Friday, July 24, 2009

How Hard Should Practice Be?

Watched a TED clip the other day of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is the psychologist most know for the idea of "flow". Flow is that state athletes are always trying to strive to perform in. Where everything is easy and comes seemingly without effort.

It's a 20 minute clip and he talks about his graph somewhere around 16 minutes. I'd recommend watching it all however because it helps give context and the big picture.

Now the sport psychologist I work with (Dr. Michael Gervias) often points out that while it's great to try to reach this state, the fact is that most of the time in practice and competition you won't be in it. So instead of just chasing, learn the mental skills to perform to your best all the time.

I found the talk a good reminder though about how we coach athletes. Anyone who has coached can tell you that if you teach remedial skills to a talented athlete, they can become bored very quickly. Conversely, if you throw an extremely complex skill at someone without the abilities, they will often quit.

The key for a coach is whether you can match the level of difficulty with the level of ability for the athlete? Sounds easy, but it's not always. Especially when you are working with a group or team. You have to challenge them to get better, but how much?

Many coaches try to go for the middle of the road in terms of difficulty. That will get you the most (hopefully). However you are still making it too hard for the lowest skilled and too easy for the best. Maybe that's OK, but I am always trying to go 10 for 10.

Often coaches go to the lowest or highest level of skill. The put all the athletes through that level of drill or skill development. Either way, most of your athletes will not get what they need.

One of the keys is recognizing that the "skills" referred to on this graph could be technical skills, physical capacities, or mental and emotional capacities. In all areas you need to consider the demand versus the ability.

Once you have that perspective, now you can start to match the group. The straight forward area we often think of as coaches is the technical level. To become an effective coach, I have to learn to adjust any technical drill up and down for individuals in the group. That's pretty straight forward, but if you are doing it, you are already better than 80% of the coaches out there.

Next you have to think about how you manipulate not only the technical challenge to match capabilities, but go on to cognitive and emotional challenges. Maybe I work on the same basic technical drill with the group, but for some that may be in that control area, I take it up a notch by making them react, or put them on the spot in front of others, add a second technical element, etc... You get the idea.

It works the other way also. I can take away some anxiety by letting them go on their own pace, or set things up so the other athletes aren't focused on them when they go.

If I want each one of my athletes to get the most from a training session, I have to consider all these elements. Remember that we want to match the challenge to the skill level and there are many ways to do that.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Uphill Battle

Seth Godin's blog provides a great perspective on marketing, customer service and business. All important things whether you are working on the pro, college or private sides of our profession.

His blog focus the other day was "Winning on the Uphills" the lessons learned when things are hard.

I think it's a great metaphor for us as well. As a Chicago Bears fan I always have to think of Walter Payton who was known for his work effort in the off-season, which included notorious hill work. You create the stimulus for growth when it's hard. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Stress is a needed stimulus.

As a coach, I have learned some of my best things when it was hard. A too small weightroom, with 60 high school football players, and just myself. You quickly learn the value of organization, focusing efforts, and the beauty of doing just a few things savagely well. I recommend it for any coach.

It's easy when you have all the right equipment, the talented athletes, a beautiful facility, and unlimited resources. It's challenges you as a coach when you don't.

In some organizations you get to really develop and show your worth when you have to convince the hessitant head coach or star athlete, and get results in the end. In the private sector you really grow when you make it through tough economic times.

When we get through the lessons of the hard times, we are ready to succeed in all the others. Embrace the hill's as a challenge!