Ok, it seems like overkill to script a youth practice. I get it, and initially I was skeptical, too. But set skepticism aside for a few minutes and see if you might discover some of the hidden opportunities that I've found.
Yes I admit it, when introduced to the idea of scripting my practices I was skeptical and resistant, too.
However, while attending one of those mandatory pre-season coaches meetings - you know the ones that you are forced to attend because someone on league board had a bright idea - I found something that changed the way I managed my practices forever.
In this instance the league partnered with Positive Coaching Alliance to come in and work with the coaches. It might have been the enthusiasm or the charisma of the instructor, but something grabbed my attention that day.
In essence, the PCA instructor was trying to convince all of these seasoned coaches that they were missing an opportunity to help our players by making practices fun and exciting.
What was different about his approach is that the suggestions were not better drills, integrating fun, or other prescriptions that I'd heard before, but a move to script our practices.
Huh? At first I did not get it, but he boiled it down to something simple:
"You are already doing team and group drills in your practice. Simply add some structure around those drills by setting up time for each drill, and writing it down"
He gave us some examples, and it really was pretty simple. In fact I was already doing some type of organizing for each practice anyway. I knew what I wanted to work on with the team, which coaches would manage each station, players who needed bullpens, etc.
What I was not doing - yet - was taking the time to write it down. My first thought - and reply to the instructor - was that, "I don't need to write down the drills - I know them by heart."
To the credit of the instructor, his reply was simple but effective. "I believe you, but like any good coach, I'll challenge you - and the other coaches here - to try it ... just once."
When someone lays down a challenge like that, I just have to take up the gauntlet. I left the session that day with tools and ideas from the PCA session and a promise to the instructor that I would try scripting one practice, and see what happened.
THE HARD PART - WRITING IT DOWN
I actually had an idea of what do at practices. After all, I had been coaching and managing teams for years.
I even had preseason meetings with my coaching staff discussing what we wanted to do in practices to get the team ready for the season as well as a rough idea of what we would do during the season.
But the challenge I accepted from our instructor was to write it down. So ... I took a piece of paper and the example practice template and wrote out my first practice script.
And you know what - it turned out not to be that hard! Here is the basic concept that I followed:
Right down the drills you want use at the practice.
Assign a number of minutes to each drill (works with sets/stations).
Review the total time to ensure it all fits within the timeframe of the practice (start and stop).
Not really that hard, but I did take more time than just showing up at the practice and winging it so my skepticism was still safely intact.
The next step of the challenge was to try using the script in a practice.
MY FIRST SCRIPTED PRACTICE
I roll up to my first practice with a clip board and my practice plan attached, and my coaches look at me with raised eyebrows.
"You really going to try using a script for our practice - we've been fine so far, why change what's working?"
I replied, "Yep, I promised the PCA instructor that I'd try it once. Let's see what happens".
The first thing I did was draft one of the parents who was standing around. I handed the parent my clipboard and my watch, and asked him to keep an eye on the time for me.
Next I said "let's go," and we gathered the players for the pre-practice meeting. We spoke to the players about what we were going to do at the practice, but did not mention that we were following a script or we were going to be on the clock.
In about 5 minutes I see the parent with the clipboard looking at me and tapping his watch - the time I set aside for the pre-practice meeting was up, and we had to get the warm-up going!
Summary Of The First Scripted Practice
I could go into all the details of what happened at that first practice with a script, but that would be a long story.
Instead, let me summarize what I learned - and why the learnings led me to try scripting a practice again:
I was not aware of time passing during a drill.
I did not allow for the time to transition from one drill to the next.
We did not get everything done that we wanted to (did not get to all those drills).
Players and Coaches were more engaged.
Wait - players and coaches were more engaged? As it turns out - writing it down and handing off the plan to a parent removed the parts of practice where coaches got together and asked "what do we do next?"
The script or practice plan dictated what was next and we merely relied on the parent to tell us when time was up and what we were going to do next.
While it seemed a bit odd, moving decisions about what to do before practice - writing it down - changed the dynamic and flow of the practice.
The second thing I realized is that I did not forget any of the equipment needed for the practice. In the first few team practices of a season we usually forget to bring something. Without the equipment for that drill we have to improvise and miss an objective.
As I wrote down each drill, I made a mental note, and that ensured I put everything into the car that I needed.
SECOND SCRIPTED PRACTICE - LET'S TRY IT AGAIN
The fact that coaches and players were more engaged intrigued me enough that I wanted to try it again.
There was something there that I could not put my finger on so ... I sat down again with the template, and wrote out the drills.
Then I applied what I learned about time from the first practice, and made adjustments to the plan. For each drill I allowed time for setup and transition and made sure that everything fit into the time allotted for the practice.
This time the practice plan was more realistic because I made adjustments as I wrote it down.
Second Practice Recap
Once again I rolled up with my practice plan attached to a clipboard, but this time I showed the plan to the coaches before the practice. Sharing the plan before practice ensured that everyone was in on what we going to do before the players started to dribble in.
I drafted the same parent, gave him the clipboard and asked him to keep track again.
Something Is Clicking
It was odd, but during the second practice something started to click. With the refinements I made, the coaches and I found that transitions from drill to drill was much faster, and we were able to keep closer to allocated time.
The neat thing was that the players were really engaged! Without the wait time between drills players did not loose focus, and the drill would run smoothly.
The second benefit I found was that all of the coaches were more engaged, too. Because I shared and discussed the plan, we were in sync and working together. The coaches and I informally divided the coaching tasks between teaching, hitting/throwing balls, and setup/tear down.
