My philosophy on the approach to practice vs the approach to competition has changed over the years as I have grown as a coach. I’m sure it has for many coaches. While it is just a philosophy, let me explain it because I feel like understanding your coach’s thought process can often help you to see the bigger picture of the reasons behind the things they do.
Let me be VERY clear that an athlete’s approach to both practice AND competition should be competitive, focused, and have some sort of goal in mind. (To me, winning is not a goal, it is a result) Like anything that is truly great, there is a process and you have to trust that process.
1. DRILLS IN PRACTICE- An athlete’s approach to practice should be to learn. True learning requires courage. Let me repeat that. True learning requires courage. Why courage you ask? Well, let me answer that for you. In the process of learning, you will make a LOT of errors. Being a teacher and a coach, I see kids struggle with this every day. Many of them won’t admit it but they are afraid to make errors. Whether it is fear of failure in front of peers, fear of disappointing parents and coaches, or fear just not being good enough, this fear holds players with potential back more than anything else. The only way to learn how to hit that big swing in the big moment is to hit it over and over until the errors doing it start to go away. If all you have ever practiced is being “safe”, you won’t know anything else. Errors and failure are a part of learning and growth. What better place to learn and make errors and find that confidence than in practice? In drills in practice you are getting the chance to get literally hundreds of reps in order to learn something. You may look incredibly foolish trying to do it right for a while. You may make a ton of errors trying to do it right. You may get INCREDIBLY frustrated trying to do it right. Those are all ok! Those are ALL a part of growth. Full effort is ALSO ok! Don’t let your peers who aren’t working hard make you feel like giving it your absolute best effort in EVERY drill is uncool. You chose to TRAIN for this sport. No one is going to force you to give your best effort but you. Just like no one has to live with the “what if I had” feeling that you will undoubtedly get when you are going through the recruiting process. “What if I had just given a more consistent effort? What could I have accomplished?” There is no worse feeling than having to be honest with yourself with that and there is no worse conversation in “the car ride home” with your parents than that conversation. It’s ok to start slowly as you are learning something new and are mastering the steps, but you have to be willing to ramp it up as you get better and better at it or true mastery just won’t come.
2. PRACTICE ON YOUR OWN- If you ask your parents who were athletes, they will all tell you that they grew up playing sports in the park, in the street, or in a friends yard until the street lights came on and it was time for dinner. They found a dirt lot or all met up at the baseball field to play homerun derby. They dodged cars to play football and used that one flat basketball that the neighbor kid had that didn’t bounce so well, but it was a ball and they could play with it. Pickup games were a part of life for our generation as kids but that tradition has dwindled as time has gone on. From time to time a coach will ask, “What are you doing outside of practice to work on your skills?” The coach asks that because they know the value of those reps that you get in the living room where mom has to tell you “How many times do I have to tell you not to play ball in the house?” (Sorry moms) They know the value of banging a ball against your fence to try to get the feel for the touches down. They know that a pitched roof is the best ball return there is. They know that showing off a new skill in a pickup game with friends when there is no pressure to win can be the best confidence boost for allowing players to make the jump to using that skill in actual competition. You have all seen that kid that, one season was new and wasn’t too great at the sport and then all of a sudden the next season they were the stud of the team. Let me tell you, that wasn’t just because they “hit their growth spurt.”
3. COMPETITIONS IN PRACTICE- So, you have just finished a drill where you have gotten a ton of reps doing something. You have worked hard on whatever that concept was, you have focused, you have done it aggressively to figure out how to correct the aggressive mistakes you were making. Now it’s time for every athlete’s favorite part of practice. It’s time to play. The best of the best athletes approach play in practice with the same way they approach drills. With courage. Courage to try to bring that new skill they were just working on into play. They try to be as competitive as possible during play while still trying to use whatever they learned. The athletes that can understand that winning in practice is fun and we ALWAYS want to keep our competitive edge and try our hardest. They also understand that they will get better than everyone else FASTER if they can master the skills they have been working on faster. Their focus intensifies because now they are not only concerned with winning and being aggressive, but they are also focused on trying to master that new thing they are learning. This approach and mentality are paramount! As a coach, I often see kids work so hard on a skill during a drill but then they fall back into what is comfortable when competition starts. They don’t use the new skill they are learning to try to master it. They leave it in the drill. It probably didn’t even cross their mind until the coach brought it up. That alone tells me that they weren’t focused on getting better, they were focused on winning. They say that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to master a skill. Imagine how long it will take you to reach 10,000 hours if you only practice something while you are in that specific drill in practice.
