Tuesday Tips: How To Avoid Wasting Time At Practice

Five keys to getting the most of the valuable time you have together with your team.

Photo: Scobel Wiggins  --  UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Scobel Wiggins — UltiPhotos.com

I love practice. But I love it even more when it’s run efficiently.

The most important time to get better with your team needs to be maximized for success. Failure to do so means the team itself will likely fail.

The concept of “ultimate time” (a casual regard that some people have with punctuality) can come from the culture of the sport, but more often comes from a culture established by the leadership and by the team itself. Some teams run on ultimate time, but often those are the teams that don’t play very well, that rarely practice, or that waste their chances of getting better. Other teams, however, set a culture of commitment and an expectation of using their time efficiently. Those are often the teams that win.

Here are five keys to avoid wasting time at practice:

1. Make a Detailed Plan

Step 1: Commit Time

The team leadership must meet outside of practice. Coaches, captains, and other core leaders need to commit to getting together to spend time before practices talking and organizing, saving the time with the full team for actual work.

Step 2: Self-Reflect

A good leadership group asks questions to self-reflect and analyze the team’s needs.

Some good questions to ask: Do we need to work on our fundamentals? When and how will we do so? What are our strengths and weaknesses? What is our desired focus as a team? What is our team identity?

Answering these questions drives practice planning. A team must master fundamentals first, before it can address any other weaknesses and strengths. Your team should have an identity that should be emphasized as a part of every practice throughout the season (for example, if you want to be a defensive powerhouse, you have to practice defense).

Step 3: Craft An Agenda

Once you’ve reflected on your teams needs, you now have to build a thoughtful plan, guided by what you want to accomplish. If you’ve found your focus or weakness, match a drill, activity, or scrimmage to correct it. As an example: if your team keeps getting the mark broken, practice with a breakmark no-around drill or an off-the-line defensive drill.

The plan should be flexible so that it can be adjusted from week-to-week but, overall, each practice needs to have a theme or focus and fit within the broader (season) plan. Each drill must support that purpose, each scrimmage must emphasize it, and even the fitness aspect should aid if possible.

Step 4: Communicate Beforehand

Email is the preferred communication method, but no matter what, send out the agenda to the team as early as possible. Everyone on the roster should know what is planned up front, how long it will last, and how things are likely to be run. Set the tone specifically and early on, then stick to it.

Example of a Two-Hour Practice:
Pre-9:45: Arrival
9:45-10:00: Team time (cleats on, throwing, talking to leaders, stretching injuries)
10:00: Huddle and focus breakdown
10:-10:15: Dynamic Warmup
10:15-10:17: Water/ Flex Time
10:17-10:30: Drill 1
10:30-10:32: Water/ Flex Time/ Explaining Drill 2
10:32- 10:45: Drill 2
10:45-10:47: Water/ Flex Time
10:47-11:00: Team Simulation of Zone Defense Set and 5 Pull
11:00-11:08: Longer Water/ Flex Time/ Explaining new offensive play
11:08-11:20: Running old and new offense plays
11:20-11:30: 5 Redzone Possessions
11:30-11:35: Longer Water/ Flex Time/ Scrimmage Focus
11:35-11:55: Scrimmage
11:55: Huddle, focus for the week, breakdown
12:00-12:15: Team time (cleats off, working on throws, stretching, talking to leaders, games).

2. Stick to the Plan! But Be Ready To Change It…

You’ve got your agenda; stick to it as often as possible. Set and use time limits. However, don’t be afraid to cut something short. If the 5 pull is only at 4 and it’s time to move on, end it.

Similarly, be ready to change something if circumstances call for it. Team break-throws look good? Squad got the zone defense down easy? End on a high note and move on. Don’t give extra time for water or for goofing off, go right into the next task ahead of schedule. Practices—for nearly every team—are almost always short. Two hours is not a lot of time to work so teams should aim to spend 95% of that two hours working and only 5% resting.

Overplan (see the sample agenda above) so that your team is always going to be busy and downtime will be a minimum. But, if you see something isn’t working, or if you run out of time,  you can shift directions, skip something, and come back to it at a later practice. Bottom line: you’ll likely be changing every practice plan one way or another, so be ready with backup options.

If you need to sacrifice something, cut or remove a scrimmage. Scrimmages are essential live-game reps, and early in the season give valuable experience playing together. But as the season progresses and you start to recognize what skills your team is consistently having trouble with or needs additional focused work perfecting, scrimmage time can be sacrificed in the name of more detailed focus on specific skills. Then, as the postseason approaches, the pendulum can swing the other way again.

When you do scrimmage, make sure it remains focused and productive, rather than devolving into disorganized fun that doesn’t reinforce the skills you’ve just worked on or doesn’t help the team get better.

