Your Practice Objectives Should not be a Secret

Feb. 02, 2010, 12:17 p.m. (ET)

One of the things about being here at the Olympic Training Center is the chance to watch so many other teachers of elite sport and athletes do their thing. As I watch other coaches teach, one thing stands out to me, in that they all are very good at communicating, storytelling, and player empowerment. Starting back in 1995, I put in a study done by Gary Walton from the US Olympic Coaching Development Office,  that has remained part of the IMPACT manual for 15 years.  Gary summarized it noting these "Ten Characteristics of Highly Successful Coaches...."

  1. Committed to individual integrity, values and personal growth

  2. Profound thinkers who see themselves as educators, not just coaches

  3. Well‑educated (formally and informally) in a liberal arts tradition

  4. Long‑run commitment to their athletes and their institution

  5. Willing to experiment with new ideas

  6. Value the coach‑player relationship, winning aside

  7. Understand and appreciate human nature

  8. Love their sport and work

  9. Honest and strong in character

  10. Human and therefore imperfect

I would now like to add some more to the list which revolve around the use of a whiteboard and maximizing your effectiveness in practice. It is so important to get everyone to row the same direction in the precious few minutes we are together for practice. To communicate this clearly - what we want to get out of this practice - shared as SPECIFICALLY as possible - is vital to having a successful training period.

There may be no more important task of a coach to be effective in training, than to go back in time to grade school, and remember what good teachers did - they wrote what was expected on the chalkboard, and then creatively empowered you to figure out your path to the learning objectives. They treated every one of you fairly, but not equally, and they taught so that YOU knew it and remembered it, not them. These great teachers always taught far more students per class (team) for often less lengthy class periods (practice) than we deal with as a volleyball coach.  Then, when it all was said and done, the test (competition) determined how well you learned. The US Teams each use multiple white boards to share their practice objectives with the whole team, for it leads to a more effective practice and more learning.  

It really is about learning, not coaching/teaching. A favorite quote of mine by the famous science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, reminds us to "Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig."  Too often coaches think that just because they teach, learning happens, but for sure, the pig is not learning. 

Remember, we are doing all we can in practice to be good at performance. As Dr. Richard Schmidt had to repeatedly query back to all the elite coaches asking him questions in our USOC seminar on acquiring expert performance in Nov 2008 - "Are you practicing for practice, or practicing for performance?"  This is where so many coaches miss the boat, in thinking that practice has to look good, and thus train too much in blocked form, rather than the random form which promotes superior remembering and performance at a later time. Brush up on your motor skill learning theory by taking an IMPACT, CAP or Gold Medal Squared course sometime, as this stuff is important to your coaching success. 

Since we want to maximize the amount of deliberate practice - that time our athletes are really thinking about "Citius, Altius, Fortius" as they develop each skill - we need to increase the number of contacts being performed by each athlete in gamelike ways and situations. We also need to help them more mentally,  in being increasingly mindful for those very contacts. 

One of the "Volleyball Canyons to Bridge" I have written about (CLICK HERE for the entire article) is the canyon found between the amount of a game coaches think the game is mentally (average response over the years is 80-90 percent) and the amount of time coaches spend teaching the mental aspects of the game (averaging 10 percent).  The thing we forget too often is that the body only does what the mind tells it to do. This is in no small part why I feel our sport's most important skill is reading, not the contact skills we teach. It is of anticipating and developing the amazing game sense, or VB IQ, that every level of volleyball player must learn. It is also vital, however, to reward and guide your players to work hard on each and every contact in practice, whether you are watching them or not. 

In just a couple of weeks, the winter game coaches will be tested on how well they taught in practice,  how well they empowered their athletes to perform without them, and what the level of mastery each competitor has reached while testing this mastery against a world of other Olympians on the snow and ice of Vancouver.  It will be a joy to watch these performances and hear the stories of just taking part, not just the triumphs, for the triumphs take care of themselves...

Please feel free to share your thoughts by posting a response below.


The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On February 03, 2010 Carlos Prata wrote

Hi John, Good job and very good article. Old things are always present and about all the learning principles. Thank you to remember us. Carlos

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