Don't let lax attendance policies stand in the way of your team achieving their full potential.
January 17, 2017 by Rob Doyle in Opinion with 2 comments
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Which team is missing starters? Which team is low on subs? More often than we’d like, the answers to those questions can determine the outcome of a game.
Likewise, when determining the outcome of a season, practice attendance often plays a crucial role. Does the team have enough players to go over and drill seven-on-seven concepts? Is everyone on the same page about everything in the playbook? Have the players put in the work — physically, mentally, and emotionally — to develop trust and chemistry on the field?
Here are five steps to ensure that your practice attendance is where it needs to be to have success as a team.
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Step 1: Lead By Example
Most programs share the same pecking order of influence — coaches, then captains, then veterans, then rookies. The most impactful way to teach commitment is to cultivate the right values at the top of the pecking order.
At Marcus High School, it starts with me. My attendance rate has to be 100%, because if I don’t model commitment to the program then I can’t reasonably expect commitment from my players. Plus, as a faculty member, I have to be physically present for my team to practice on campus grounds. Therefore, I treat it as an obligation — one I enjoy, but an obligation nonetheless — meaning that I schedule all of my meetings and activities around my team’s practice schedule.
Next, I expect more commitment from my captains than anyone else on the roster. After all, they’re tasked with leading stretches and drills, so they should feel the same sense of duty about attending practice as I do. For their service, I reward them with an ownership stake in the team. They help me script practices at our weekly meetings, and they have significant input on all major roster decisions.
With non-captain veterans, there’s a spectrum of influence. Some are influential because they’re top players. I need them at practice to raise the quality of each drill and to model their skills to the rookies. However, there are plenty of influential veterans who aren’t stars at all, but they’re charismatic and they make practices fun. They’re incredibly important to the process, too, and if I see a veteran’s attendance slipping then I’ll have a conversation with the player where I reinforce how important he or she is to each practice. While only a few veterans serve as captains, I want each of them to feel a sense of purpose and leadership that motivates them to attend every practice.
Step 2: Create Excitement
Whether you’re tapping into their competitive nature or you’re providing a circle of family and friends — and hopefully you’re doing both — it’s important that players are excited about attending practice, not treating it as a chore.
At Marcus, we have over 20 players on our roster with club experience. It’s a blessing, because steel sharpens steel. They push each other in scrimmages, learning the nuances of other great players and testing their own limits. While we devote some of our practice time to game planning and reinforcing proper technique, we let our players compete against each other as much as possible, from one-on-one drills to seven-on-seven scrimmages. Our goal is to make Marcus practices more competitive than our inter-school games.
One element of Marcus practices that promotes a spirit of competition is our weekly “sky battle.” It pits two evenly matched players against each other in a showdown with the entire team cheering from the sideline. We have two handlers — Handler A and Handler B — spaced 40 yards apart, each with a stack of discs. The two players in the sky battle start at a standstill next to Handler A. They sprint toward Handler B, while Handler A throws a 50/50. Once the disc is caught or dropped, the two players then sprint back toward Handler A while Handler B throws a 50/50. This goes on until one of the players catches three discs.
Another element that makes our practices intense is our conditioning. We spend the last 15-30 minutes of every practice doing team conditioning. It works on two levels. First, it’s usually the loudest part of practices, as players cheer on their teammates and often turn the exercises into competitions. Second, it reinforces that we’re practicing with the intention of competing against other teams, reminding them of our collective goals. We want to outwork our opponents. We want to have the stronger legs in the closing minutes of a hard-fought game. It’s important to always practice with a sense of purpose and conditioning reminds us of that purpose.
Players should also want to attend every single practice because that’s where their best friends will be. If the team is a collection of strangers then there’s a big problem. Ideally, the team is a place for people to meet others who can enrich their lives. Many of the friendships will happen organically, just by spending time talking on the sidelines or traveling to games together. However, social functions like team dinners and holiday parties are great opportunities for teammates to get to know each other, and once they feel bonded to the other people on the roster then they’ll want to attend practice to be around their friends.
Step 3: Set Expectations
You need to set clear attendance expectations. Don’t just ask for commitment — you need to define commitment.
For the high school team that I coach, the three most common types of absences that I accept without consequence are sickness, family obligations, and school-related conflicts. If a student misses school due to an illness then I don’t expect nor want that player to attend practice after school. Likewise, the parents of my players will often schedule trips and other family events that come into direct conflict with team activities. I can’t hold those absences against my players because, as teenagers, they aren’t in full control of their schedules. For school-related activities, if my players are double-booked with other sports or organizations at Marcus then I’ll allow them to miss ultimate practices. As much as I want them at practice, I think it’s important to let teenagers pursue diverse interests.
Of course, there’s a natural consequence to missing practice even for valid reasons — namely, sliding down the depth chart as other players amass better skills, conditioning, and knowledge — but there are no formal consequences. Meanwhile, the two most common types of unexcused absences that I deal with are part-time jobs and homework. Those come with consequences.
