Three Ideas to Increase and Maintain Intensity at Practice

April 6, 2015

A goal of this blog is to provide specific and practical insights into current coaching dilemmas.  By no means do I have all the answers and sometimes you may even disagree with my approach. When I was a young coach I remember learning as much about what I would not do as much as I learned what I would do. 

One of the first head coaches I worked for was exceptional at breaking down the game into progressions. I learned from observing and discussing that this was not always a favorite way of practicing for players. This understanding helped shape my coaching philosophy. I always wanted my players to value and enjoy practice.

It also shaped my desire for different perspectives. I welcome your perspectives and I hope you will add your comments to any of our blog posts. I will do my best to bring as many coaching dilemmas as possible to your attention. That way we can stimulate our thinking about what and how we coach.

One of our newsletter subscribers, Brian Elmer, shared this challenge. He explains, “I am looking forward to seeing your site. My biggest challenge in coaching, outside of attendance (I coach under 17 boys and many work now), would be getting intensity out of the players. What you do in practice is what you’ll do in a game, so if you don’t challenge each other in practice, you’ll fall short in a game.”

First off thanks for sharing your challenge, Brian. I definitely understand the difficulties in creating intensity in a practice setting. At all levels intensity is important. At the older age levels it is especially important because so much of the separation of good to great players is the ability to maintain intensity.

Here are three practical and specific ideas to create intensity at practice.

  1. Teach 4-on-4 and 5-on-5 with a Game Centered Approach

Players love to play and compete. Your practices should be designed to maximize the amount of time your players spend learning by physically practicing. I understand many coaches get concerned as they perceive 5-on-5 teaching as scrimmaging. A game centered approach (Also called a Games Approach to Teaching) does not remove teaching. It allows you to teach skills and tactics while players are playing in game-like situations.

In our game centered situations we constantly stop to teach. Our players learn in the context of the game. This type of approach increases participation, and it also simulates real-game situations – both of which increase intensity.

A games centered approach means that you do more competitive teaching rather than drill teaching. Most drills are not game-like. And most drills reduce intensity.  Although there are certain situations in my teaching where I still use drills, I try to teach out of 4-on-4 and 5-on-5 situations as much as possible.

  1. Keep Score and Have Consequences

I know the argument against keeping score and actually I agree with some of the concerns about over-emphasizing competition. There are definitely some trade-offs to keeping score in practice.

Potential Negatives to Keeping Score

  • Players focus on winning at the expense of execution.
  • It can create negative responses to losing.
  • Certain players win more than others because of the different talent levels that exist on a team. 
  • Using consequences does single out certain players.

In my experience, the positives of keeping score out-weigh the negatives.

Positives to Keeping Score

  • Competition increases intensity. 
  • Game simulation is maximized.
  • Players learn to value winning.

At whatever level I have coached, players understand there is a value to both winning and losing. The same value, although heightened, exist in games. So if we are talking about simulating competition as closely as possible, should we not teach our players the value of winning and losing every day in practice?

More so, having competition and consequences in practice provides many realistic teachable moments about handling the demands of competition. Hating to lose is okay. Part of being a good competitor is to know how to lose and then to learn from the experience. Much as it is to learn to love winning.

So competition in practice creates many teachable moments and questioning opportunities. Why did your team win? Why did you lose? What could have created a different outcome? I am a big fan of questions.

I believe questioning players about why they were or were not successful in competition will help increase understanding about the factors that lead to success. One of which is intensity. This will help you reinforce the importance of intensity daily.

On another note, the consequences do not have to be negative (push-ups to the losers). They can be positive if you want (get out of sprints at the end of practice). The ultimate goal is to not have any consequences; to make the motivation to win intrinsic. This means that players understand and work towards winning because they understand the natural consequences of both winning and losing.

  1. Focus on the Process and Tie It in to Their Goals

Many of your players want to play at the next level. Communicating a consistent message about the relationship between intensity and improvement is important. The day in and day out process of improvement through hard work and a commitment to learning must be reinforced. As a coach a powerful way of reinforcing this relationship is through noticing progress. You can reinforce the value of intensity by commenting on a player’s improvement and the specific reasons why that improvement has happened.

A great example to share is Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors. I don’t pretend to know his story completely but many young people assume someone like Lowry is successful because of their talent. Lowry definitely was talented enough to play in the NBA out of college. It took some years but clearly he had another level of improvement he could get to as a player (or not if he chose a different path). I am guessing through his hard work and commitment to figuring things out he was able to reach the level of an NBA All-Star. Your players are no different. Improvement does not happen in the absence of intensity, effort or intent.

What are some things you do as a coach or player to increase and maintain practice intensity? Please share below in the comments section so we can learn from each other.

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  1. We won the last two 6A Girls State Titles in Oregon, and yet we had big time intensity problems. Our league was so weak with our average margin of victory being 35+ points over 4/6 teams in our league and 25+ over all the teams combined throughout the whole year, that we had to find challenges within our own practices to keep us sharp. It is not enough to just talk about focus and intensity, you have to come up with side games and new goals to reach every week just to stay in attack mode mentally. Our starters knew that they would be sitting by halftime generally, so they would stray from our philosophy and go out to “get theirs” at times. We would juggle the roster and plug younger kids in with one or two starters to help build the program but not embarrass the opponent at the same time. We also brought boys in to practice against our girls. We’ve been doing that for years and it keeps the girls sharper. We beat a perennial powerhouse in the quarterfinals and held them to 12 points at half. They led the state in scoring this past year at 70.6 ppg. One player had all 12 at half and she finished with 13 total. By working to change our intensity throughout the year, we were able to more easily get up for the big games as the playoffs started.

  2. The best things to discuss about is always the dilemmas and problems arising from the beginner coaches. They are approaching the game like they are one of the players. And I think that is the best coaching skills they’ll have.

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