When I was in college, our practices had a similar structure every day. We didn’t stretch or get loose as a team. Practice started at 4:00, and you were expected to be ready to go at that time. Whatever you needed to do to get ready, you did it before 4:00.
We usually started with a team warm-up drill to get loose, and then we followed with live team drills. Shell drill, transition defense, rebounding, offensive execution – all the usuals for a basketball practice. When the drills were done, usually 30-45 minutes into practice, we’d break up to shoot. We’d do a 9-minute shooting drill, and then everyone would shoot 30 free throws. The shooting served as a bit of a break in the middle of practice.
After the shooting, we’d then go live. Whether it was half court or full court, the live, competitive play came after the drills and the shooting. The last 30-50 minutes of practice was us playing live, and then we’d finish with some pressure free throws and conditioning.
At the time I didn’t know any better and I didn’t really think about the flow of practice. But the structure worked well. We went hard all practice, but the teaching and the drilling was done first. Then we got a mental and physical break for about 20 minutes to shoot, and we got back to getting after it with mostly full court play.
It was also a structure that made it clear you needed to be mentally and physically ready at 4:00, once practice started. Other than a quick team drill to get moving a bit, there wasn’t much build up to practice. You showed up ready to go.
I’ve learned that one of the biggest adjustments for players when getting to college is getting mentally prepared for practice. You can’t just show up and be the most talented player anymore. You need to mentally prepare for the compete level expected of you, as well as the technical aspect of what you are expected to learn. You need to prepare yourself mentally to be great in practice.
As coaches it is our job to structure practice in a way to get the most out of our team. To me, the most important element of practice is our compete level. The intensity we bring to practice is essential to how we get better. To get to the right compete level – and maintain it throughout – you have to be intentional about they way practice is structured.
I’ve always struggled with when to teach in practice, or when to put in new sets or defensive coverages. I’ve never been a big 5-0 offense guy. I just don’t like lowering the intensity or compete level. I recognize you have to teach and you have to run through your sets. But the compete level is going to drop when you slow things down to teach, so you have to find the best time to do it in practice.
I’m always concerned about getting off to a slow start. It makes sense on one level to do your teaching at the beginning of practice, so that once you ramp up the intensity you don’t have to dial it back. But I’ve found if my team is standing around for the first 15-20 minutes of practice, they become pretty sluggish. It may take a while to get them going.
You can put in new sets and do your teaching in the middle of practice – giving them a bit of a break to slow their heart rate down and catch their breath – but then you have to get them re-started to go live. I’ve found that when the compete level is really good I want to keep it that way. I don’t want to go back to 5-0 or a teaching spot when they are competing at a high level.
You can also do most of your teaching and walk-through stuff at the end of practice, but then you risk losing them mentally after an intense practice. How much are they going to process and remember at that point? Additionally, usually the new stuff you want to teach is stuff you want to see in practice, so you want to get it in before practice is over. But if you are thinking ahead, you can put some stuff in at the end of practice one day and prepare to work on in the next day. That might take too much foresight for many of us to be effective.
It’s important to realize that every team is different. Some years you might have a team full of self-starters, and the structure isn’t as important. Other years you might have a group that needs similar routine every day to get to the right compete level. You have to get a feel for what your team responds to, and figure out a structure that gets the best out of them.
I’ve found that mixing up the format of practice is important – despite having the same structure every day in college. Practice can get stale if the guys know exactly what is coming, and it becomes too routine. I generally like to get started quickly and get the team moving. And once they get going it takes some feel to figure out how to keep the compete level where you want it.
Usually we’ll plan the teaching before we get going too hard in live play, but that doesn’t always work. Some days we want to get right to competing to get our guys used to turning it up quickly. It’s all very contextual and I don’t know that there is one answer as to how to best structure your practice. But I do know that how you do it and the flow you find is a big part of how much better you will get.
The structure of your practice and the flow that it provides is much more important to how your team practices than you think. Know what you are looking for as a head coach from a compete standpoint and figure out the best way to get there. We have to teach, we have to slow down and they certainly need breaks. But there is a way to do it intentionally, for each team, to get the most out of them.