Most of the players that I coach who are 16 or older have part-time jobs. They need those jobs to pay for various things in their lives, including cars. I was in the same position when I was in high school, so I’m sympathetic. However, I’ve chosen to draw a line and not excuse job-related absences. I tell my players that they need to schedule work around ultimate, not ultimate around work, and that if their employers aren’t flexible with their work schedules then it’s time to look for another job.
With homework, I’m conflicted because I’m a teacher. I love education and I appreciate students who make their studies a priority. However, just like with jobs, I’ve drawn a line as a coach and made it clear that my players cannot miss practice due to homework. I expect them to manage their time wisely and to find time outside of practice to tend to their studies. I make reasonable exceptions — the most notable is when a player needs to meet with a group to work on a project — but run-of-the-mill homework or studying for a test are not valid reasons to miss practice.
With both work and study, I hold my players to the same standards as the other athletes at Marcus. I spoke with coaches from various other sports before I formed by policies. While ultimate is not an official, school-sanctioned activity, I want my players to have the same sense of commitment and pride in their sport that other athletes have in theirs.
Step 4: Define Consequences
Once you’ve established expectations, the next step is to explain the consequences of failing to meet those expectations. There’s a big question you’ll need to ask yourself, though: are you willing to drive away the least-committed players? If the answer is no, then you’re options for consequences are pretty limited. It’s a painful dilemma, because some rosters aren’t very deep, and the loss of even a single player might severely impact the team. Even worse, one loss can often lead to a domino reaction of losses, and most programs aren’t built to weather that type of storm. However, without consequences, your expectations don’t have much weight.
If you’re willing to lose players then you’re armed with an array of options. The two most common options I use at Marcus are additional conditioning during practices and benching during games. Are extra sprints or laps truly intimidating to the kids? Probably not. However, it’s a way for me to make sure that they’re making up for some of the conditioning that they missed when they were absent, and the public nature of it — since their teammates watch them run and, thus, are reminded of the player’s absence — is a social deterrent. Being benched for a game is a more serious consequence and it’s usually reserved for players who have habitually missed practices.
Of course, there’s the nuclear option — kicking a player off the team. It’s something I’ve had to do many times during my ten years at Marcus, although in most situations it felt as though the breakups were mutual since those players’ commitments to the team had obviously been waning. I’ve lost all types, from rookies, to star veterans, to even a senior captain. However, while the cuts may have cost us some games, in every instance they were blessings for the program. It allowed the most committed players to receive more reps and it also served as a wake-up call to the entire roster. I never cut a player solely to scare the rest of the team into attending more practices, but the cuts naturally have that effect.
The most important advice I can give is to maintain some degree of flexibility, especially with the nuclear option. There was a year when I told the team that I’d kick anyone off the roster who missed three practices in a row. I lost a lot of players that year. In hindsight, I wish I would have reviewed each player’s situation individually. I might have still kicked some of those players off the team, but there were others who probably had unique circumstances in their lives, and I could have worked with them to find a reasonable compromise. Instead, I drove them away from the very sport that I was trying to grow.
At Marcus, there’s no set consequence for a missed practice. I treat every situation differently because the situations are, inherently, different. I vary the consequences depending on what I think is right for the team and appropriate to the player. I have to weigh each player’s history, temperament, and influence on others. However, despite maintaining flexibility, I try my best to dole out consequences as fairly as possible because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m giving preferential treatment to certain players.
Step 5: Monitor
There are two main reasons why it’s important to keep track of attendance. First, it arms you with the information you’ll need in order to address each player’s attendance issues. Second, players inherently treat attendance more seriously if they know they’re being watched.
My players are instructed to text me before practice if they plan on being absent and their messages need to include their reasons for not attending. The advance notice gives me a good sense of the numbers we’ll have at practice so I can plan drills and scrimmages accordingly. It also gives me a record of their absences in my phone, which I can reference when we speak about consequences. Additionally, I’ve found that asking them to contact me about their absences serves as type of deterrent, as many of my players would rather attend practice than confront me about being absent.
I come to practice armed with a printed roster, and I usually take attendance while my captains lead stretching exercises at the beginning of practice. Later, after practice, I input the attendance data into a Google Sheet. I have a row for each player and a column for each practice date. The player gets a “YES” for attending practice, a “NO” for missing practice, and an “INJ” for sitting out of practice due to an injury. The cells are color-coded using conditional formatting. There are additional cells for the team’s overall attendance percentage for each practice, as well as each player’s overall attendance percentage for the season.
The entire team has access to the Google Sheet. I want my players to see the work that their teammates are putting in. I want them to be motivated to have the best attendance on the team. I also want them to realize that both their coach and their teammates will notice if they miss practice.
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Winning a championship is winning a season, not just winning a game. Winning a season requires practice after practice of hard work, steady growth, and friendship. It’s a grind and the amount you get out of it depends largely on whether or not you can inspire others to go through the same grind with you.
What efforts does your team make to increase practice participation? I’d love to read your ideas in the comments section.