Be A Sniper: Listener Questions
The following is a partial transcript from Process2Perform season 2, episode 38:
I wanted to answer a few internet questions I received last couple weeks. Best way for the community to share information is to share information. If you are trying to do the right thing by your athlete, sharing that information will not bring them down or make them lose a competitive advantage. In the long run it will help, as information sharing is a two-way street.
First question is one that comes at me a lot in different forms...something about what should my athlete be doing to develop, or how much time should they be spending on sports at any given age? There is no steadfast rule on training time, or time served – so let me try to generalize this to any competitive athlete in their teen years. Let's use 13-18 as a age range, 18 being the age most go off to college or turn pro.
I’m going to treat this question as we are considering options outside of team training – because for 99% percent of kids, team training is a non-negotiable. And while nearly all team trainings are not sufficient for development; the spectrum of good to average to poor is very broad, even at the higher levels. This is not an indictment on team training, it is the best place to improve because you have guaranteed competition. It just isn't enough if you really want to see a difference in your play.
First off – a lot of people have read Malcolm Galdwell’s book Outliers in which he makes a couple statements about how 10,000 hours of training making you an expert. Not true or untrue – Gladwell is making a statement that becoming a master of something takes a significant amount of time. I completely agree with his assertion, but where we may differ slightly is I am really more interested in the quality of time that the quantity.
I think what we do too often in our youth athletics now is waste hours doing nothing or standing around, instead of spending more of the designated time being productive. How many practices have you been to where the kids are just standing around for minutes at a time listening to instructions or waiting their turn?
Practice planning takes work, especially in sport where your player to coach ratios are high. In order to improve you have to spend time actively improving. What we see as parents is the tip of the iceberg, the real work behind the practice happens underneath the surface.
The majority of the athletes I have worked with in my post-player career – and I guess the guys I worked with while I was playing – all of those trainings are really the consequence of players not getting what they need out of team training. This is a result of many factors; time, competition, and planning quality to name a few.
Parents - the number one thing I would look at is simply; what are they getting out of team training in terms of opportunities on the ball, off the ball, in confrontation, away from confrontation? And then I would look at how intense the practice sessions are.
And I know right away that many of you might not know what to look at, so I will break it down like this... Does the practice pass the eyeball test? Now remember we are talking about competitive practices in competitive arenas. Coaches don’t need to be yelling, and players don’t need to be fighting; But what is the ratio of standing around and learning – to doing? To competing? And is the level of competition high or is it closer to casual?
Does it pass the eyeball test?
Imagine you are trying to be the best at something, and you have two dials you can turn. You can spend more time on practicing the something, and you can be more deliberate and focused in the time that you have. Clearly these affect one another, given than most athletes have similar requirements during the day; school, practice, family obligations, homework and so on. We also know there is a concern that overtraining and putting too much pressure on an athlete will lead to burn out. The best case guess is that most athletes and their families, given a standardized commitment to the cause; can spend somewhere around 3-4 hours/day on training if they really wanted to.
So most athletes could muster 15-20 hours a week in improving their ability to perform in some manner during the week, plus any games they have on the weekend. Let’s put a rest day in there, and reduce that number to 12-16 hours every week. Depending on travel – might even take that down to 10-15 hours every week of actual development time.
Now let’s take half of that – two hours with travel – and just hand it over to team training. Most teams train 3-4 days a week, and that team training is mandatory. That’s why it is so important to find the right team with a great development coach; you are essentially giving 8-12 hours a week on the short end, depending on games, to that team.
So for me, when you start to factor in all of the travel and all of the time with their club – there really are only a handful of hours left in the week to train. And we can always create more of course. But instead, why not try and make the remaining time your athlete has to spend on development focusing on what will move the dial the most for them?
And that is where the fun comes in – because this is where your athlete has to start identifying what they see as their greatest areas of opportunity. I’m going to throw a couple out with some ideas. Now remember, the attentional awareness of an athlete who is transfixed on developing a skill is closer to 20 minutes than an hour. So if you are looking to develop particular skills or techniques that underly those skills, those sessions need to be littered with breaks.
