The Huddle, Issue #31: Practice Planning

Posted: February 28, 2011 11:48 AM

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Practice Planning

Monday, February 28th, 2011


Huddle Issue 31     

Whether you are warming-up your mind/body, learning by repetition, simulating real game scenarios, or even just getting on the same page as a team -- practice plays an important role in any sport.  What it boils down to is that it is not just the amount you practice, but how you are using that time that can separate the good teams from the great.  

Here are some tips that can help you make the most of your practice time.

If you have any questions or comments feel free to contact us at


Issue #31: Comments/Discussion Thread


  • Practice?  We Talkin' About Practice?
    ArticleBlock EasthamAnderson

    • Epic rants by NBA legends belittling the importance of practice aside, there is a wealth of evidence that points to the importance of practice, both quantity and quality, when it comes to improving athletic performance. Many people have noted that athletes seem to require at least 10 years from the time they begin a sport until they are able to reach the top of their game. Others have taken this analysis further. Malcolm Gladwell observed in his book, Outliers, that top performers can only manage to practice effectively for about 1,000 hours every year, thus arriving with the often quoted "10,000 hour rule" which must be satisfied in order to master a complex task. Matthew Syed takes this observation a bit further in his book, Bounce, by pointing out that those practice hours must be purposeful, and filled with failure; simply going through the motions and not challenging yourself to the point of failure does not lead to sustained improvement.

      What qualifies as practice is still a bit murky to me, but there are two numbers to consider which helps put things in perspective. First, a 40-hour work week equals about 2000 hours a year. To hit the 1,000 hour a year mark, you need to be putting in about 3 hour days, seven days a week, for a whole year. Second, some very sketchy calculations suggest that during my 13 years playing Ultimate, I’ve logged between 5,000 and 6,000 hours on the field. I think it’s safe to say that a vanishingly small number of Ultimate players have to worry about practicing too much, or satisfying the 10,000 hour rule.

      So, the question of how to get the most out of a practice is extremely valid. For my part, I’m going to focus on four basic principles to keep in mind when figuring out how to practice, along an example or two. It’s up to you and your team to figure out how to apply them.

      Get Everyone on the Same Page:
      This goes without saying to a certain extent, and comes in a variety of forms; playbook meetings, moving discs around on the ground, on-field examples, etc. The team should be presented with concepts in a controlled setting where questions are easily asked and answers are quickly given. Simply put, the majority of this explanation should take place before your team warms up, or at least after any substantial breaks during practice. Further, someone should have spent enough time thinking about that concept to the point where they don’t have to think about the answer, or consult the playbook.

      Maximize your reps:
      In a word, drills. The function of drills is to allow everyone on your team to cement basic concepts and movements through repetition. Entrusting your team to learn by just playing games is not sufficient. An entire game may only present an individual player with a handful of opportunities to implement a certain concept, while the majority of their time is spent between points, watching from the sideline, or executing other concepts (hopefully) to perfection; time which is not spent improving on newly learned concepts. The drills don’t have to be perfect, but you definitely need to think about both how best to convey the strategy you are trying to teach, and the logistics of people moving through a drill in order to maximize the number or repetitions. Additionally, consider making a substantial portion of your warm-ups for practices and tournaments a drill your team has run recently.

      Take it up a notch:
      Once your team has the basics down, your drills and games need to be modified to make things more difficult in order to push beyond your limits. This is where the aspect of failure as an important aspect of practice comes into play. Only by changing the set-up of your drills, or the rules by which you play your games to make execution more difficult will you be pushed beyond your limits to the point of failure. At that point, every failure should be treated as a learning opportunity. Shortening the stall count to force moving the disc faster, or a designated poacher on defense are just two examples, but there are lots of creative ways to make things more difficult. Finally, there should be sufficient downtime incorporated into a drill or game for people to register mistakes, discuss what happened, and think about alternatives.

      Follow it through:
      During the course of a season, there are a lot of things to cover, and there is an innate tendency for coaches and captains to assume that once a concept is explained and executed successfully once, it is time to move on to the next one. Remember, it takes 10,000 hours to "master" a sport, and the vast majority of that is repetition. Concepts should be serially revisited, and teammates held accountable for not carrying forward past lessons.

      Anecdotally, two months is a ballpark amount of time you should allow for a reasonably complex task, like a particular zone defense, or even a complex set play. This comes primarily from my observation that of all the concepts introduced after Regionals, at most one in ten was ever implemented at Nationals.
  • Full Focus, Full Effort
    ArticleBlock Husak

    • When planning a practice, it is important to think about the personnel and goals of a practice. For instance, a fall practice for a college team is going to have very different objectives than a fall practice for an elite open team. The college team might be trying to have a lot of fun to "set the hook" with new players and give a lot of reps to players still learning the game, while an elite team is tuning up for the peak of their season and should be focusing on consistent execution of skills. Recognizing the goals of a practice is critical in its design. This brief article will focus more on elite practices.

      Early in my ultimate career I was exposed to high level college and pro football practices. One of the things that I was most surprised by was that the players were only on the field for two hours. I was used to ultimate practices which went no less than three hours, and I figured top athletes were doing the same thing. However, in those two hours of a football practice there was more attention to detail, the movements were more scripted and the overall focus was very different than my experience with ultimate practices. In short, football players seemed to be getting more out of a two hour practice than we got out of three.

      This got me thinking more about designing practices for top-level teams. Rather than doing a drill for a mind-numbing number of repetitions at a continuous energy level that prevented execution at 100% speed, what if we did two drills, but only did 6 reps of each drill, and did each rep at 100% speed with some rest in between? The effects seemed to be very positive. The team was much more focused, and it seemed that there were no wasted reps. Further, the movements and timing of drills simulated actual play more closely than the old version.

