise will take. Preparing properly allows you to organize the practice around the drills that make sense. It also gives you confidence in your practice plan, which leads to less confusion and downtime.
If you know exactly what you want players to do, you can address that quicker and help everyone reduce wait time. If, instead, you come to practice without adequately preparing drills, you will cause everyone to wait longer as you set things up and review the necessary skills.
Preparation doesn’t just come in the form of physically running the drills. It also comes from preparing the space ahead of time. You should arrive early enough to set up the space as needed so that players can walk in and go directly into practice, instead of having to prepare the space and retrieve equipment.
Having sufficient equipment is also essential to reducing wait time during practice. Providing equipment that players can grab, use, and put back keeps everyone in the practice mindset instead of losing them to distractions, downtime, and confusion.
Share Your Vision
If you are the only one with a clear idea of what is going to happen during practice, you will have a hard time keeping everyone motivated and fully engaged. By sharing your intentions with fellow staff members and the athletes themselves, you will help everyone move along faster. Staff can be especially helpful here, as they can assist in preparing the space, equipment, and do other necessary actions to keep practice moving.
Before practice, staff and players should know what you plan for them to do during practice, as well as the objectives of the practice and possibly even the sequence of activities taking place that day. Properly framing expectations goes a long way to getting everyone’s cooperation.
Your staff and players will appreciate having a plan for practice because it will help them prepare as well. Just as you do your planning before practice begins, outlining your objectives and the sequence of activities as your players arrive will help them prepare themselves mentally and physically to put forth their best effort.
Use Visual Aids
Give your team a head start by providing written descriptions and diagrams of drills and team tactics that you will discuss in practice. Provide these items ahead of time, such as at the practice before or during the week prior to the practice, so that players can familiarize themselves with the material before coming to practice.
Giving material ahead of time benefits you in two major ways. First, it promotes preparation among your team and ensures that they will come in with at least some background knowledge of what you are going to discuss.
This will help them pick up the concepts quicker and incorporate them, because they will already have minimal familiarity with the ideas. Second, it keeps practice moving along, since you won’t have to start from the very beginning when discussing the new drills.
Group Athletes to Maximize Improvement
Your team is a resource available to you just as much as the space or the equipment is, and it is important to recognize and take advantage of that resource.
Grouping players together properly can promote your learning objectives by promoting team unity, cooperation, and repetition. If you place a highly-qualified player with a weaker player, you can accomplish the objective of improving the skill of the weaker player through the instruction and mentorship of the stronger player. You can also achieve the objective of developing leadership skills in the team, as the stronger player gains experience leading the weaker player.
Players can also be grouped for other reasons, such as the consideration of safety. Your first responsibility in youth sports is to ensure the health and well-being of your players, so their safety should be in the forefront of your mind as you group players together.
For example, youth football coaches should ensure that all full-contact drills match players of similar size and strength. This will allow players the best opportunity to develop their skills while minimizing the chances of injury. Do your best to keep players in groups that will help them learn and develop while maintaining their safety.
Motivation and team morale are other key factors in grouping athletes. Pay attention to how players interact with each other and make smart selections that will promote teamwork, hard work, and learning. Players should learn to respect each other through these group activities, as well as improve their skills and gain motivation about the practice and the season in general.