Thursday, August 7, 2008

When it comes to practice time, how long is too long?

On this blog, there are plenty of posts about big athletes. This isn't one of those posts. This one's about a 4-foot-9, 90-pound Olympic gymnast-- Shawn Johnson -- who is coached by Liang Chow, a former team captain for the Chinese national gymnastics team.

Johnson is the current world champion in the all-around competition. What's interesting is how she's reached that status:

Her workouts are intense, but they're completed in four hours on most days. That's two to three fewer hours a day than many gymnasts train. "I don't think you'll find many athletes in the history of the sport, that's all around the world, who practice like that," says Chris Korotky, publisher of Inside Gymnastics magazine. "I guarantee you they're in the gym 40 hours a week."

Chow's formula has kept Johnson free from major injuries and allows her to attend a public school. The results speak for themselves.

"Chow definitely brings excellent planning on Shawn's preparation," U.S. women's national coordinator Martha Karolyi says. "He always figures out … when to push and when to take a step back. She's always able to perform the best whenever the most important competitions are coming up."

It's a good reminder that it's not how long you're on the practice floor, but what you get done in that time. I've seen coaches keep their teams on the floor for rambling three- and four-hour practices who accomplish less than other coaches who run tight, well-organized two-hour workouts.

It's the old "diminishing returns" theory: At some point, every minute that you keep your team on the floor beyond what's absolutely necessary yields less and less. It's a coach's job to find that point.

Bob Rathbun tells a story of how Hubie Brown kept his practice plan on a 5x8 index card where he carefully outlined how long he'd spend on each drill, etc. Coach Brown was adamant about sticking to the alloted time. If a practice was to last 90 minutes, at the 90-minute mark, practice ends. Period. If a drill was to go for 10 minutes, after 10 minutes, it should end. No exceptions.

According to Bob:

"His thought was that if you don’t stick to it, the players lose respect for you. When the players understand a coach will be true to his 5x8 card, they'll work harder knowing there is a definitive start/stop time for each event and you have a much better practice."