At Ambition Athletics, we as coaches can frequently be heard saying, “It’s all practice”. This is what it all boils down to. Whether you are on the field at an actual practice or in the weight room trying to better yourself for life or sport, it’s practice. Not everything is going to come easy. Just because push-ups and lunges are old hat doesn’t mean the rhythm of a swing or all the steps of the get-up are going to be automatic. It takes practice to master anything you want to be better at.
Practice is a reoccurring theme at Ambition. After recently finishing reading “The Talent Code” several thoughts stirred in my head. The author talks about the very successful Spartak Russian tennis academy where the young students, who are not allowed to participate in a tournament until after 3 years of study, practice for 3-5 hours a week while the teenagers may practice up to only 15 hours per week. He also mentions some outstanding baseball players from Cuacao that play a mere 7 months out of the year and usually only 3 days per week. I found this to be very interesting considering many coaches and parents in the US seem to think more is always better, especially when it comes to games vs. practice and training time.
I have worked with a softball player off and on for the last several years who has told me about her 5-7 hour practices during the weekends which occur when the team isn’t in one of those tournaments where I think they play 18 games on Friday, approximately 20 more on Saturday and hopefully advance to Sunday where they might be lucky enough to hammer out 15 more in one day (note sarcasm, my numbers might be a little off). I recently met someone who was recalling to me her days of playing club basketball and their 6 hour practices done on the court, in the weight room and outside for conditioning. Now I’m not saying this style doesn’t work at all. Certainly Southern California is loaded with some fantastic athletes from various sports.
So, we know that practice is required to get better at a skill. But where is the line? Is a 5-hour practice ever necessary? In my humble non-sport coach opinion, no. I just don’t believe that during hour four, or even well before that, anything truly productive is being done, or as “The Talent Code” refers to it, deep practice. This can be especially true when it comes to young athletes. Their attention span is only so much. When I talk to young athletes that also seem to believe that if a little is good then 1,000 times more must be better I try and use the best way I know how to relate, food. I will tell them that if I’m hungry and want to eat some In-N-Out Burger I will eat that first Double-Double and it’s amazing. Then I eat another one and it might be even better, but at some point one of those Double-Doubles just isn’t going to taste as good as the previous ones. The same can be said for training and practice. Too much of a good thing eventually leads to sickness or dislike. It’s important to find a balance so that the quality remains in whatever practice is taking place, to stay healthy/durable and so that burnout doesn’t occur. All the practice in the world isn’t going to help if you can’t participate in the games due to constantly running yourself into the ground.
I also believe that this is where the multi-sport athlete needs to be considered. Although I have no true grasp of the actual numbers, it is interesting to note that if you take a look at the top athletes in any sport, many of them excelled in at least one other sport during their teenage years. What does this mean to me? Narrow focus of one sport and playing year round probably isn’t that important. Developing and practicing overall athletic qualities, no matter the sport, can have carry over to other athletic endeavors. Your skills won’t disappear because you took some time to engage in another sport or to focus on building strength and speed for a certain amount of time.
So where does one draw the line? How do we know what’s too much or not enough to get better? I certainly don’t know but it’s worth thinking about and trying to understand. Here is what I currently suggest: Coaches need to have a plan. Break down the basics to build skill and add from there. If you can conduct training/practice consistently at a high level then it does not need to last for excessive time. All the “good stuff” can be done, practiced, perfected, challenged and then its time to mentally and physically recover. This kind of thought process brings to mind coach Dan John’s training philosophy which influences us at Ambition Athletics: If it’s important, do it everyday, and repetition. These are important concepts. Coaches and athletes just need to understand that doing something everyday doesn’t have to mean max effort or long hours, just some deliberate practice of “grooving the pattern” and building myelin (refer to the book). Repetition builds the skill. Just remember, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.
After writing most of this post I recently read in a John Wooden book where he said in reference to practice, “I learned it was just as important to stop on time as it was to begin on time. When I did that, I got more out of the players. Organizing practices and having precise beginning and ending times allowed us to get more done with the time he had. It ceased being necessary to keep players longer, and they quit pacing themselves because of an unknown finishing time.” Sounds like a high quality (deep) practice to me.
If you read this far you deserve to have a laugh while watching Allen Iverson talk about practice in this classic clip. Enjoy.
– Mike Baltren