4. TOURNAMENT TIME- Ok, you have been practicing for hours and hours. You have gone through the drills with new skills, you have brought those new skills into competitions in practice and now it is time for the tournament. What is your approach to a tournament? Are you there to win it at all costs? Are you trying to earn a bid? Are you there to work on bringing specific skills into competition? Do you need more reps with something specific? Are you there to put skills on film that you have been working on for college coaches to be able to see? Are you there to work on a new partnership? Are you there to work on a new strategy? Is this a National Championship tournament? If as you want through all of these questions, you started to think that maybe each tournament that you go into shouldn’t be approached the same way, then you are probably right. Your mindset and focus have to change depending on the situation and it is important that the people in your corner understand that. “The car ride home” can be a bit rough if you aren’t all on the same page with your goals. I know. I have been there. If, throughout the year leading up to the National Championships, you haven’t gone though all different stages of tournament approach, you probably aren’t the player you need to be to compete at the highest level that you can. If you aren’t sure how to approach your next tournament, discuss it with your coach. There isn’t a coach I know that wouldn’t love to have that conversation with you.
Open and honest communication with your coaches, parents, and supporters about what your goals are is absolutely paramount in getting you to where you want to go. Too often athletes feel like they are battling the people who they just need support from the most. If your parents don’t know that you are going to be working on a new skill in a tournament before you start to do it and you lose because you are making a bunch of errors trying it, they are only going to see the errors. Your parents are not experts at your sport. Why not try telling your parents on the way to a tournament, “I’ve been working on XYZ at practice this week to try to take the next step with my game. I’m going to be trying it in the tournament today to get some more reps with it. I just wanted you guys to know so that you could look for it and be patient with it as I try to get better at it.” Wouldn’t that make the car ride home better if it wasn’t yet as successful as you would have liked for it to be? Parents, they are kids, they aren’t always going to be the one to start the conversation. Maybe asking them if there is anything new that they are learning at practice that they are trying to work into competition would also help ease those conversations on the ride home.
Keep in mind that a great coach is building step by step so if there isn’t something new that they are learning it’s probably because they haven’t mastered the step before yet. In that case, see numbers 1-4 again. It’s a process. It comes faster for some than it does for others. If you trust the process, things can truly be great. If you get frustrated and don’t trust the process, you are always going to be fighting an uphill battle. I firmly believe that a great coach won't allow you to fail at step two because you didn't master step one. You chose the coaches you are playing for. You are paying them to get you to where you want to go. Each coaching staff is different and if you don’t believe in the process that coaching staff is employing, then it may not be the staff for you. If you’re in, be all the way in. Don’t start the conversations at home about how you think the coaches should be doing XYZ. If that is what you truly believe, then take your athlete to someone that will do XYZ just the way you want it. There is no need for them or you to stay in a place where you are not bought in. The process that coaching staff is using may not be something that you even will ever understand. Ask someone who has gone through the process from beginning to end. They have a much better understanding of it than you probably do, and even then, your process may have to be a little different than the process of someone else going through it with you. Schedule a time to talk with those coaches to ask the questions to better understand. A snapshot in time in ANY process doesn’t even give you a glimpse of the path as it winds. Athletes are already afraid enough to put their full effort into something for fear of failure at it. Nothing hurts more than truly giving it your all and not succeeding. There will ALWAYS be a chance for that no matter who you are or what you are doing in life.
I’m not telling you that you should have blind faith. In the world of developing athletes there are just way too many variables for someone not entrenched in the sport to truly understand. Ask. When you hear the negativity around your athlete from others, believe me, it affects your athlete too. You can either set the example and put an end to the negativity, or you can let it grow inside your own kid giving them an excuse when the going gets tough to blame it on something or someone else. Again, if you’re in, be all the way in. Encourage those talking negatively to ask the questions. Encourage them to not talk negatively in front of their athlete and especially not in front of yours. The only way to truly see how far you can go with ANYTHING that you do is to be all the way in. Holding something back in your play, holding something back in your effort, or letting the negativity sneak in are all things keeping you from your goals.
Be brave in your process. Be ferocious in your pursuit of it. As you begin your rise to the top there will always be someone trying to knock you off the podium. Stand strong in the face of adversity even if that adversity comes in the form of people you thought were in your corner. Lead by example in all that you do. When you don't have the answer, ask someone who does.