      Some of the things that were required in order to get this focus and buy-in to this "new" style was a more thorough planning of the practice, development of new, stimulating drills, and finally talking to the team at the start and letting them know which drills would be done, when we would rest, and a general flow of the practice. When players saw that there was a clear plan, with a focus on particular skills, they were responsive to this change and the overall level of intensity at practice improved.

      Finally, we got away from a mindset that a practice that lasted less than three hours didn’t fully accomplish something. If the team could meet the objectives in two-and-a-half hours, then we didn’t need to practice longer. Incidentally, playing with full focus and full effort typically left players feeling equally exhausted after a practice that wasn’t as long as before. Overall, we were able to accomplish as much or more, in a shorter time, and at a level of play and focus that stimulated what was required on the field during competition.
  • Practice Planning Musts
    ArticleBlock Kinley

    • 1. Write it down.
      This helps you remember your plan, creates a document that you can return to, and can be emailed to the team beforehand if you feel it would help.

      2. Specify time allotments for each segment of practice.
      This creates a schedule, and is easier on you (you know when to start/stop a drill) and your team (they know there's a plan to stick to).

      3. Don't perform a drill for more than 15 minutes.
      Attention spans are short. Realizing this, and not fighting it, is important. However, running a drill for 10 minutes, then adding a new element/twist, can allow for longer drilling on a certain skill while keeping interest level high. Say, drilling a skill first without defenders, then adding a mark, then adding full defense, can give three iterations of a drill over three 10-minute periods while still changing it enough to maintain interest.

      4. Allow for feedback... after practice.
      Everyone's a critic. When someone tells you how a drill should be run, or why it sucks, remember that they want the same thing as you -- to have the best practice possible -- and let them know that their criticism is valuable, but best heard after practice is over, when you can spend time discussing how to improve or add drills. Giving a critic the responsibility of planning a drill often opens their eyes to how difficult running a practice is, and is a valuable tool to getting them on board.

      In addition, seek feedback from the team. Ask players what they think of practice, what they want to work on individually and what they think the team should work on. An "open mic" team meeting can often be a great means of soliciting ideas for drills, for skills to focus on, and for team buy-in. When a player sees the drill s/he recommended use at a practice, they are that much more invested in the drill's success and will show it in their own effort.

      5. Let practice plans come from strategy meetings.
      Assessing the goals, strengths, and weaknesses of your team as a whole can often make practice planning seem easy and obvious, whereas before it seems daunting and complex. Early season? Use practice time to assess your strengths and weaknesses with ample scrimmage time. Mid season? Use early tourney performance to guide what you need to work on and reinforce. Late in the season? Write down everyhting you'd like to work on, then look at how many practices you have left, and create a plan for what you most need to work on and focus on that.

      6. Feeling overwhelmed?
      Ask for help. In many ultimate communities there are some really smart people out there that would be both flattered and excited to help you out. Buy 'em a beer and chat about what you'd like to do, and what advice they have for you.

      7. You'll be fine.
      Planning a practice, then running it, are difficult, and can be scary. When I helped plan and run drills for the first time as a second-year player / first-year captain on Sockeye, I was nervous and felt out of my league. But, after time, and after some successes and some failures, I realized what I could offer and what I should and could rely on others to offer, and established a place for myself as a practice leader. Being nervous means you care; don't let it prevent you from running great practices.
  • Take Control of Your Practice
    ArticleBlock KorberIconBlock diagram

    • Practice is a vital part of mastering any skill, and team sports are no exception. A quality practice structure can transform a meaningless few hours running around into a valuable and productive growth opportunity for your team. While the content covered in a given practice clearly varies heavily with the level, division, weather, time of year, etc, some of the basics of running a quality practice are nearly always applicable. Here are a few of my favorites.

      Know your audience – The frequency, duration, content and tone of your practice should be specifically catered to your audience. The team’s physical condition, level of experience, or even individual maturity can impact what you can cover and for how long. Your group of seasoned club veterans will probably have some patience for 15 minutes talking about the subtleties of a zone defense; your brand new group of high school rookies probably needs a shorter, more simple presentation.

      Have a purpose for everything you do – Demand of your players (and yourself) that anything worth spending time on should be for a good reason. Structure your practice with activities with particular purposes…generally the more specific the better. Share the goal with the team and make it a clear objective. Clearly measurable actions are often the easiest for everyone to keep track of. For example, this year my team was struggling with moving the disc horizontally, so we would scrimmage and limit the offense to 4 throws without crossing the vertical midline of the field. Failure to do so resulted in a turnover. Players on the sideline counted the throws out loud to make everyone aware. The specific, measurable objective quickly opened up our offense and got us comfortable moving the disc horizontally.

       Success: crossed midline within 4 passes   Turnover: failure to cross within 4 passes
      huddle31i korber01 huddle31i korber02
                                                                  [Diagrams by Kathryn Irons]

      Keep things moving – Regardless of the demographic of your team, learning is often best facilitated with variation. Keep your drills short, 10 to 15 minutes maximum. The result of the drill is not as important as the experience. Sometimes letting the team struggle with a new concept and work it out is for the best. Succeed or fail, after 15 minutes most drills get stale and it is time to move on. Take water breaks as a team between segments of your practice, and encourage players to push through the current segment without stepping aside for rest. It is much easier to demand a high level of focus for short spurts than to ask your players to stay with you for hours in a row and self-regulate their attention.