It was not perfect, but we began to see the value of having a practice plan. I would not say we were hooked yet, but everyone agreed we should continue.
FINISHING THE SEASON WITH PLANNED PRACTICES
As the season progressed we continued to refine our practice plans, and the process for creating and reviewing those plans.
While I still had to write it down - I actually gained a lot of time on practice days because I no longer had to scramble before I left work to get mentally ready for practice. As I walked out of work, my car was packed and the clipboard was loaded. I merely had to arrive at practice on time and follow the plan!
The 'Virtuous Cycle'
I'm certain you are wondering what the heck kind of voodoo is a virtuous cycle?
Don't worry, it simply means a repeating set of tasks that, over time, reinforce each other.
So, how does that relate to scripts and practice plans? Glad you asked! After using it for a while the coaches and I developed a repeating pattern for our practices:
Create a Practice Plan
Conduct the Practice
Assess the Impact/Progress
Adjust Goals and Objectives (repeat)
Really not that complicated. After the first few scripted practices we - the coaching staff - simply got together for a few minutes and talked about what worked, what didn't, and what we needed to work on in the next practice.
I would take information home, create a new practice plan and share the new plan with the coaches. The coaches could then provide input, and I would write down the next plan.
Over time this practice review process became a quick 10 minute exercise that we did while putting away our equipment and waiting for players be picked up.
By the midpoint of that first season, everyone just expected to "follow the script" when practice began.
As a bonus, our team was able to perform well and win the division championship! However, the best part was that everyone involved could not stop talking about how this was their best season ever.
Knowing that everything was already prepared gave the players and parents confidence that their time at practice would be well spent and fun.
FAST FORWARD - PLANNING EVERY PRACTICE
Looking back now, it's hard to believe I ever had practices that were not scripted. The Plan -> Practice -> Assess -> Adjust cycle is now so ingrained that I don't even think about it. It's just how I manage practices now.
Keeping with the cycle has opened up possibilities that I never thought existed, and I feel like I'm a better coach because of it.
Here are a few final things I'd like to share:
See The Big Picture
Before each season begins I have a list of objectives I'd like to meet for the season. The primary objective is what skills I need to teach my players that will prepare them for the next level.
I then break the season into four sections:
Competence (First third of games)
Mastery (Second third of games)
Excellence - (Final third of games and playoffs)
With one eye on those skills, and the other on readiness and preparation, I create practice plans for the first eight practices. These eight practice plans ensure I cover all that is necessary to get players in shape and be prepared for the start of regular season games.
I try to be disciplined and ahere to those eight plans and make assessments along the way. By the end of the sixth practice, I have enough information to tailor remaining practices so that team or individual player gaps can be addressed.
Then the process repeats itself - the virtuous cycle - over and over through the season with the addition of game play assessments folded to the mix.
TRICKS AND TOOLS
Along the way I've developed some tricks and tools that continue to make the planning practices simpler - and when ever possible - make my job as manager easier.
Information For Parents
We all have experiences where parents are not happy about the situation their child is in on the team. It might be about not enough playing time, the player is not playing the position they want or a host of other things.
By continually planning and assessing practices, I have information that can be referenced when having those conversations.
If you're keeping track of who showed up, what drills they participated in and where they are in skill level by position your conversation with the parent becomes easier. You can focus on the positives the player brings to the team, and what they might do to improve toward more playing time or the position they want.
I cannot tell you how many times I've been able to change the conversation with a parent when I pull out my practice records and go over the information I've saved!
Practice Plan Templates
I admit that I'm a little bit of a nerd, and so over time I developed a spreadsheet template that I used to create my practice plans.
I've attached three example practice plans below, and if you download them I think you'll see how the spread sheet practice template works.
Using the template saves quite a bit of time, and because they are spreadsheets - you can re-use them!
For years I would take my saved practices from the previous season - especially the first eight - and merely tweak them in preparation for a new season.
Note: Because they were handy, the examples below are all baseball practices. However, I've used the spread sheet template for soccer, volleyball and other sports with the same level of success.
Example 1 Hour Practice
Example 1.5 Hour Practice
Example 2 Hour Practice
Big Time Coach Practice Planner
I earlier mentioned that I'm a nerd, and I think this may go a long way toward proving that.
While I used the spreadsheet practice plan templates for years, there were limitations that made me explore other options.
In my work life I'm an IT professional and developer so I thought, "Can I turn these templates into a mobile app for practice planning?"
Without going into too much detail, I was able to develop and release an iOS app for iPhones that incorporates everything I learned from the spreadsheet templates and then added a lot more functionality.
The Practice Planner app allows anyone to create practices quickly and easily by using any one of over 100 (more than 300 in soccer) included drills. You may also extend the available drills by adding your own so that your practice plans reflect what you like to do with your teams.
What I really like is that timing is now in the app instead of in the hands of a parent or coach. I start the practice in the app, and get reminders when it's time to move to the next drill.
It even has the ability to notify me on my Apple Watch so that I can leave the phone in a pocket, work with players, and not have to be caught staring at a phone!
Everything I touched on earlier is there and more. If you're interested - take a look at either practice planner app on the iTunes Store:
As you might expect, these practice planning apps were just the start for me, but that is a story for another time.
If you've reached this part of the article - thank you so much for taking the time to read my story.
I hope that the information I provided will help you make the same discovery that I have made, and you leverage scripts and practice plans to make each practice engaging and fun.