Players’ Attention Span During Practice Sessions
by Doug Abrams
Coaches are teachers who deliver most of their lessons in practice sessions and games, rather than in conventional classrooms. In youth leagues and interscholastic sports programs alike, learning and performance depend not on the coach’s delivery, but on the players’ reception. Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama’s longtime football coach, was right: “No coach has ever won a game by what he knows. It’s what his players know that counts.”
Like other teachers, coaches must accommodate the limits of their students’ attention span. In early February, I wrote about attention span during games. http://askcoachwolff.com/2013/02/09/coaching-tips-how-to-teach-players-during-the-heat-of-the-game/. This column concerns aspects of attention span during practice sessions, which I began discussing in another column a few weeks ago. http://askcoachwolff.com/2013/02/22/coaching-tips-how-to-keep-practices-fun-during-a-long-season/.
Attention Span During Practice Sessions
As they explore the limits of youthful attention span, educational psychologists tell us that “requiring students to work for relatively long durations before they have attained minimum levels of speed and accuracy may actually depress learning rates.” Researchers also explain that “until students attain minimal levels of speed and accuracy on individual . . . tasks, they typically lack the ability to maintain steady performance levels for extended periods of time.”
In practice sessions, coaches begin accommodating their players’ attention span by taking a carefully devised written agenda onto the field with a clipboard or other device. The agenda should make optimal use of every moment, and keep all players mentally and physically involved as much as possible in every drill.
My practice agenda usually included more material than we could cover during the session, but I wanted to have material in reserve (the proverbial “Plan B”) just in case the session did not proceed entirely as I anticipated. “Down time,” while coaches appear tentative and unsure of themselves, diminishes attention span by encouraging players’ minds to wander.
Watch the players carefully as the practice agenda unfolds. The coaches might allot fifteen minutes to a particular drill, for example, but might need to improvise if they see the players growing frustrated, inattentive or bored after five minutes, or enthusiastic after fourteen. Good coaches remain flexible, think on their feet, and react to the players’ attention span on a moment’s notice.
Marathon Practice Sessions
When I was in high school and college years ago, my teammates and I heard stories about two-hour practice sessions that might drag on for three or four hours as the coaches tried to coax the players to master a difficult skill or technique. I doubt that the players usually mastered very much in the last hour or two, though, because children and adolescents cannot maintain their attention span on the practice field for such open-ended periods of time.
Perhaps marathon practices are less frequent in many places today because fields and other sports facilities tend to operate on much tighter schedules to meet greater demand and diminished availability. In any event, I have always felt that a practice session (like a class period in school) should start at a fixed time and end at a fixed time.
For one thing, I suspect that open-ended practice sessions increase player fatigue and thus also risk of injury. Beyond this risk, however, serious players thrive on self-discipline that comes from mental preparation for a discrete period known in advance. Because teams accomplish very little as instruction and performance grow muddled later in a marathon practice, coaches are much better off ending at the prescribed time and resuming instruction and conditioning next time.
A centuries-old adage, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” reminds us that mastering and completing important tasks may take time and patience. Accomplished sports teams aren’t built in a day either. When players do not grasp a difficult skill or strategy today, that is what the next practice session is for.
[Source: Carl Binder et al., Increasing Endurance by Building Fluency: Precision Teaching Attention Span, Teaching Exceptional Children 24 (Spring 1990)]