      Mind your distance – Teaching and learning is a personal exchange between teacher and student. When it is time to teach, explain, or diagram a concept, bring the team in close and talk so everyone can hear you. When an individual player requires feedback (not to be confused with encouragement), have a conversation instead of yelling across the field. When it is time to practice what they have learned, let them play. Keep your distance and let them experience what they need to. When it is time to teach again, reel them in for a water break and go back to the chalkboard.

      Keep up the intensity – While walkthroughs and careful demonstrations are an important part of teaching, learning and developing muscle memory almost always needs to be done at game speed. Ultimate is played best in short bursts of energy, much more like hockey shifts than a soccer game. Practice is the time to develop comfort with the repetition of explosive output while mastering the poise of executing fine motor skills at that level. If the intensity in your practice exceeds the intensity of any game you play during the season, you are preparing your team well. To allow your players to go through the motions and use excuses like "In a game I’d layout for that," is doing them a disservice.

  • Managing Intensity, Concepts, and Fun
    ArticleBlock Kurshan

    • Practice planning can be daunting and it’s often hard to know where to start. It can be difficult to strike the right balance between fun and intense, learning and playing, covering everything and getting enough reps on any individual thing, etc. In my experience, it helps to have a broad, season-long outline from which to flesh out individual practices. This means having a rough idea of all the different strategies you want to cover in a season (specific offenses, specific defenses, fundamentals, etc), and making sure there are enough practices to cover everything (and if there aren’t, then to scale back your expectations of how much to cover in the season!). Keep in mind that you need to save a few practices at the end of the season for consolidation rather than learning new things. I’ve found that it’s better to cover fewer things and have everyone really on the same page than to try to cram too many offenses or defenses in. I usually try to cover no more than 1-2 concepts per practice (for a 4 hour practice- for a shorter practice scale it back to no more than 1). It’s also useful to have enough extra practices allocated for things that come up during the season, for example something you realize you need to work on after a tournament.

      Once you have your broad outline set, and you’ve decided what you’re going to be covering in a particular practice, then it’s time to plan out the details of how the practice will be run. On Brute Squad we start every practice with a nice long warm up routine (it gets cold in Boston, and we don’t want any preventable injuries at practice!), followed by a warm-up drill that involves throwing with lots of touches, and enough moving around to build on the warm-up. We then go right into a quick game to 3. The goal of this game is to immediately get people’s intensity up and get them into the practice mentality. Jumping right into a game gets people’s minds off of whatever else is going on in their lives and helps them focus on Ultimate. It’s also good practice for coming out strong, since there’s no time to come back from an early deficit!

      After the game to 3, it’s time to start introducing whatever concept we’re working on that day, whether it’s a 3 person cup zone defense, or a horizontal stack man offense, or maybe even just a focus on cutting fundamentals. Having a large white board to use to explain concepts is often helpful, but after you diagram it out, you may want to walk through it on the field as well. In any case, keep the talking portion of the practice to a minimum- this is most often where you’ll lose people’s focus if you tend to go on and on about things. Keeping things simple is often better than giving an exhaustive treatise on every aspect of what you’re discussing!

      Depending on what you’re working on, it’s usually helpful to try to break things down into minimal components, and then drill the individual components. For example, if we’re working on man defense, we might start out by doing a drill that just works on proper footwork and staying on the open side of your player. Then after a while we might incorporate adjustments you make once the disc is in the air. Basically, the more you can break things down, the easier it will be for people to incorporate what you’re trying to teach. And if each drill builds on the previous one, slowly putting the pieces together, your players will get to solidify their muscle memory for one action while adding another one. With all this drilling, you can see how one concept can end up taking up a large portion of a practice!

      Finally, you can only spend so much time drilling- it’s important to take things back to realistic, game situations. We usually end practice with focused scrimmages, in which we try to incorporate what we’ve learned that day either by forcing the defense to throw a particular D, or by adding incentives to the scrimmage (for example, if we were working on deep defense, we might use a 2-point line to encourage deep throws). Ending on a scrimmage also ensures that people get a chance to do what they’re really there to do- play and have fun!
  • Getting More Out of the Practice Warm-Up
    ArticleBlock McCarthyP

    • Nearly every team I've played on had what I would call the "traditional" ultimate warm up. You jog/plyo/stretch in some combination, and then you do some set of drills which can be roughly summarized as: the down field under "cutting" drill (Go To, etc), the dump/swing/continue "handler" drill and the huck drill. There are lots of different flavors of them, with or without marks, where you start, etc, but at their core, these drills focus on 2 or 3 players while everyone else is watching. While these drills are easy to set up and run, they are incredibly inefficient from a "maximize your time" perspective. Even worse, you're constantly battling team wide focus issues in these drills with artificial goals because you really only need to be focused 20% of the time to do the drills perfectly (20 completions in a row then we're done!). Before you know it, 20-30 minutes have passed and you're not much closer to being ready to play. I don’t feel qualified to say what the best jog/plyo/stretch phase looks like, but I can confidently say that the drill aspect of warm up can be much improved if you focus on three main goals.

      1. Get your team Focused
      At the end of the warm up your team should be alert and attentive. The entire warm up should take 100% focus from every player to execute. If this is all you get out of your warm up, at least you have a team that's ready for the rest of practice. Warm up drills should involve 2-3 players at most.

      2. Realistic reps at the basic mechanics of ultimate
      Cut. Change directions. Catch. Set your feet after the catch. Go from catch to a throwing grip. Pivot and transition from one grip to the other. Make clean break mark moves and throws. Cut again. Get lots of touches for each player (in the range of 100) so that everyone is comfortable making the basic ultimate plays that the rest of your practice plan depends on.

      3. Get it done quickly
      The Drill phase of warm up should be completed in 10 minutes or less. By shaving 10 minutes off your warm up, you save 10 hours of practice time over the course of the college season.

