Planning a Practice

You’ve got your team…you’ve got your schedule…now it’s time to plan your practice.  Where do you start?  There are so many things to think about and so many drills to choose from – how does a coach know what to do? Practice planning can be one of the single biggest factors in having a successful season.  The way a team practices, and the preparation put into each session go a long way to developing the team – good or bad!  The age-old saying of “you play like you practice” is (most times) spot-on.

I believe one of the most important things a coach can do is properly plan each practice prior to the session and share the plan with the other coaches/helpers on the ice with him/her.  Think of a practice plan as a one-night goal setting map.  If you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish, how will you ever know if you are successful?  A good tempo doesn’t necessarily indicate a “good” practice. A good practice is only achieved when players make progress on whatever skills or systems the coach deems it necessary to work on that evening.  Think of it this way – when players start a game, they all know what the goal is!  Everyone understands they want to put the puck into the opposing team’s net, and whichever team does it the most will be declared the winner. Scoring the goal is the goal. It’s easy to tell at the end of a game whether or not you were successful – we keep track of these goals on the scoreboard!  When you run a practice, the target becomes much more subjective, but without a target, you’ll never know if you’re on track.

So how should you approach planning your practices? I believe there are some core concepts one must take into account each time in order to effectively plan practice.

1) Know your practice & game schedule: Before you can plan your practice, you’ve got to know some basic things about your schedule.  Did you just get off a 5-game tournament weekend?  Do you have a game tomorrow? Is this your first practice of the week after a day off?  These are a few of the questions you need to ask yourself before you even think about planning your practice.  As coaches, we’ve got to realize what our players are capable of and what their overall energy level should be entering the session.  If you just played 5 games over the weekend and you’re practicing on a Monday, you should probably expect your players to be a bit more tired than if they were coming off an off-day.

When my players are tired/banged up, I look to spend more time on full-ice flow and system-related concepts rather than short intense “burst” drills.  I also try to keep the drills pretty simple – if you try to get overly complicated with a tired team, their chances of messing the drill up become greater…which can lead to frustration from players and coaches alike.  The full-ice flow drills let them make some passes and get the legs moving without being over-exerting.

2) Know what your team needs to improve: Now that you know your schedule and the types of drills you want to run, it’s time to analyze what things need to be corrected. Did your team really struggle on their defensive zone coverage?  Was the power play not clicking?  Were the breakout passes not tape-to-tape?  Take time to think about the areas you need improvement on, and analyze WHY the team struggled with them.

3) Recognize the skills involved (helping find the “WHY”): If you’ve decided your team needs work on a particular systematic scenario, you’ll need to break down the system and figure out what skills are necessary in order to properly execute.  For example, if a team is struggling with breaking out, a coach would need to recognize the number of skills involved with this seemingly simple scenario.  In order to successfully break out, players need to be proficient at the following: stopping, pivoting, passing (both giving & receiving), accelerating (quick starts), handling the puck, communicating, and reading the ice.

Spend time on developing the necessary skills.  Don Lucia, head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers D1 Men’s Team, had a great quote in one of the videos I posted earlier: “If you can’t do it technically, you can’t do it tactically.”  He’s absolutely correct.  If a right wing can’t stop with his left foot, he is going to have a hard time being in proper position to catch a breakout pass at the hash marks!

4) Pick the right drills:  Figuring out which drills to use can be one of the most challenging portions of planning practices.  If you  know what you’re trying to focus on, this process is greatly simplified, but will still require some serious thought. Before you can pick any drills (warmups included), a coach needs to be aware of the age & talent level they are working with.  Coaches need to have a realistic grasp of what their players are capable of – without it, there will be frustration.  While it’s good to use new drills, there is much benefit in running drills your players are familiar with.  Repetition is the mother of success – if the players don’t have to think about the pattern of the drill (ie – they’re familiar with it already), they can better focus on the skill at hand.

5) Use high-tempo warmup drills: The first two or three drills you run set the tempo for the entire practice. These should be simple drills your players are familiar with – little to know setup time is ideal.  Get their heads into it right away.  Last week I wrote a whole topic on the subject: How to approach warmups

6) Communicate the plan with your coaching staff:  I can’t stress this one enough.  Having the entire coaching staff on the ice knowing the plan will go a long way to ensure everyone is focusing on the same key points.  Without this, players may inadvertently receive mixed messages from different coaches.  If you can’t get the rest of the coaches an entire practice plan in advance, at least clue them in on the overall concept and key points for the session.

7) Evaluate the practice:  What worked? What didn’t?  How can you improve? Practice evaluation is arguably the single most important part of a coach’s practice plan. This portion will also help you plan your next practice by knowing whether or not the team successfully accomplished the goals.

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