Making Practices Fun All Season Long

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

One of the things I am proud of as a coach this year is that the kids are still having fun and showing up at practice with enthusiasm even though we are ending a long season. It was not always so. In the earlier days of my coaching career, I got pretty bored with practice myself at the end of the season. There was the temptation to just let them play for an hour or so and go home. Nowadays, I feel like there is just so much material to present that there can never be enough practice time. The trick is figuring out how to package it so the kids will stay in the learning mode.

Cervantes wrote, "The journey is better than the inn." (Actually I didn't read anything by Cervantes. He was quoted in John Wooden's latest book!) The point being that I enjoy most of the practices more than the games. Its in the practice time that we can really improve and design the team the way we want. The games show us what we need to learn, but we accomplish that in practice, and that growth is the most rewarding part of coaching.

It is easy to sustain interest early in the season. The kids are trying to make a good impression and wondering how they will stack up. The coaches are looking at the talent and considering possible defensive and offensive schemes. The anticipation that has been building for the past couple months is finally being unleashed. That honeymoon lasts for about six weeks. Its the period following that tests the relationship.

Its easy to see when the kids are losing interest. They start entertaining themselves by clowning around a lot and being silly. Or, maybe they just don't work hard anymore. When you try and explain something, they look at you like they have heard everything you have to say and already know everything you could possibly teach. All they really want to do is scrimmage and have fun. I'm not saying scrimmaging is a bad thing, but I will say that while scrimmaging they won't be learning much, and perhaps reinforcing bad habits. Why risk them backsliding into their old ways? Wouldn't it be better if the players and coaches looked forward to productive practices because its just plain fun?

Well, what are the key factors in making practice interesting all season? You may guess that it just depends on the coach's personality. Not so, not so. I bring no charisma or speaking prowess to my practices, not at all. What I know is that the kids:

To have an enjoyable practice then, we could say we participate together in competitive basketball situations. That puts it all in one sentence. Sounds like a mission statement. Maybe it should be. But, let's break this discussion down into the key factors for fun practice so we can go into it more fully.

Five Factors For Fun Practice

OK, that's six factors, but five factors makes for a more alliterative title.

Be Organized

Are you a coach that keeps the practice plan in your head? In fact, are all of them are in your head? If that's the case, you are either short-changing your kids or you have a very big head. You should approach your season with a season plan. Your season plan lists all of the things you want to teach and uses a calendar of some sort to help you allocate enough time to cover all the topics.

It is very easy to get caught up in perfecting some element of the game. Suddenly your precious hour of practice is over and you realize you accomplished nothing of substantive value. Or, in another frustrating scenario, you try and present a season worth of material in your first practice. Again, you accomplished nothing of substantive value. If you take some time up front to chart out all the things you want to learn, you can prioritize your practice time accordingly. You can also feel assured that the players are getting the breadth of instruction they need. You can also go into your game situation with an organized, useful set of team skills instead of being a "one trick pony".

Go to each practice with a list. At the top of the list, note any announcements you need to make. That way, you won't be slapping yourself on the forehead as you drive home when all the forgotten reminders come bubbling to your consciousness. The rest of the list should have the activities that you expect to cover and the amount of time you expect to need for each activity. Stick to your budgeted time as best you can. If you simply don't have enough minutes for the material, you know you need to come to practice with a shorter list next time.

Organization covers more than a practice plan. Make sure you have your basketballs, paperwork, first aid kit together in one place. If you have assistants helping with the coaching, make sure they know what to expect before practice starts. Its a good idea to have a cell phone on site for unexpected events.

The players should not only have a practice schedule, but also a clear idea of what will be expected from them each practice. So, at your first practice, lay down the rules. Obvious rules, for instance, are to be on time, hustle to the coach when the whistle is blown, no talking when the coach is talking and so on. Write your rules down and pass them out. If these rules are broken, invoke immediate team penalties like pushups or extra running. The secret is to be tough early in the season. If the kids learn to obey such rules at the onset, the rest of the season goes much more smoothly.

Another thing to clarify is this question, "Why do we practice?" The answer, of course, is to improve as a team and be better players. Ask the players if that is what they want. They will certainly say they want to be better. Then you tell them your only goal as a coach is the same one they have, to help them get better. If they do not listen to you or follow directions, then they need to question their actions because they are preventing the coach from helping them get better. By not following directions or wasting practice time, they are working directly against their own progress. Even young kids will see that as illogical behavior.

