Broccoli and Dessert:
How Practice Sessions Can Maintain Youth Leaguers’ Enthusiasm During a Long Season
By Doug Abrams
In recent years, youth sports seasons have grown longer and longer. In the not too distant past, the four sports seasons tended to last about three months each. Athletes could usually move from one season to the next with some rest and minimal overlap.
Not so these days. In my own sport of hockey, for example, the “winter” season sometimes opens for youth leaguers with practices or games in late August or early September, even before National Hockey League teams open training camp. The season sometimes lasts until playoffs or tournaments in April.
This “schedule creep” imposes challenges on youth leaguers and their families, but I leave discussion of these challenges for another day. This column concerns the challenges that coaches face as they strive to maintain their players’ enthusiasm and attention spans during a season that may consume half the year or more.
I have watched perceptive coaches “keep the fires burning” by skillfully motivating their teams with a medley of reason and psychology. But I have also watched coaches who could not understand why absenteeism and other signs of mental fatigue sometimes increased late in the season. These signs often seemed most apparent on teams with losing records, but they also plagued teams with winning records. Late-season mental fatigue can doom a team that is locked in a close race for first place, or that plays in a league whose playoffs mean more than the regular season standings.
Throughout a long season, coaches need to conduct practice sessions marked by a healthy diet of both “broccoli” (preparation that hones fundamentals, skills and strategy) and “dessert” (preparation that accents fun and permits a measure of mental unwinding). Here are five ways to do it.
1) “Front loading” and pacing. In the last two weeks, my columns have discussed why coaches should develop the season’s lesson plans before the first practice session. Coaches teach most of these lessons before the opening game, and then adapt to the team’s circumstances throughout the season by adding new lessons and reinforcing old ones.
When the coaching staff knows that the season will last six months or more, mental fatigue is predictable for at least some players. Coaches should plan for this fatigue by “front loading” – by teaching most essential lessons before the first game. As the coaches reinforce these lessons throughout the season, they can also pace the team by easing up on instruction in the last weeks or months unless the players show signs of lapsing into bad habits.
Pacing the team does not mean designing practice sessions that abandon fundamentals, skills and strategy in favor of uninterrupted fun. Pacing does mean achieving a healthy balance that maintains not only the players’ physical edge but also their mental edge.
As a youth hockey coach who sought balance, I recognized that players need repetition of fundamentals, skills and strategy because kids sometimes forget what they previously learned and may lapse into bad habits unless practice sessions provide positive reinforcement. But I also recognized that 50 minutes of skating drills during every one-hour practice session would leave many players mentally flat. I remembered what my coach Dave Snyder said before each game at Wesleyan University: “Hockey is half physical; the other half is mental.” Top performance in games demands 100% effort, so most teams do not win consistently with practice sessions that emphasize the first half to the virtual exclusion of the second.
2) Do not tell the players that you are managing their “diet” of broccoli and dessert; just do it. Players need and deserve plenty of practice drills that stress fundamentals, skills and strategy because they joined the team to learn the game. Coaches disserve the learning process when they entice players to endure these drills before being rewarded with fun near the end of the session. (“Let’s get through with the work, and then we can have some fun.”)
Characterizing fundamentals, skills and strategy as work to be endured does no one any good. Psychology is the coaches’ province, and the team is much better off when the coaches skillfully inject fun into the practice without explaining themselves to the players.
3) Some kids do like broccoli if it is prepared right. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush made headlines (and raised the hackles of some farmers) when he publicly banned broccoli on Air Force One, the Presidential jet. “I do not like broccoli,” he said, “I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”
But steaming, cheese sauces, casseroles, and spices can make this important vegetable downright tasty, even for kids. With some imagination and forethought, coaches can similarly inject spice and taste into some practice drills designed to develop fundamentals, skills and strategy. Sometimes a coach can take a standard drill and add an element of challenge, such as a competition among team members who each keep score. Sometimes the coach can provide instruction and fun at the same time, as I did when my squirt and high school hockey teams often played soccer on the ice to develop their footwork, skating and balance. The players dribbling the ball and kicking it toward the net thought that they were just having fun, and I did not tell them anything about the skills component.
4) Most practice sessions need some dessert, even early in the season. I recall a scene from “Hoosiers,” the classic 1986 movie that starred Gene Hackman as the new basketball coach of a small Indiana high school. As he drilled the team hard during an early-season practice, a player called out, “When do we scrimmage?” “We don’t scrimmage,” Hackman answered, “and no shooting either.” “That ain’t no fun,” responded the player. “My practices are not designed for your enjoyment,” Hackman shot back. “You are in the Army. You’re in my Army. Every day between three and five.”
What works in Hollywood may not work well in real life. Early-season practice sessions set the tone for the next few months, so before too long these sessions would end with a few minutes of “free” intrasquad scrimmaging. (In a “free” scrimmage, the teams play without interruption, except for faceoffs and line changes; in a “controlled” scrimmage, the coach stops play intermittently to make corrections and offer instruction as the play progresses). Depending on the players’ moods and the team’s performance, I might increase free scrimmage time later in the season.
Especially late in the long season, if a practice session followed only a day or two after a tough game, we sometimes scrimmaged the entire practice if the coaches felt that the players needed the break. In the last few weeks of the season, I would begin to stress the playoffs if we qualified or might qualify, but I would also include some free scrimmage time if I sensed mental fatigue because I wanted the team to remain sharp to the very end. Wins and losses near the end of the season count as much in the standings as wins and losses at the beginning.
I also remained wary of over-scrimmaging. Intrasquad scrimmaging may help maintain the players’ mental edge by re-charging their batteries, but scrimmaging can also reinforce bad habits and leave some important players (such as the goalie in hockey) standing around too much without the physical conditioning that constant action in well-designed drills can provide. Unlike well-designed drills, intrasquad scrimmages may not keep all players active at once. Some teams that over-scrimmage in practice suffer in games because scrimmages can resemble free play more than they resemble actual game conditions.
5) Listen to what your players do not say. When coaches love the sport and remain committed to doing a good job, they can easily overlook tell-tale signs of some players’ mental fatigue. The players’ world view can be much different from the coaches’.
Watch the players carefully. As the season nears the homestretch, are rates of absenteeism from practice increasing? Do players still enjoy the chatter and camaraderie of the locker room or the bench before and after practices? Do players maintain spring in their step and smiles on their faces as they arrive for practice, participate in practice, and leave afterwards? Or do they look like they are “walking the last mile”?
Players have several ways to tell their coaches or parents when mental fatigue begins to set in. Some players say it in words. Consciously or unconsciously, other players convey the message silently through their body language, demeanor, and other non-verbal communication. Coaches (and parents) help the team’s performance when they remain alert for these indicators.