Coaches are teachers. The best teachers prepare lesson plans to guide them in their instruction. And the best coaches develop practice plans to guide them in their teaching.
"It's good to have a solid foundation of time-tested practice plans as long as they are part of a proven, progressive system," says Mike DeRoehn, head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. But just as important as preparation, he says, is flexibility. “Every season is different, with different student-athletes who may have different or unique needs,” he notes. “So we as coaches need to remember to adjust those proven practice plans to best meet the needs of the student-athletes we have to work with each season and try to help them reach their potential.”
Drill basics, assess for technique
The key to a successful practice is to maintain control, keep the athletes attention, and get the most out of them in a 90 to 120-minute practice, says Jay LaValley, a USA Wrestling member coach in Maryland. A good practice plan focuses on building a solid athletic base of flexibility, strength, endurance, speed and power for fundamental wrestling techniques to rely upon.
"Good coaches create practice plans that develop the athlete's mind, body, and spirit, and focus on development, not winning," LaValley says. "And they provide athletes time to properly rest and recover."
Many coaches like to prepare plans in advance of the start of the practice season. And that works, but DeRoehn likes to take a few days to evaluate his team first and then build practice plans around that.
"Instead of just teaching what we think they need to know right away,” DeRoehn says, “have them drill through the seven basic skills—stance/position, motion, level change, penetrate, lifting, back step, back arch and turn—as well as technique, from offense, defense, top and bottom." DeRoehn, who was named the USA Wrestling Greco-Roman Junior National Coach of the Year in 2010, also has his coaching staff look for tendencies, drilling habits, and technical weak spots as they're walking around the room and jot them down with a notebook. “Then we collaborate and build the practice plans around that stuff to help athletes on the way to reaching their potential."
Showing vs. doing
Any good practice system also has to strike a balance between telling athletes exactly what they need to do and guiding them while allowing independence, says DeRoehn. For example, if you're drilling leg attacks in practice, allow them the flexibility to execute what specific leg attack they prefer, excel at, or expect to use in competition. This allows them to take ownership for their wrestling, he notes, and refine the techniques that they are actually going to need in a match.
Likewise, practice plans should include a dynamic warm-up program that focuses on agility and tumbling skills, says Mike Clayton, Manager of the National Coaches Education Program for USA Wrestling. Coaches should also focus on age-specific practice plans. For kids under 12 years of age, the majority of practice can focus on games, drills, and some technical learning. As kids grow older and more physically mature (over 12), you can increase the length of practices, add more technical training that requires focus, and mix in aspects like live matches and conditioning, Clayton adds.
"A thorough warmup can lower the risk of injury by increasing blood flow to the muscles, raise core body temperature and get the joints warm and loose,” DeRoehn adds. “But it's also a great time to reinforce fundamental skills or develop athleticism through gymnastics, foot speed drills and agility drills."
Keep a practice log
Many coaches like to keep record or log of their practice plans, and that's a good idea, and not just for reminiscing.
"I have always kept all of my practice plans on file since I first started coaching 25 years ago," notes Bill Vasko, founder of mycoachbook.com, a social networking site that provides educational resources for coaches in all sports. "Many times, I find something that I may have gotten away from, such as teaching a specific skill or using a particular drill."
Developing accurate and detailed practice plans is important to running an efficient and effective practice, says Vasko. "Everyone (coaches and athletes included) knows where they need to be and what they will be working on at a specific time," he adds.
Be flexible and have fun
Practice plans are important, but they need to be adaptable, too. "We always have some flexibility to make changes based upon how practices have gone that week," Vasko says. Coaches should also share a basic version of the practice plan with team members so that they have an idea of what will be worked on, what practice is trying to accomplish, and what equipment will be needed. "This way, everyone is on the same page and players aren't left in the dark," he notes.
The practice plan should also serve as a reminder to coaches, especially at the youth level, to incorporate fun into all practices.
"One of the qualities that all good coaches possess is the ability to help kids grasp and develop skills in a way that lets them have fun at the same time," says Greg Bach, Senior Director, Communications and Content for the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS). "Of course, kids naturally look forward to participating in games more than practices, but you want to strive to generate similar game-day excitement toward attending your practices."
Count on creativity: Put some real thought into interesting ways to enhance fun during practices. "Put yourself in their shoes, and ask yourself what can make a particular drill more interesting," Bach says. "If you can conduct practices that the kids can’t wait to get to, their skill development will skyrocket." Practices thrown together minutes before the team takes the mat aren’t likely to be very effective. Plus, they’re unfair to athletes who came to develop their skills and have fun.
Keep them on the move: When designing practices, incorporate drills that keep the kids on the move and that match their skill levels. Drills that force kids to stand in line or spend more time watching teammates than actually participating can kill their energy level and bring learning, development and fun to a grinding halt.
Focus on fun: The most effective practices are the ones that are conducted in an enjoyable atmosphere, where fun is emphasized and mistakes are de-emphasized. Before the season gets underway, kids need to know that making mistakes is all part of the learning and practicing process, Bach says.
Be a positive influence: Coaches are in a great position to impact an athlete’s life away from the sport, too. During practices, devote some time to discussing the importance of staying away from tobacco, alcohol, and drugs and the ways these substances can harm the body and hurt performance. Do some research ahead of time, plan talking points, and practice how to deliver to these topics with the team.
Set a positive tone: As a coach, you must show up to practice in a great mood—every time—regardless of what is going on in your life away from the sport. "Your athletes know when you’re in a good mood and they use your positive vibes as motivation to play and learn from you," Bach notes.
Consistency for efficiency: Kids relate well, and perform better, when there is structure to practice. Although you don’t want to run the same batch of drills in every practice, you do want to stick to the same warm-up and stretching routine. Doing so helps the kids know what to do when they first get to practice. After the warm-ups, you can dive into the drills. If you’re switching up your stretching routine every practice, you waste valuable minutes explaining the new routines instead of spending the time on specific skills.
Plan for failure: That’s right, not every one of your drills will always work to perfection. During the season you’ll have some drills that will flop—and you’ve got to be ready (and willing) to dump that drill and quickly move onto a new one. So come to practice prepared with some back-up plans if any of your original ideas turn out to be duds.
Download this wrestling warmup program from USA Wrestling
Download this USA Wrestling Athlete Development Model poster that focuses on specific age-group training best practices