      My favorite warm up is a drill we call "Dishie Warm Ups". They take 5 minutes to run, and each player gets roughly 100 catches & throws, 60 pivots & grip changes & 30 cuts. Each of these should build focus; if your team does one set lazily, or has lots of turnovers, don’t be afraid to stop the drill and restart it. You can easily add a mark to around dishies, or change the distance between the throwing partners to get more variation in your warm up.

      Partner up with a disc, set up 10 yards apart and go 70-90 yards up and back doing:
      • Regular Dishies: Complete running passes to each other up and down the field. Try to throw less than 2 steps after the catch (ideally within 1 step).
      • Inside Out Dishies: Repeat with a pump fake to the outside, then hitting your partner with an in stride inside out throw. Focus on a quick pivot & throw.
      • Around Dishies: Partner goes up the line, then cuts for an around throw off of the pump fake. The timing is different on this one than it is for inside out dishies. Take the imaginary downfield look, then inside, then beat your imaginary mark with a quick move to the around throw.
  • Planning Youth Practices
    ArticleBlock OMalley

    • Elementary Ultimate (Ages 8-11) Beginners
      Fun, fun fun.

      When it comes down to it, these guys just aren’t quite developed enough to hold attention on one thing for anything longer than 15 minutes. So first things first, you really have to chunk your practice out. Secondly, these kids are just learning how to use their bodies in an athletic way and ultimately a lot of what you do will be teaching them overall coordination and control of their bodies. Lastly, you are probably introducing this game to the kids for the first time in the life, teach them to love the game make every minute exciting and fun! Get them started with an activity that doesn’t even involve a disc or involves it but not in a conventional way. (Tag, Capture the Frisbee, Relay races with the disc as a baton).

      Now that they are warmed up and hopefully a little bit tired, this would be the time to teach them in their first chunk, whether it’s throwing, catching or the basics on cutting you have about 15 to 20 minutes. The basic outline of practice should alternate between a skill focused drill and a game that works on that skill. It’s also important to remember when planning a practice for a group of kids this age is to include an activity or game that really emphasizes teamwork, sportsmanship, and spirit. Along with learning the game these guys are still learning how to work with others and how to do it respectfully in a competitive environment.

      Favorite drills/games for kids this age
      Potential Practice Plan 1.5 hours
      • Dog: two players run deep for a pass trying to catch it.
      • Frisbee tag: players who are "it" work together to pass the disc around and tag others with the disc or by throwing a soft pass at another player for them to become it as well. Played in an end zone.
      • Ladder drill races: team members must run ahead of the player with the disc and receive a pass to gain yards and make their way down the field. Players must throw and receive from the same player, teams of 4 or 5.
      • 0-10/15min: Warm up game
      • 15min-30: Partner throwing/catching
      • 30-45: Ladder relay drill
      • Break
      • 55min-1hr 10: Basic come to drill
      • 1:15-1:30: Dog Drill

      Middle School (Grade 11-14) Intermediate
      This age can often be a tough group to plan a practice for. For developing programs you may end up with a mix of kids some of which have never touched a disc before and some of which have been playing for 3 years. Many of these practices can be run with the same mentality as the Elementary level but with more in depth and intermediate level skill work. For programs that are developed with multiple teams you now have the option to really break the practice into groups based on skill. It is still really important at this age to be running drills that focus a lot on teamwork and sportsmanship especially as the kids start to get more competitive and obtain egos.

      On to planning, as a teacher I take every moment as a teaching opportunity even if the kids don’t know it. Start off with a proper warm up, jog, stretch, some beginning plyos. Teach them good habits for when they are old because at the rate they are going they may not be playing past 25. From there it is great to start with throwing because all players at this age especially need it and it’s a great time to get your one on one in with the kids. Move on to your first drill of the day, a nice warm up with some sort of game aspect to it or challenge, even though they are older attention spans are still low. For my older kids, 8th grade, I like to have two drills in a row come next focusing on the theme of that days practice, the first breaking down the skill and the second being an application of that skill in a real time situation. I always like to end practice with a full scrimmage, they deserve it and really these kids just need to play, play, play, have fun and learn to play as a team.

      Themes for practice at this level
      Practice Outline 2 hours
      • Fundamentals!: Footwork, how to cut, finding open space, proper throwing form
      • Timing cuts off others, Offensive cutting patters, Vert or Ho stack
      • Defense body positioning
      • Marking and the Force
      • 0-20minutes Warm up
      • 20-30minutes Throwing
      • 30-40/45minutes Warm up drill/game
      • 45minutes -1hr first drill, skill focus
      • Break
      • 1:05-1:20 2nd drill - application, more game like situation than first
      • 1:30-2hr Scrimmage, Game to 5

  • Parts of a Whole
    ArticleBlock Rubenfeld

    • Everything that happens at practice should be a building block and not an isolated event. You need to design practices behind a theme that's overtly stated to the whole team and repeated often throughout the day. Never let the participants lose track of the day's goal or remain unclear about the lesson at hand. Emphasizing concrete points of focus over the course of practice as well as the course of the season gives your players a measure of their progress, in addition to game-time tools. Here are five points to consider when drawing up and running practice:

      1) When you introduce a concept, tie it to your overarching offensive or defensive theme. Be clear about the exact actions to be performed, and under what conditions. Try to maintain consistency and keep clear delineation between 'system' -- your team's rules-- and exceptions to them.

      2) Avoid switching gears with no transitions. Don't switch suddenly from one practice point to another; if your two lessons don't relate somehow, you can probably save one for the next practice.