Lastly, define business vs pleasure. Sometimes the coach needs to make sure the team takes care of its business first. Business includes the dreary or repetitive parts of a practice like dedicated conditioning or rehearsing an offense. Keep those sessions as short as you can and follow them with something fun that the kids can anticipate with excitement. The reward is always sweeter if it is earned with hard work. The kids need to learn that lesson.

Don't Talk too Much

I agree, that "mission statement" didn't include listening. Are you finding it hard to get your kids to listen? Maybe you are talking too much! Maybe coach should listen, too. To improve listening, break instruction into four parts:

  1. When you explain skills, introduce them briefly.
  2. Demonstrate it as best you can. It isn't necessary to be proficient at the skill, but you need to be able to get the visual idea across. If you can't do that, its nice to have a player or assistant who can.
  3. Have the players perform the skill.
  4. Ask the players to explain how to do the skill, or if the experience is brand new, describe how it feels to do the skill. Once the players start talking to you, you get a clearer window looking into what they actually understand.

The style that doesn't work too well is when the coach has the players stand around and listen to a lecture that goes on and on and on. I marvel at how long some coaches can talk. I run out of words within a couple of minutes, but it seems to be helpful. If you watch the players' eyes as you talk, you can discern the inattention. If you see sidelong glances, rolling eyes or other signs of distraction, its time to stop talking. They're not listening anymore. Ask a question. Force interaction. Continuing to speak at this point is a waste of time.

If you have a lot material to cover, break it up into manageable bits. Talk about the first bit and go through the four steps listed above. Then you can go to the second bit and repeat the process. Early this season, when we had to go over our man to man defensive plan, it took me three consecutive practices to get through it all. It was like a three day clinic. But, at least we went from point to point and learned it and applied it as we went. Had I spent an hour initially talking about it, the players would have been bored to tears (or sleep) and learned little.

Kids will listen if they know you will be brief and you are not going to repeat information over and over. They know they need to learn the rules of the drill they are about to do because they are about to do it in a minute or two. They like action much better than your oratory, so give them as much action as you can and keep your verbal instructions short and to the point.

Emphasize Action and More Action

Keep the kids busy all the time. I have heard of coaches who have their players dribbling a basketball anytime they would otherwise be idle, like standing line waiting for their turn to do a layup. Another way to minimize idle time is to break the kids into groups working the same drill but at different baskets. If you are doing a simple two line layup drill, fine, just break the team into half and do it at two baskets. The kids get twice the exercise and twice the shots in the same period. It helps if you have an assistant, but that's not essential.

Another trick to conventional drills is adding more basketballs. For instance, if you're running the tried and true star drill, do it with 2 or even 3 basketballs at once. Suddenly an old drill becomes alive and exciting and two or three times as fast-paced.

If you have some slow drills, sandwich them between fast drills. For example, if you are going to practice trapping in your full court press, run a full speed, all-out fast break drill for five minutes first. Then, as the kids are catching their breath, walk them through the full court press plan. When you "go live", they will already be in the mental state of playing up tempo.

A favorite trick is to pull your stop watch out and time drills. If the drill is to be four minutes, watch the clock for three minutes then start a count down. The kids will pick up the tempo hoping to get in one last basket before time expires.

Insist that all drills be done with full intensity. If your team tests one another in practice, I mean really works hard against one another, the games will seem easy in comparison. Playing soft in practice and hard in games is a lazy man's approach and you will get whipped by the teams that play hard in practice, too. To maintain intensity, don't let the kids do anything for very long. In a five on five setting, I like the players to run hard for only two or three minutes, then we stop and talk for just a minute while they rest. During the rest, we may decide to emphasize a point for the next burst of play, or correct a particular element, then back to action.

Take frequent water breaks. A water break every 10-15 minutes is not a waste of time. It improves practice and its healthy for the kids. Just insist that the break is very short and that they hustle back to practice.

Employ Competition in Everything You Can

This may be the best tip in the article. Add competition to every drill you can. Don't just line up and run layups. Instead, see how many they can make in two minutes. Keep a team record so they can break it. Now it becomes important to each player to not just to make the layup, but to drive in as fast they reasonably can.

For many drills, you can break the team into equal squads. Let the kids pick the teams. Putting them at different baskets, challenge them to beat the other team by doing something the fastest or the best. For example, lets say you have four teams of three shooting free throws at four different baskets. It could be done with a boring rule like each player shoots 25 and you're done ... or, spice it up! Which team can first score six consecutive baskets when no player can shoot more than two shots in a row and they are forced to rotate if a shot is missed? To win, the entire three man team must contribute to the 6 consecutive basket requirement. To clarify the winner, stipulate that once your team gets the 6 made shots in a row, they must all be within the center circle at half court to be officially finished. That makes for some exciting finishes!

