The right things at the right time: Random vs structured practice results

Malcolm Sutherland

Malcolm Sutherland is a coach, physical educator, sport pedagogist, and SME in sports development, sports safety and injury prevention. As an athlete and player safety expert Malcolm has developed prevention tools and a program to control serious injury in sport.

He is a Chartered Professional Coach holding designation with Coaches of Canada. In hockey specifically, Malcolm is now active as a sought after development coach working internationally and nationally. Malcolm has coached at every level from professional minor leagues, varsity as well as junior and AAA levels of minor hockey.

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Doing the right things at the right time is the only formula that creates predictable performances.

To play the complex game of ice hockey well, a significant investment of time in practice is required. As coaches, we must decide what should be the focus of practice. And, we must also decide on what method of practise will yield the greatest result.

By taking a page from motor development theory, the classification of our selections are either structured practice (ie. closed-ended drills) or unstructured random practice. While random practice in ice hockey suggests a small area game approach of long-chain cycles of rehearsal, short-cycle repeating reps that have limited outcomes are known as structured (i.e. traditional drills).

Which is best?

Training theory must guide our choice.

And so we apply the litmus of what is most effective and efficient, and what movements, actions, behaviours, and habits have the greatest specificity. Those activities that are matched to the demands, nature, and the characteristics of the sport are the best choice. But, do not forget to evaluate athlete readiness for what you are teaching and what they can learn. Always consider the age and stage of the player.

Avoid wasting valuable ice time with improper or antiquated practice methods. Poor practice choices lead to a lower than expected competencies in players often revealed in competition or later on at elite levels of play.

Perhaps the most frequent complaint offered by junior and pro coaches is that basic skill deficits exist in players and/or a noticeable ceiling exists in players’ abilities. This results in limitations when selecting and implementing team tactics and systems.

In hockey, basic athletic skills and fundamental sport-specific skills are developed best when repeatedly rehearsed by developing players. These skills gradually become consistent and reliable regardless of constraints.

These skills require an environment where they can be learned, rehearsed, and “stretched” with well-placed feedback and contextual support. Skills also require application and evaluation to become permanent (automated by the athlete).

Many hockey nations advocate that this environment of practice be well placed before competition or game exposure, not after. In fact, early, over-exposure to competition has been cited to destabilize skill learning and technical skill acquisition. Low skill competence is also repeatedly described as a reason for poor performance in games and a notable factor in player frustration, burn out, and attrition.

Little doubt exists that proficiency in the basics is required to play the game well and to cultivate the opportunity to perform at the highest level.

When can we expect players to show competence, if not skill proficiency/mastery?

For most players, U-14 is a reasonable age category to set your expectations as a coach or player. It is at this time when players have accumulated enough time in training and (hopefully) “play” to demonstrate effectiveness. Coaches will be able to observe automated simple and compound skillsets and the intelligent application of these movement patterns.

Players will able able to skate in a pattern while carrying the puck while scanning the ice for pressure and support, simultaneously recalling and using a drive entry taught in practice.

Why after approximately 8-10 years of playing is a player just starting to “play the game”?

This is mostly because mastery over an athlete’s basic physical abilities (and technical skill) follows a known progression and timeline. This predictable path follows a series of markers, milestones, and readiness points that match a player’s growth and physiologic development (For more see the LTAPD model resources).

Player readiness is therefore determined both by chronology (age) — the right time, as well as various additional external factors. These external conditions include what and how a player is learning. Most notably among these factors is the exposure variable — time in practice.

But, remember quantity is only one training factor. Players must also be doing the right things! This means that players must be exposed to both high-quality and high-quantity rehearsals. Current evidence suggests that it is vitally important to err on the side of quality in this formula rather than heaping on pure volume. In other words, the numerator requires attention rather than the denominator.

For example, competence in balance and stability, agility, and bodily awareness coupled with coordination and dexterity are requirements before basic fundamental technical skillset instruction. It is only when the variables are laid down correctly that ideal performance potential is possible. Only physically literate athletes progress with confidence and have the ability to make reliable skill selections and effective on-ice decisions.

In sports development, there exists no ability to cram or cheat in the above-noted formulae. And pushing advancement before each element is properly constructed is a recipe for repeated performance errors and problems in games. Frustration for even the most patient coach.

From a purely physical perspective, missing pieces and vital milestones in the player development process equates to weaknesses and makes players vulnerable. It is only with good reps and time that players and teams flourish. Doing the right things, at the right time, with the right player, is the only formula that creates predictable performances.

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