When I was the head coach at Maine I got to know Stump Merrill a little bit. Stump was a UMaine graduate who played baseball, and went on to play professionally before a long coaching and managing career. He managed the New York Yankees for three years when I was in high school in New York.
I got to talk to Stump a few times about coaching and building a team. Stump used to say that baseball was the only sport “where we never practiced at game speed.” I had never heard that before, but it was a good point. In baseball they throw batting practice at 75-80 miles per hour and they don’t hit the ball that hard when taking infield or outfield. They also play so many games during the season – usually 162 games in about 180 days – that they can’t really practice that much or go that hard. It bothered Stump that they never really practiced at full speed. “Why would you want to get comfortable doing things at half-speed?” he would say.
One of the most important things we can do as coaches is to train our guys at game speed. I agree with Stump, it doesn’t make any sense to get used to going half-speed. I’ve never liked walk-throughs or “lighter” days. I understand that the players need rest and you have to take care of their bodies over a long season. In my mind if they need a day off, give them a day off. Or you can certainly shorten practice to reduce wear and tear. But don’t bring your kids in and get them used to going at less than full speed.
When you aren’t going game speed, you are establishing bad habits. Whether it’s during 5-0, shooting drills or a scout session, it’s critical to train at game speed. We all say it a lot as coaches – “game speed,” – yet I don’t think we always live up to the standard or hold our teams accountable for it. In practice you are training your team in the habits they need to win a game. If you are going at a slower pace to give them a break or some rest, you are getting worse. There’s no reason to get used to going half-speed.