3. Hold People Accountable

Arguably the most important lynch pin in making sure practice time is used as efficiently as possible, is making sure everyone buys in and follows the practice plan. You can only do this by making people accountable.

At its most basic form, accountability is about expectations. Here are some that should be set:

  • Everyone is expected to be at practice.
  • Everyone is expected to be on time at practice.
  • Everyone is expected to attend team workouts and meetings.

Every person has priorities. For some, ultimate is number one. But as people get older, this can change. What makes it even harder is that this is a vicious circle—the less people prioritize practice time, the worse the team will do, which in turn makes it less likely that it remains a high priority for people. If your team wants to be successful, ultimate needs to be higher than individual pursuits.  That may mean missing out on a party, rearranging a schedule for school or work, missing the football or basketball game, or waking up an hour early to be early to practice.

What if this isn’t the case?

Your team needs to work hard to get the buy-in. Finding ways to motivate players varies by squad. Some teams expect it to be intrinsic; other teams make practices (or even better post-practice activities) as fun as possible to bring people out. At a certain point, however, a player has to simply commit to getting better and want to be at practice; if not, they likely can’t help the team.

For the best teams, practice accountability is very clear. Using a google spreadsheet, plan and take attendance. Expect people to commit to a certain level.

If people aren’t committing, if they are late, if they miss workouts or meetings, then there needs to be a reaction.  It can’t be “expected” that Player X is going to be late and therefore it is “allowed.”

It may be as simple as having a captain approach a player and make the team standards clear. Other times consequences are called for—everything from sprints, to pushups, to buying beer at the bar. Some teams have timeout boxes to limit playing time; others make their players do stand-up routines. Regardless, the leadership must hold people accountable consistently.

At some point during the season, players will test the policies, intentionally or not. The team needs to have a routine, acceptable, and fair way of showing everyone that practice is important.

4. Explaining Is Not For Practice

Practice time is primarily wasted because people show up late or waste time doing non-team focused things. But even team leaders are guilty of wasting time—by talking too much.

I have a motto as a track coach: “Practice is for running.” For ultimate, I simply add, “and throwing.”

Are there a dozen different components that make up a good team session? Yes.

Should spending time explaining something (a drill, a play, a set) be one? No.

Spend as much time as necessary explaining outside or before practice to get ready for the practice. Use email, use google hangout or Skype, have team meals or meetings or film sessions. Try to get nearly all of it ready to go before practice starts. Yes, you’ll still have to spend at least some time demonstrating and answering questions. But streamline this as much as possible.

Some tips on this:

  • Avoid running two dozen drills when two good ones work.
  • Avoid diagramming with cones or discs; give out handouts or have something emailed before hand.
  • Avoid huddling up in the middle of practice. Teach on the move, let players experience as quickly as possible.
  • Aim for keeping your pre-drill or set instructions under two minutes.
  • Save questions for individual time. Asking questions and answering in large groups wastes time for those who get it.

5. Let the Leaders Lead With One Voice

“One voice in the huddle” is a common phrase in sports, and as much as it can be a joke sometimes, it saves time.

Veteran teams especially fall victim to having too many people with high ultimate IQ’s. Lots of people have ideas, lots of people want to contribute, to buy-in, to help. But not at practice. That is the stuff for team meetings, core sessions, video analyses, and practice planning.

At practice, one leader needs to speak at a time. Period. For multiple leaders, or for a team of experienced players, delegate. One guy leads the pre-game huddle and gets practice started, one girl leads warm-ups, the next leads the first drill, etc. Each person has a job to do, something quick to say (leadership must keep the clock), and then move on.

Questioning the leadership, or seeking to tweak, change, or add to the leadership, even on small points not only wastes time, but tears down community and unity.

But leaders also need to make an effort to include the team. Allow players a route to share their ideas with you. One of the coolest I’ve heard of is “Captain’s Hours” (hat tip to Grinnell College) where players can come with concerns, questions, ideas, or whatever else is on their mind. Team meetings can also be this forum, but again, any time you have a large group and you have committed a bunch of people’s time, then it is the leadership’s responsibility to be efficient, to keep a schedule, to let people leave when practice is over.

After practice or before is a good time to talk to a leader, to share an idea, to express a thought. Does it mean less attention, and possibly even less effective change? Yes, it does, but it saves time. This is a reason why it is important for leaders to share practice goals and schedules ahead of time, so people can share ideas ahead of time as well; leaders should encourage this.

Remember The Correlation

Those who spend more time practicing are often more successful. Ultimate is a sport that is still in the world of time management. Even the greatest teams in the world cannot devote enough time to perfect their squads. Therefore a serious advantage can be gained simply by practicing more often and maximizing the time spent working well with your team.

  1. Alex Rummelhart
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    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, and has played for Haymaker, Chicago Club, and Machine. He currently plays for Chicago Wildfire. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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