This seems to be a question coaches are constantly bringing up to each other. How long are you going? How long do you go once the season starts? There’s a lot more concern – due to more data – with the amount of output you are asking out of your players every day. It seems like (unscientific data analysis here) that the trend is to go to shorter practices than in the past. There’s a lot of support for “keeping them fresh” and “it’s a long season.”
I don’t think marathon, 4-hour practices are very effective or very smart. But I do think there is value in long practices, especially early in the year. I don’t think many coaches want to be on the floor for 3+ hours with their team day after day, but there is a lot of pressure in our business and none of us feel like we have have enough time to get everything in, no matter how much time you give us.
Years ago Roy Williams said something publicly at North Carolina about promising his team that if they gave him a great effort every day he’d never practice longer than two hours all year. Two hours seems to be a “goal” at this point, as coaches want to become more efficient and avoid injuries due to overuse. You also have to remember with the new NCAA rules in the past 10 years – increased out-of-season hours, summer access – we are pretty much with our team all year long. You shouldn’t need as much practice time during the year if you can be on the court with your kids 11 months out of the year.
Effective practice is what’s important to me, and that’s where you have to be really self-aware as a coach. You’ll get to a point many days where diminishing returns sets in, and the longer you go the worse you get. You have to constantly self-evaluate how much you are getting out of practice as it gets longer and longer, and be willing to cut it short if necessary.
But a 3-hour practice isn’t the worst thing in the world. Early in the year, usually the first 7-10 days, many of my practices would go 2:30-3:00 total. Usually early there is a lot of teaching, explaining of drills and repeating actions to make sure they get it right. It isn’t the same flow and intensity of a normal practice once everyone is on the same page. And rather than rush on teaching my team the right way to do it, I’ll be out on the floor longer. And that’s okay.
There’s also a toughness element to having longer practices that I think is important. Coaches talk about toughness all of the time, and we all wish our teams were tougher. Well the way to have a tougher team is to put your team in tough situations and ask them to come through. If you are constantly cutting practices short and giving your guys the easy way out, you aren’t making them very tough. In 25 years of college basketball, I’ve been a part of a lot more teams in February that weren’t tough enough than I have been teams that were worn down because we practiced too long. It’s comfortable to take the easy way out. But winning usually doesn’t come from comfortable.
To be honest I’ve had a hard time fitting a good practice into just two hours until we get to January or February. I mean, with warming-up, stretching, shooting, working on 5-0 stuff and putting in new sets, you aren’t leaving your team a ton of time to compete. To me there is just too much teaching and too much necessary repetition to get in and out every day under 2 hours.
I’m not advocating for marathon practices. But what I am saying is a 3 hour practice early in the year isn’t the worst thing in the world. If you find yourself rushing through important teaching points with your team, you probably aren’t going long enough. You know what your team needs, and if they need to be out there a little longer, so be it.