      3) Punish for lapses in the lesson of the day, not for every fault. A lot of teams run sprints or have other repercussions for turnovers, poor choices or other screw-ups. If your team employs such a system, be judicious about assigning them when you're stressing the lesson of the day. Sprints for drops when you're focusing on the cutting system or on breaking the mark will distract and waste minutes. Instead, how about sprints for the wrong cutting and clearing, or for getting broken?

      4) Scrimmage with intent. Don't just release the hounds after the teaching drill to go play ultimate. Mix up scrimmage rules in ways that keep the team focused on the lesson of the day: 7v0, half-field possessions, turnover limits with repulls, always starting the disc trapped on a sideline are all tweaks you can work in that will keep players trying to make each other better, and not just win an insignificant scrimmage. SIDE NOTE: Sprints are boring. Can you think of ways to ‘condition with intent’ in the same way?

      5) Review at end of practice. Challenge the players to mentally go over the lessons of the day. Again, when reviewing, place the lessons of the day into the larger strategic concept your team is trying to adopt.
  • Three Easy Targets
    ArticleBlock Slade

    • It’s the end of the day, and it feels like nothing has been accomplished. Teammates barely listened to instruction, drills were sloppy and unfocused, everything took twice as long as it should have, and you walk away with a sick taste in your mouth, directing your anger and frustration towards the most vocal trouble-makers. That’s right, you’ve just experienced another bad practice.

      We’ve all had this feeling before, and while you’ll probably have it again, there are ways we can reduce the severity of the bad practice. I think that there are three main enemies which can subvert your practice time and cause your players to lose focus, and they are all (partially) under your control. These three problem areas are poorly chosen drills, lax leadership, and too much wasted time between activities.

      First things first. If you are a college or youth team, odds are good that there are not enough Frisbees in the air at practice. Many drills are ill-suited for your needs, and they all revolve around the same theme: two (or more) lines, one frisbee, and lots of players watching a single actor while waiting for their turn. This is exacerbated 1) for clubs that are large or almost big enough to split into two teams, and 2) for clubs that share practices with their B team due to time/space considerations.

      Actively campaign to maximize the "touches" each player gets in a single practice, especially early in the season. Split "line drills" in half or in thirds to increase productivity. If the drill requires a lot of space, combine it with one or two compact throwing/running/catching drills, and rotate players every 15 minutes. If you have 25+ players and limited space, consider building four or five 3 v 3 fields (30x20 w/ 5 yard endzones) perpendicular to your field instead of a single scrimmage. Invent drills that let you move in ‘waves’ across the field, then sprint back to the beginning, so that discs are always in the air. Split your team into thirds and have 2/3 scrimmage each other or play endzone games while the other third runs a drill, and rotate on the clock. Always be pushing to get more discs and people moving, and it will translate into confidence when it matters.

      Regarding lax leadership: this should go without saying, but if you wait until everybody shows up to start practice, you are doing your team a terrible disservice. As a player, you should ask your friends to come 15 minutes early to each practice to "help you with your throws," and, as a captain, start running warm-ups in the first minute of your scheduled practice time. If your leaders are late, your team will be late. Always. Elect punctual captains. Elected captains: create a culture of earliness and refuse to start practice late.

      Finally, if you want to reduce dead time in between drills, you need to always tell your players the next thing that they will be doing. You can minimize that awkward dead period in between drills by planning ahead and by giving a defined break time (e.g. "90 seconds to get water, then we are doing a 3-man breakmark drill"). Captain-coaches, this means that you have to duck out of the present task five minutes early to set up the next drill. If you are lucky enough to have a coach, encourage him or her to take care of it.

      If you can get more discs in the air, make use of your full practice time, and always tell people where and when they are headed next (and have it ready for them), you will be amazed at how much more productive your practices are. In my experience, players are generally motivated to work hard, and will exhibit good practice attitudes if you keep them busy and keep them moving.
  • Planning Ahead
    ArticleBlock Thompson

    • Great practices don't just happen. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to plan practices that run smoothly and effortlessly, as well as accomplishing the main goal of making the team better.

      Plan your practices in advance - not just the drills for one practice, but figure out what concepts you want and need to cover over the course of the season. Then break down the concepts and spread them over the available practices. It's good to pair a conceptual topic, like force middle, with a related skill like deep defense, to break up the monotony of discussing a single topic for an entire practice. When planning practices, make sure to note how much time you want to spend on each drill or scrimmage, then stick to that time schedule during practice.

      When teaching a new concept to your team, it's important not to overload players with information. Limit the voices in the huddle to coaches or the person presenting the concept or drill, and make sure they stick to emphasizing the key takeaways from the drill. While other players might have advanced insight, it's more effective to have them talk to the coach separately, or talk to players individually instead of to the entire group. Give the team two or three points to think about when doing drills - any more, and it becomes too much to focus on.

      A very effective teaching technique for drilling a concept or skill is to go through several iterations of a similar drill, with increasing game realism. Start with offense-only, or a 1v1 matchup, then move to adding more cutters, more defenders, more active marks on the throwers, etc., until the drill resembles an in-game situation. This builds muscle memory and helps people realize how their individual motions fit into the offense or defense as a whole. You can then move on to a scrimmage with a focus that makes the team implement what they just learned.

      It's important to keep the entire team engaged during the whole practice - veterans, rookies, and injured players. Limit downtime between drills, don't let people complain about drills, invent scoring systems for drills, and give incentives. For instance, in a drill that works on the defense forcing out in 1v1 downfield defense, give the offense 1 point for catching a deep goal, 2 points for catching an in cut, and 0 points for a turnover.

