Sunday, October 26, 2008

The four benefits of precisely scheduled practices

Here's another great excerpt from Bill Walsh's book "Building a Champion." This one's on the importance of carefully structuring practice sessions:

We'd establish four different practice formats, from a very hard, grueling two-and-a-half-hour practice to a light, thirty-minute practice the day before a game.

It's vitally important that players take the field to learn something each session. This approach should be reflected all the way down to the Pop Warner level. The player should be taking the field to learn, and usually to practice something specific that has been discussed with him beforehand.

There were at least four major benefits from precisely scheduling training camp and practice during the regular season:

1. No time was wasted on the practice field. Historically, coaches have unwittingly wasted precious minutes on the practice field. They've spent time on drills that weren't relevant to actually playing the game.

Or, they've run meaningless "filler drills" on one part of the field while other players at other positions worked on specific techniques, because the schedule has not been organized to incorporate all players working on important techniques concurrently.

2. The learning process was accelerated. Players would see the practice schedule the night before, so they knew those areas they were going to emphasize. When you take the field, you want the best possible learning environment. Most often, when that learning is taking place, the player is also getting the needed physical work.

We didn't spend as much time on conditioning drills in training camps as some teams do. We felt that we would be in excellent condition when the season started and we didn't want to fatigue the players so much that they would lose their concentration and be more susceptible to injury.

Teams hold practice for two reasons: To improve their skills and techniques, and to prepare for their next opponent.

During these sessions, it is vital that players communicate with each other. We made a concerted effort to establish an atmosphere in which players communicated in the huddle, at the line of scrimmage, and between plays. Visual and verbal communication can be an extremely important reinforcement during a game.

3. We could approach the game on a broad base, rather than piecemeal. We worked on every phase concurrently. We emphasized all facets of football necessary to ultimately compete with the best.

4. Initially, I coached the coaches. We coached all the players, not just the best ones. We had a distinct philosophy: As long as a man is on the field, he's a 49er. All players, regardless of stature, would get the same consideration.

The coaches who have been the most successful are usually the ones actively involved in the on-the-field, day-to-day coaching. Players will sacrifice for a hands-on coach, because they identify with him as an integral part of the team.

A head coach who sees his role only as motivating the team and organizing the staff is at the mercy of other people. Having spent so many years as an assistant coach, I became more and more aware that someone had to be the source of game strategy and tactics.

On the professional level, it is important that the coach work with individual players and be actively involved in practice, rather than standing remotely away from everyone.

Exchanging on a first-name basis is very appropriate. There really isn't much room for protocol in an atmosphere where so many sacrifices are made.

When I arrived at Stanford, I immediately told the team that everybody was on a first-name basis, that it was a two-way street, that I considered them mature men:

"Set aside the student-professor relationship. You are in an arena that calls for bonding among everyone involved. Sacrifices will have to be made, there just isn't time or need to distinguish between roles and responsibilities. From this point forward we're a group of men who collectively have one common objective, to compete and win."

This freed them to totally express themselves on the football field and challenged them to demonstrate their maturity.