Planning Challenging Practice Sessions.

In a recent conversation a young coach "Marc" expressed concern about training his team. It seems there exists a fairly wide disparity in the range of talent amongst team members and Marc was struggling to find activities that challenged all while not overwhelming some. He was searching for activites that all could participate in with a reasonable expectation of success. It was a struggle to watch the same couple of players constantly breakdown exercises challenging to the more advanced players and also to watch the more advanced players lose interest in activities "beneath them" that others found challenging.  He was looking for a magic activity challenging on a variety of levels while overwhleming  no one.

There's another way to look at this situation.

A team can only be as strong as its weakest player so it is in the best interests of the best player(s) to work with weaker players to help them improve their games. The challenge for better players need not exist on a technical or tactical level, but can exist on a leadership level.  Asking an individual to assume a leadership role can serve to move someone out of their own comfort zone providing an opportunity for success... or failure.

If not handled appropriately a situation with a wide disparity of talent can also see a degeneration of satisfaction spread throughout the team. There will be some that feel the talent gap should be closed by cutting weaker players and adding stronger players in their place.  Others will become disgruntled that certain players are ball hogs refusing to share the ball with (weaker) teammates. Relationships on the team and especially along the parent sidelines can become strained and quickly spiral downward.

I admired Marc for not giving up and fighting to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for all involved on his team. It was clear he himself was being overwhelmed by the situation he found himself in.  The good news is, he recognized the developing problems stemming from disparity in talent levels on the team and the seeds of discontent along the parent sidelines. The bad news is, Marc himself was struggling to find the right answers. And if truth be told, I'm not sure a great answer is always available in situations such as this, but I did have a couple of suggestions with the future in mind that I encouraged Marc to consider taking a look at.

Instead of separating the team in terms of advanced players and weaker players, separate them by placing a couple of the better players with weaker players in one group (A) and leaving the "middle" group (B) intact to work together.  Then have them run the same exercise.  I love watching the advanced players problem solve when working with weaker players. How long until they recognize the biggest challenge they have been presented with is one of psychology and leadership instead of one involving technique or tactics? 

The players in group "B" will almost always progress through the exercise more rapidly than the those in group "A" who will struggle on technical and tactical levels, but both groups will eventually get it. In group "B" the challenge is received on a technical and tactical level with a component of leadership involved. The physchological aspect is focused more on being disciplined in their thought process and execution of technical and tactical aspects of the exercise.

The weaker players in group "A" also have these challenges present albeit on slightly different levels. The advanced players have a stronger psychological component involved from the perspective of how they receive being placed in this group.  Will they view it as punishment? Will they feel they are too good to be in this group, that the weaker players are beneath them?  Will they rise to occasion and embrace the opportunity to be a mentor, a facilitator, a leader in their assigned group?  Sometimes an "advanced" player will become angry and pout resulting in poor mental performance that sees them actually become the ones to break down the exercise time after time.  It is discouraging when this happens, but it is also revealing.

What we hope to see is the advanced players recognize and embrace the different and all so important challenges they have been blessed with. Can they set good technical and tactical examples for their teammates?  Can they grab the reins of leadership and facilitate play within their group?  Do they encourage their teammates?  Do they inspire their teammates to raise the level of their play?

Marc raised a good and valid question - Should he address the advanced players in group "A" prior to beginning the exercise so they have an understanding of why they have been placed there and what the expectations for them are?  My reply was that would be like giving them the answers before the test.  Personally I think it much more practical and certainly more revealing to allow the players to identify the problem / challenge they face and to observe their thought process / problem solving skills on the fly. This is after all what they are tasked with in playing the game. It might be necessary to "debrief" someone who struggled to rise to the challenge, but allowing them to fail can lead them to change and change can lead them to improvement and success.

Challenges, whether naturally occurring or contrived are always revealing, but they are never an end point. How we respond to challenges encountered, what challenges reveal about us, define a new starting point. Sometimes we need to step back and take on the same challenge again... and again, until we successfully negotiate it.  Even then a challenge met and conquered merely leads to future failure and the opportunity to grow again through new challenges.

In conclusion, my advice to Marc was to design practice sessions with a variety of challenges on several different levels instead of attempting to come up with an exercise that challenged all players in the same manner. Different challenges for different players.

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