We have determined that realistically your athlete has somewhere between 1-2 extra hours a day to develop on their own, if that is what they want to do. Probably should have said this at the jump; it has to be something they want for themselves. And believe me,I have likely thought of or heard every reason behind the desire to force them. Long-term I just don’t see the athlete who is forced into training being able to compete with the one who is desperate to improve for themselves.
The first place every athlete should look is if they are technically at the top of their peer group, in the middle, or at the bottom. Unless they are at the top, this will likely give you the most bang for your buck. In team training in the sports I participated in, technical development is largely not on the practice schedule, even though it is the single biggest differentiator between players. Team training is, of course, for the team to learn how to play together. But intuitively we can all understand that technical development will lead to a higher level of team execution.
I always look to events with extreme consequences to best understand how important becoming a technical master is. If you were to go through a standard NFL practice for example, many of you would be shocked to know that about 5-10 minutes a day is allocated to specifically developing your craft. I have had that number as low as three minutes, three times a week, for a team I was with years ago.
Now contrast that with an MMA fighter. MMA fighters work cardio, they study film on their opponent, they spend time using recovery modalities and meal prep. MMA fighters, work with their coaches in the ring on opponent specific game plans and tendencies. And all of this takes time. But the number one thing an MMA fighter does – because remember the consequences for not performing is getting beaten to a bloody pulp in front of every one you know – the number one thing they do is train their skills. Spend time in the cage, on the mat, improving technique. Hours are spent every single training session on the mat or in the ring, working on areas of opportunity.
Switching arenas, let's look at military snipers. A full 1/3 of their training is spend at the range improving their ability to execute their number one task. They spent a great deal of time on recon, they spend time on scouting. But win the stakes are that high you spend a great deal of time working on what matters most. Don’t underestimate the advantage your athlete will have from learning how to execute position specific technique in the best practice method.
Now if you are already doing that and you have more time – now we have to look to the other big dials that will make the most difference. For me those are improving athletic ability, and improving sporting intelligence. Now some sports will integrate strength and conditioning into your athletes routine, and that’s great! If that is the case and you want to make sure you are keeping them as healthy as possible; make sure they eating well, sleeping enough, and they have time to recover.
If they are not getting any sort of work in mobility, agility, explosive power or strength through the team – it is never too early to start training movement patterns. I know about the old wives tale about lifting early and stunting growth...it just isn't true and doesn't make any rational sense.
If you want to start strength training, start small – 15-30 minutes a couple days a week working basic movements. This will gain traction as the improvements your athlete makes builds momentum.
Sporting intelligence – there is no better way than doing. And doing can be the most fun way to learn as well. If there are courts they can play at, or fields they can play on, and the competition will benefit them without overloading their work capacity; then this is a great way for athletes to learn in a low pressure environment away from coaches and parents. While it is my number one recommendation, in practice it is often not realistic. Athletes can be too tired, teams can be restrictive – so we have to find alternatives.
And for me the best alternative is film. Film costs you nothing from an energy expenditure standpoint. Learning how to watch film, learning how to anticipate movement and tendencies; this is a real skill that has real transfer to the competitive field. It is one of the biggest hidden advantages in all of sports – and it remains hidden even with all of the technology and information we now have available. Take advantage!
So to summarize – in the time your athlete realistically has during the week to further improve, and it is time they want to spend improving – find the thing that will move the dial the most and focus your energy into creating the best learning environment you can.
If you and your athlete believe they are technically deficient, I would recommend spending at least 15-30 minutes on technical work every day. And this is actually easiest to do around practice time, but can be done away from practice as well. Split that into two sessions – 15 minutes before practice and 15 after. Or 20 minutes at home and stay ten minutes after practice.
The key with the technical is that the details matter as much as the reps. Rushing through a routine doesn’t play into the 10,000 hours of time spend. Dedicated and deliberate, take breaks as needed, and always stop when the athlete has had enough.