"Do you have 3-5 strategies for how to best raise the intensity of a practice for a team? When I observe one of my coaches running practice everything is all setup in lines and a lot of talking. The kids are so disengaged and bored!"
Below is my answer....
Just to be clear about what we mean when we talk about intensity. I define intensity as effort x focus. Often I find that the players are working really hard but the standard of training is low because the mental focus isn't right. In my mind the right level of intensity is the ideal combination of effort combined with the right mindset.
So onto the how....
1. Establish what the right level of intensity looks like
Firstly I would want to give the group a reality check to ensure that we have a common understanding of intensity is in relation to theirs.
I would have worked with them to establish some goals so that I can ask the group what level of intensity they want based on their goals. If they don't want to work with that level of intensity then they have to reevaluate their goals.
Then I ask them to rate their usual/existing level of intensity on a scale of 1 to 10 (I usually go round the group 1 by 1). If they then agree that they need to be at 10 to achieve their goals then I can help to show them what 10 looks like and use this as a reference point from then on whenever the level drops below the agreed standard.
I use a lot of games or game forms in my coaching. This means that I can get creative with points systems that raise the level of competitiveness in the session and also keeps intensity high. One thing I do that really raises the level is create a league table where the same players or same teams of players are scoring points for their team based on the parameters that we agree.
By way of an example last night my group were focussed on a particular technical aspect involving the players carrying the ball into space, I would shout out bonus points every time I saw them perform the particular technique we were working on which really dialled them into the performance. (I also gave points for attempting to do it even if it failed as I wanted them to understand that it is the intent to try that is as the most important thing).
3. Use consequences like a volume dial
I use consequences to raise or lower intensity. If I really want the players to experience some pressure then I might use a conditioning based consequence which has the added benefit of getting them more conditioned for competition. This works but I tend to use these physical consequences more in pre season to build conditioning into sessions. During the season when I want less pressure / fear but still want intensity I will ask the players to come up with a forfeit.
Last night they said that the team that loses the scrimmage had to sing a song from Disney's Frozen to the other team...it was hilarious watching them belt out 'let it go' I can tell you! The atmosphere was really good and there was a lot of laughter but the intensity definitely went up during this.
4. Use the 'reset button'
Periodically I will create a game that is pretty demanding on the players either technically, mentally or physically and will put a time limit on the activity and start a countdown. If the level of intensity drops then we press the reset button and the countdown starts again until they have completed the set time (This one is like a rocket ship for intensity but it needs to be managed carefully!).
5. Finish early!
This might sound counter intuitive but from time to time I will finish a session or an exercise early because the players have shown high intensity and have really put it in. This sends out the message that if they bring their 10 out of 10 focus to training I won't keep them any longer than necessary (More often than not they ask for something more and we keep going but the message has been sent).
6. Establish 'acceptables' and 'exceptionals'
Before every session or every exercise we will establish what is acceptable and what is exceptional. As long as we don't drop below the acceptable level then everything is good but we want to see athletes 'striving for the exceptional'.
7. Have an 'everytime philosophy'
I am pretty relentless when it comes to maintaining the quality of practice that the group have agreed to. I will tell them that I can't step back from that because that would not be doing the right thing by them. I view it the same way as I view the behaviour of my children, if I let them get away with bad manners or behaviour then I am not doing my best as a father. Why should my players be any different?
I am very fortunate to be able to mix with some really excellent people. One of them is Ric Shuttleworth, Elite Coach Development Manager at the RFU. Ric works with professional coaches in the premiership rugby academies enhancing their ability to develop skill in young rugby players. I guess you could call him the 'Yoda' of skill acquisition!
Ric's philosophy is based on the 'Game Sense' or perhaps more accurately the 'Constraints Led' model of coaching. He suggests that skill should never be developed outside of a game like training environment, rather coaches should always challenge themselves to create what the successful Australian Hockey Coach, Ric Charlesworth calls 'designer games' so that players are learning and developing skills while inside a game like context so that the acquired skill is learned in an integrated sense rather than isolated.
Each time I get to chat with Ric I get some new nugget of coaching gold...here are a few that I describe as 'power moves'.
1. Let the players find the solutions.
2. The information should come from them to us.
3. We want mistakes. Mistakes are good.
4. Ask a question but don't expect an answer. Allow the activity to be the teacher, let them find the solution within the activity.
5. Manipulate time and space to create pressure. Players who have played a lot of invasion games are good at this.
6. Information dictates technique - the development of the skill should never be done in isolation of wider information. Otherwise the skill breaks down.
7. Expression and creativity is prized over conforming to a model. Innovation must be part of it.
8. Technique based KPIs are not important. Process is key, how committed to learning are they?
9. Establish the aim of the session based on the problems. List the problems and then work backwards towards the solutions.
10. Work out the methods of learning based on low, medium and high pressure options. Slide between these to illicit the best learning model for the individual.
11. Players want you to be in control. But you must break the control cycle. Don't offer feedback...force them to solicit it.
12. Todays’ generation get told what to do a lot. They are not used to making decisions.
13. Try to Structure 'unstructured' practice.
14. Encourage the players develop the games or solutions or constraints to solve the problem. Make them critically evaluate tactical approaches and make decisions accordingly.
15. Create repetition without repetition.
Check out this video I found of the F2 Freestylers tranfering their skills from football to rugby. I know that some of these things take a number of takes but they are impressive none the less!