      Remember when planning practices: Do it in advance. Combine concepts and skills for a themed practice. Limit the talking. Give a couple points to focus on. Drill with increasing realism. Scrimmage with a focus. Keep the team engaged.

      Practice is where the biggest gains are made, and smooth, effective practices are focused and planned in advance.
  • Minutes Are Precious
    ArticleBlock WigginsB

    • Minutes at practice are precious. Here are my 5 relatively simple ways to maximize the amount of growth you can foster from each of your practices. At the end, I've included an example set of 3 practices to try and illustrate these points.

      1) Use your warm-up time effectively
      Warm-ups take a large percentage of total practice time. To focus that effort, I like to include warm-up drills or games that give a good mental introduction to the purpose of later practice drills. I'll try to use plyometrics or other movements that foreshadow the movements we'll be trying to teach later. I like to start with a warm-up game for many practices as well, and these games can usually be tailored to work with the later specifics.

      We all learn from our mistakes, and we are very good at learning from experience. Warm-up time doesn't have to be focused or consciously driven for the players. As a coach, this is where I am putting drills that can give benefit without being discussed overtly or even introduced at all. You can't expect players to come straight from class or work or their families and act professionally in the first minute. Even pros need time to get in the right frame. But we can tailor those introductions to help the warm-up put them in a receptive and ready state.

      2) Cover topics in multiple practices
      When you think about the school classes you have taken: did you spend 5 hours in a row learning math every week, or did you go to class for 1 hour each day? Spreading learning out gives players a much better chance to internalize new strategies or fundamentals. We can do this by running similar drills or situations in multiple practice plans.

      For example, let's say we have 3 drills that we want to run for ~30 minutes of total time each. Those drills are similar, with "A" being a simplified fundamental drill and "C" being the very advanced application drill. We could run those drills all on Monday and spend a complete 90 minutes on that topic. This would be easy to plan. Players would spend a long time on similar drills, so we might lose some effective time due to boredom. Also, players would only have one night after the practice to be mulling those topics over when drills or done. Which means just one post-practice meal to discuss and no practices that players can come in already thinking about the topic.

      Alternatively, we can maximize those benefits by running these drills in series throughout the week. This gives players lots of time to think and prepare. You'll catch your team by surprise less, which is a good thing with complicated topics. I've tried to show an example of this in the practice plans below.

      3) Focus on fewer topics
      In other words, don't try to cover everything. Given limited practice time, work on those topics that are most important. If something is not going to give a real return to your team, then don't practice it. Ideally, the perfect team has probably practiced everything at least once, but that just isn't realistic for a college or high-school team. If you can only practice twice per week, then trying to run two different offenses is not going to help. Do one well. If you are not going to use a 1-3-3 zone, don't learn it. Do you really need to spend time teaching all of your players how to call plays on turnover situations? No! Use those reps to teach your handlers how to make these calls, and use the extra rep time to learn it well.

      Maybe most prevalent, in my opinion, is trying to teach solid continuation (aka 'flow') cutting. This is very difficult and time-consuming to teach. It requires teaching vision and anticipation, which are long-term learning goals. I feel like many youth teams spend massive amounts of time learning how to play flow offense against solid man-to-man schemes...and then spend their entire season playing against poaching person-D or zone. Those teams would have been better served spending more practice time on zone and learning it well.

      As coaches, we don't know what our teams will see...but we do need to give them enough tools to have success. But when you know what to expect then you should tailor your game to beat it. If you are worried about depriving your players of the balanced Ultimate education for future teams, know this: players that learn a few skills extremely well have a much easier time learning other skills at a high level. Players that learn many skills poorly will struggle when they have to learn any particular skill at a higher level. You may be serving your young players better by helping them master a single skill rather than having a mediocre grasp on ten skills.

      (In the example below, I am writing for a team that has decided that downfield defense is their top priority, and they believe that this is going to help them even if they spend less time on other defensive priorities like zone, poaching, etc.)

      4) Eliminate pulls
      The time between pulls can be a huge waste of practice time. When you add up everything that goes into walking to the line, discussing the play, signaling, pulling, walking to the adds up fast. You can be much more efficient by running more game situation from a stopped-disc. Or by breaking your team into 3 squads, and having two teams pulling to a single O-team so that the D can discuss and be ready to pull very quickly.

      Playing uptempo at practice will ready your team for observed games with time limits, and it saves a ton of time. With that extra time, you can talk as a team about details or run extra reps. You have to play real Ultimate that for scrimmages that aren't focused on a single topic or that are long enough to simulate a game.

      5) Be prepared
      If you've read this far, then you really care about creating efficient practices. So I'm probably preaching to the choir here. Every minute that you aren't prepared at practice is 20-25 minutes from your teams' individual minutes that could have gone into becoming a better player or a better team. Write your notes ahead of time. Have a plan. If nothing else, your players will feel more respected and more valued, and they will work harder because of it.

      Most importantly; once you have a good plan, you can deviate from that plan intelligently. If you've planned for 20 minutes of a particular drill, then you can change at minute 19 for extra time if you think you are on the verge of a team breakthrough. Alternatively, you can back off the pace and re-simplify drills if the concepts aren't knitting together like you'd hoped. Or switch topics more rapidly if they are coming easily to your team. Those kinds of deviations are where coaches and team leaders help make huge advances...and you can't do them when you are trying to figure out the plan during the practice.

