Three Tips for Early Season Practice

author - melissa witmer

Early fall is a challenging time of year for everyone on your team. Captains may be new to this whole practice planning thing, freshmen don’t know what they’re doing, returning players are annoyed that freshmen don’t know what they’re doing. Taking the time to plan effective practices can make everyone’s life a little easier. Here are a few tips to think about as you gear up for your first practices.

1. Focus, focus, focus. And Repeat.

Pick a focus skill or concept and stick with it for several practices in a row. Marking is an important skill to learn early. Instead of learning to mark one day and the vertical stack the next, choose to work on marking for several practices in a row. People need to hear things over and over before they will remember. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself and don’t get frustrated by the need to do so. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just a fact of life.

The main benefit of repeating your focus is that it allows your new players to see improvements faster. By the end of the week, they should feel competent in at least one aspect of the game. Enabling your players to see clear improvements in skill is the most effective means of motivation. Additionally, you may not have the same players showing up every practice early in the season. Repeating the focus ensures that everyone learns the skill the way you want them to learn it.

Though you’re repeating the same skills try to use different drills at each practice. This strategy will result in better learning for the new players and less of a chance of boredom for returning players.

Throughout the season, the more variety you can incorporate into learning the same skill, the better. Game situations involve endless variety. If you practice with variety, game skills will be better than if you do only one type of drill per skill.

2. Focus once, focus well

There is an optimal time early in practice when players are warmed up but before fatigue sets that players are most ready to learn something new. All of your practice should revolve around this 20-30 minute window of greatest opportunity. The skill or concept you are working on should be explained during this window and this is the time for doing the most complex drills. Some preparation is required, both on and off the field, to maximize this window of opportunity.

On the field preparation is your warm-up routine. Your warmup routine should be simple and should end with players feeling physically and mentally alert. If you do drills as part of your warm-up routine, be sure the drills are carefully chosen. Many teams use the endzone drill as a warm-up for practices and tournaments, however the endzone drill is not well suited for this purpose. New players do not find the endzone drill to be logistically simple and they will not understand intuitively how it relates to gameplay. Don’t waste mental resources at the beginning of practice with a drill that players don’t fully understand. Save their focus for your area of focus. Even worse, returning players find the endzone drill too simple and there is a lot of standing in line. Both of these factors cause players to relax, start chatting about dinner plans later, etc. This is the opposite effect you want your warmup drill to have. A better choice might be something like a two-line hucking drill with offense and defense. This drill only requires two lines and a few throwers.

It is easy for the new players to understand what to do and how the drill relates to game experience. The drill remains challenging for returning players if they choose their match-ups correctly and you can never have too much practice reading or defending a huck. These are the characteristics you want in a warm-up drill.

Off the field, preparation includes mentally rehearsing how you are going to explain your chosen concept, skill, or drill. Pay attention to the details. How long will your explanation take? What props will work best for your explanations? If you are well prepared you can delegate setting up cones to returning players and they can be prepared to demonstrate the activity the way you envision. Spend some time thinking about the most intuitive way for players to rotate through a drill. Decide how many times you want a player to be able to go through the drill and think about how long you expect this to take. With drill explanation and drill design, pay attention to the details. You want to enable your players to focus on the skill being practiced. If players are confused about where to go, standing in line being bored, or getting too tired their learning will be compromised.

3. Focused Scrimmage.

In the early season, it’s important to let your new recruits play.

You want them to have fun and to come back. But avoid the temptation to let practice dissolve into unfocused play with players making the same mistakes over and over. Instead, focus on the same skill you’ve been working on all of practice. Assign a returning player on each team to frequently remind players what they’re working on. Time should be taken between points to briefly note whether the goals are being accomplished. Was the mark broken? Was it because someone got confused and forced the wrong way? Did someone fall for a good fake? What was the result of the mark being broken? Giving frequent and relevant feedback will help your new players to maintain focus and refine their skills. Refrain from giving extraneous advice and allow players to fix one thing at a time. Accept that you will not be able to fix cutting, marking, and downfield positioning all at once. If you can fix their marking, you’re doing well. Communicate this objective to your returning players to minimize extraneous talk between points.

Allow your focus skill to influence the format of your scrimmage. If the focus is on marking, players will only get to practice that skill in the game situation when their player gets the disc. To maximize the practice at this skill, minimize talking between points to get in as many points as possible in the time allotted. Encourage new players to cover handlers so that they can perform more trials. However, if your focus is on cutting technique you want to make sure that players aren’t getting too tired to cut at 100% intensity. If they are tired and only able to cut at 70% speed, then they are learning to cut at 70% speed. This is detrimental to their sense of timing and their muscle memory of what a good cut should feel like.

If you want them to understand that a good cut is done at 100% intensity, you need to allow them to practice cutting at 100% intensity by enforcing more frequent subbing or more time between points. If fatigue affects a player’s ability to perform a skill, they will not learn to do the skill correctly.

Early season practices are challenging but it’s exciting to watch the rookies rapidly improving their skills. Having well thought out, focused practices will enable the learning process and prepare everyone for the more serous work that will come later in the year.

Good luck in your practice planning!