A good idea is to keep these three man teams intact over the season. Give the team a point every time they win a drill. Keep track of the points over the course of the season. A long term challenge, it gives the kids motivation to improve their place in the standings. Many, many drills can be adapted to this kind of competition.

About 3 on 3 competition, You can create a tournament setting for them. Or have one basket for winners and one for losers. If your team loses, you go to the east basket and play the team that lost the last game there. To stay at the west court, you need to keep winning against the challenger that comes from the east basket.

Instead of practicing your half court set over and over, set limits. Offense and defense must change after five baskets or after a certain time, say three minutes. Countdown the final seconds to simulate the end game. Do that a lot. It helps your kids cope with the pressure and timing of a real last second showdown.

Offer stupid prizes for drill winners. One time, as we were doing some very necessary conditioning, it was obvious the kids were slacking. So, I picked an unpopular running exercise, a 17, and said I'd give the winner a dollar. Wow! They ran their butts off! Then I had to chastise them. Why would they not give their best for something as important as basketball, but for a mere dollar they would run their heads off? "Well, coach," said one player, "Haven't you heard of 10-10-220 (a cell phone advertisement on TV)? Only 99 cents for 20 minutes!"

Wise guy. They had to run again.

Remember, you have the right change any drill to make it more fun, more meaningful or more competitive. Just add the elements you need. Add weird things, if you want. One day we stopped doing layups the normal way. I gave the kids a jump takeoff target. It was a piece of tape laid down where they were jumping to shoot the shot. Each time they went the line, I moved it back a foot. Soon, we passed their physical limits to actually lay the ball up on the glass. They had to jump as far as they could and shoot before they landed. It was fun and a good exercise.

Don't Overuse Any Drill

Variety is essential. My practice plans typically have up to ten drills, or even more. The reason there are so many is that drills get old in a hurry. Their value is that they usually isolate specific skills the team needs. The detriment is that they have limited complexity so the players lose interest after awhile. If you have a long list of drills, you can break them into sets by skill type. For instance, if you need to practice passing, use three drills lasting five minutes each instead of one that drags on for 15 minutes, The kids will learn what they are going to learn in the first five minutes anyway.

There are three ways to get more drills. You need to seek them out for your own sanity. After a while, even your favorites can get pretty stale.

Ask the kids what they like to do. Once you learn what they enjoy, you can tailor their learning experiences around that type of activity. If the players have ideas to change a drill, support it. Try it out. Why not?

Be Encouraging and Positive!

During the games things can be pretty intense. Players may need to be given firm direction and even direct criticism. When emotions run high, voices may get loud, too. That's all part of the game. It's a passionate experience. But, let me ask you this, does that game attitude carry over to practice, too? It is very important to maintain intensity in practice, but if you're a screamer coach, your practices will become unbearable. You need to find a way to lighten up and laugh in practice. The kids should be working hard because they love to play hard, not because they have a drill sergeant on their case. Besides, if you're getting old like me, the mere thought of yelling for a couple hours makes me tired. Kids are willing to take some verbal abuse, perhaps even expect it, but everybody has their limit.

The key, I think, is not to try to control everything the players do. That's frustrating for both coach and players. The kids should discipline themselves. If they are coming to practice to make themselves better, then they won't tolerate one of their own getting too far out of line and hurting the cause. However, if the coach is too overbearing, then the discipline issues are about the coach controlling the players. Players are much more likely to side with the one who strays inside of side with the coach. Ideally, the players and coach should all want the same thing and work together to get it.

A good coach is a guide, not a god. The goal of the coach isn't to dominate, its to facilitate. Help the players achieve excellence. When they make progress, praise them. When they struggle, try to help them see what is in their way and get past the obstacle. There are plenty of opportunities to criticize players, and it is necessary to do so. Just try to balance it with praise for the things they do well and the things they are improving. People work harder for rewards than to avoid punishment.

Summary

Organize your season as best you can. That will really help your practices function better. Remember not to talk too much. Instead, keep the kids as active as possible. Wherever possible, make the practice competitive. Competition can make even the most boring drills more enjoyable. Speaking of enjoyment, try and keep things fun for yourself. Practice is a lot of fun when you're upbeat and enthusiastic.