      With those things said, here is my example for a set of three 2.5-hour practices, with the focus being improving individual downfield defense:

      • 0:00 Warm-up jogging, normal plyos
      • 0:15 Partner plyos: for the last 5-6 movements, one partner does the plyo for 5-15 yards, then turns and jogs 75% back to the line. Partner traces them back, trying to anticipate the turn.
      • 0:20 Water
      • 0:23 General Offensive Drill 1 (something to get touches and work on non-D stuff)
      • 0:33 Huddle talk: Downfield defense
        • We can't stop everything against good players, but we can make cutters less effective by taking away their best option and forcing them to do something else
        • We'll anticipate cuts by reading the field and reading our player's body language. In these practices, we'll be working mostly on reading body language to be ready for the race to the disc when it starts
        • Work on the footwork now, even if it makes you slower in the short-run. Eventually, this will pay off and we will be able to put more pressure on more cuts against better players.
      • 0:38 Defensive Drill A: Intro 1v1 cutting D
        • 1 player from a downfield spot guarding 1 cutter. No disc. Work on lining up correctly, and on anticipating and moving well in the first 4 steps. Drill is over after 4-5 steps.
      • 0:48 Defensive Drill B: Beginning 1v1 cutting D
        • Same drill, now cutting fully. Still no disc for first few reps each, then with throw on the sideline and a sideline force. Stop drill whenever fundamentals from Drill A are not being met. Working up to staying with players and maintaining position, not giving up hips until cutter has determined either in or deep cut. Encourage good footwork, not just whether they get the block or not.
      • 1:00 water break
      • 1:05 Defensive Drill C: 1v1 from Continuation
        • Similar drill, now 2v2. If the first cutter can't get the disc, they can clear and let the second cutter attack. Focusing on maintaining position, lining up correctly on a cutter in motion to prevent either in or deep cuts, depending on matchup/location.
      • 1:18 Scrimmage w/ Focus #1
        • 2 teams, each point starting from the corner cone (no pulling). Each team gets 5 possessions in a row.
        • Defense working on winning the first 4 steps of individual matchups. On turnovers, no fast break (giving extra chances to work on lining up, anticipating and stopping cutters)
      • 1:50 water break
      • 1:52 Discussion with team: What things from drills worked, and what didn't?
      • 1:57 Defensive Drill D: 1v1 Breakside cutting
        • Similar drill form to A, B, C, but from the middle of the field
        • Focus on tracing parallel to cutter, so as to eliminate crossing cuts back to the live side and not overcommiting on in-moves
      • 2:10 Scrimmage w/ Focus #2 (Skip this if you are running long, or extend this if you have extra time)
        • Same format as #1
        • Goals are 1 point each, but now so are any full cuts that are stopped and the thrower is forced to dump (play continues)
      • 2:20 Cooldown, stretch, recap of major points in initial discussion

      • 0:00 Warm-up plyos
        • Instead of jogging to get loose, players are in pairs with a cone on the ground. At 50-60%, one player is Offense and should jog away from the cone and back about 8 times. The defender should try to stay with the jogging player, anticipating the turns back to the cone. Switch, twice each.
      • 0:20 Water
      • 0:23 General Offensive Drill 2 (something to get touches and work on non-D stuff)
      • 0:33 Huddle talk: Downfield defense
        • Repeat major points from yesterday.
        • New point: Understanding which race the offense wants to run is a fundamental. Club defenders get better with age, not worse, because they understand offensive players more and more thoroughly.
      • 0:37 Defensive Drill A in small groups
      • 0:42 Defensive Drill B in one group, don't add a disc until the fundamentals start to look good.
      • 0:52 water break
      • 0:55 Defensive Drill E
        • Begin with a vertically stacked pair from the middle of the field. Disc in the middle.
        • For the first few each, Offense must cut on the live side of the field
        • After that, Offense has the choice of cutting to the break side (basically melding Drills C and D together here.
      • 1:10 water break (this is a high-intensity drill, so we are breaking more often)
      • 1:15 Defensive Drill F Options
        • Anti-Horizontal Option: Start the offensive pair side by side
        • Anti-Vertical Option: Add a third vertically stacked cutter.
        • My suggestion: Do not start by talking about 'what should happen'. This removes their opportunity to figure it on their own, and hamstrings the offensive cutters into a rigid form. Give players a full opportunity to work this out on their own, to be beat repeatedly and then make adjustments. Even young players will figure this out, or at least be forced to grapple with it. Give everyone 2-3 reps on D before you talk about what we want. Then, make adjustments and continue with at least 3-4 more reps each.
      • 1:45 Water break
      • 1:50 Run D drill F again.
        • This is where the coaches earns the big bucks; either increase the difficulty with more passes, or more offensive players, or a handler than can receive a dump. Or, if this is all coming fast, back off a little by doing the other sideline (the one you didn't do yesterday) or doing horizontal on the sideline to give a new look but not increase the abstract difficulty. Do what is right for your team's next step, not necessarily what you need to get to point B before Saturday.
      • 2:05 Conditioning: 1v1 Deep Drill
      • 2:15 Stretch, recap major points, done

      • 0:00 Warm-ups: Do same partner-cone-jog warmups, then plyos. Finish with defensive plyos like on Tuesday.
      • 0:20 Water break
      • 0:25 Drills B and C in small groups, 3-4 reps each
      • 0:35 Huddle talk
        • Today's focus: Applying what we are working on to game situations. These skills are most useful in small bursts throughout a point, but when they are necessary they are crucial. Throughout today's games, our goals are:
          • Excellent- use these skills to stop flow cuts effectively and prevent throws (or block them)
          • Great- sometimes use these skills instead of just trying to run faster than our opponents. Get a few stops/blocks using these skills.
          • Good- Notice the opportunities (ourselves, not the coach) for where we could have used these skills. Identify those times and positions, and be ready to get better at using them.
      • 0:42 Drill F (in whatever variation your team plays offense most regularly)
      • 0:52 Game 1
        • If you have 21 players, split into three teams. Each team gets 5 possessions in a row on O, against alternating D.
        • If you have less than 21, divide into two teams (randomly). Each teams gets 5 possessions in a row, 1 possession each max (after two turns, reset and play the next point).
        • No pulls. Start each possession from the brick. No fast breaks, to work on lining up off of a turn. Special rule: One extra point if the first throw for the offense goes backwards to the dump. Dump defenders are not allowed to poach on the first throw. Continue the play as normal, but add that as a point in the score.
      • 1:22 Water break
      • 1:27 Game 2
        • Same format as the first game. Special rule: After the game, every player has 3 conditioning sprints. If you successfully stop/defend/block a downfield cut, you get a -1 sprint. [Ideally, a coach or assistant coach is marking this from the sideline and calling out player names when they get one to give immediate positive feedback.].
      • 2:10 Water break
      • 2:15 Conditioning: Skyball
      • 2:22 Stretch, recap major points of what we've accomplished this week, done

  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective Throwers: How to Plan a Throwing Practice
    ArticleBlock Witmer

    • Practice planning isn't just for the team captain. Every player should take it upon themselves to have throwing practice in addition to team practice. Make the most of your practice hours by incorporating these habits into your throwing regimen.

      1. Choose the right throwing partner(s)
      Before you can even practice, you need a throwing partner!

      Find a good throwing partner or several partners. If you're serious about becoming an all-star handler, you will probably need more than one partner to get in the amount of hours required. Your ideal partner should also be on a mission to become a better thrower. Your partner may or may not be your best friend on the team. You are not going out to toss around and socialize. You are going out to practice. You need a partner that shares this mindset.

      The rookies on your team may be your best bet for a consistent, enthusiastic throwing partner. If you are an upperclassman, they will be flattered by your attention and less likely to bail on your scheduled throwing times. Furthermore someone who is just learning to throw will be more likely to have the insatiable appetite for throwing hours that you need. They will make sure that you keep your throwing appointments even when it's rainy or you just don't feel like it.

      2. Warm up
      If you want a quality session, it will be physically demanding. Killer low release throws require a killer range of motion in your hips. Big hucks require big time rotational forces at a high rate of speed. This is practice, so treat it like one and prepare your body accordingly.

      basic warm up sequence:

      3. Choose a Focus Throw
      While you will hopefully be improving all of your throws, I have found in extremely helpful to have one particular throw that I am intent on improving. The mind has limited resources and a limited ability to focus. Having one focus throw will enable you to use those limited resources more effectively. Your focus throw should be specific.

      Not, "forehand" but "flat forehand." Or "low release inside out forehand."

      4. Variation
      One of the most important concept of practice is variability or practice. The more variety the more efficient the learning process will be. Instead of throwing 20 of the same exact throw in a row, you will learn better if each throw is different from the one before it. This is counter-intuitive, I know. But it is one of the most robust finding of motor skills research.

      So how can you have a focus throw and still have variability in practice? I recommend breaking up your focus throw trials with other throws in between. You could throw three low release backhands, two forehands, three low release backhands, two high release backhand, three low release backhands, two hammers. Using this method, you will still have more trials of your focus throw while still having variability and minimizing the effect of contextual interference.

      5. Visualization
      Have a crystal clear picture in your mind of what you want your focus throw to look like. Many of my signature throws are based on the throws of others. It can help to have a model in mind. Pick your favorite handler. Do you like their low release backhand? See if you can replicate it. The throw will, of course, end up looking slightly different because everyone's body is different. Still, having the idea in your mind of what you want your throw to look like will help.

      When you're throwing visualize the trajectory of your throw. Just as you're being specific with your focus throw, be specific in visualizing the trajectory you want. How much angle? What velocity? Where are you hitting your target? Visualize the trajectory you want before each and every one of your focus throw trials. With practice this will become second nature and not take any extra time. Don't spend too much time thinking, the visualization is a millisecond snapshot or film clip of the throw.

      6. Have a pattern to your practice session.

      This is what mine looks like:
      • warm up
      • mess around for about 5 minutes with whatever throws you feel like. (This is part of your warm up.)
      • Get to work. Focus on the details. This is the time to work on any biomechanics you are trying to change. This is the most mentally challenging part, so we do it early while our focus is best.
      • Conditioning. Here is where you want to get stronger in the motions that are specific to throwing or just gain some endurance. Throw harder, faster fakes. Throw longer throws. Do some give-n-go drills with your partner.
      • Cool down. Decompress. This will often happen naturally when you reach the point of mental fatigue. This is when you’re allowed to throw your silly throws. Socialize a bit with your throwing partner and leave the field happy so that you want to come back for more!

      7. Know when to stop
      As I've said, the focus of the brain is a limited resource. Engaging in deliberate, focused throwing practice is work. Eventually, your ability to focus will wear out. Don't fight it, accept it. If you start feeling frustrated, you'll become tense and your movement patterns will be affected. Frustration also prevents objective evaluation and adjustment of each trial. If you cannot recenter yourself, it is best to stop and try another day. As you gain experience with throwing practice you will naturally gain a better feel for when you are mentally done.

      How long this takes is the length of your throwing sessions will also be influenced by your level of conditioning. If you aren't used to lunges, your legs will wear out before your brain. Your shoulder can also wear out quickly if you do too much hucking too fast. For learning motor skills, the more you do the better. However, you still need to respect your physical limitations. Start with shorter sessions and build up to longer ones to allow your body to adapt.

      Final Thought
      Putting a large chunk of time into throwing practice early in your career will have a huge impact on how it unfolds. Fitness can come and go but motor skills stay with you for life.


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