Learning vs. Practice...do you know the difference?

When I think back about my career to this point, I can comfortably say that I have spent more than a third of the last twenty or so years at "football training".

In the various manifestations my career has taken over the years, it would be true to say that at times at "football training" I have been not much more than a by-stander, while at other times I have been such an integral part of the session that it feels like I'm watching my child grow in front of my eyes (a bit heavy I know...but that's how extreme it has felt at times).  Irrespective of what specific role I have been in, that amount of time watching team training sessions gives you a clear perspective on the mechanics, how they work and the inherent physical and psychological cost imposed on the athlete.

For many young S&C coaches and aspiring High Performance Managers, getting your "head around" what role team training plays in the development of your athletes and team is one of the biggest mind-f^&ks you will have to deal with.

Do we run specific physiologic sets...MAS, 30-15 etc?
Do I try to control the amount of work the head coach is doing with the players on field?
Do we use small sided games, and if so what specs do I use?

While the above questions are all relevant and certainly important, as a group they far exceed the scope of this meager piece.  What I would offer in terms of advice to is to get started on defining what exactly team based session are designed to do.  This will get you on a path that leads to being able to control and manipulate all the aforementioned variables and more in order to get the best result for your team.  Putting aside the nuances of planning for a moment, I have come to the conclusion that the biggest mistake made by most "coaching teams" is not having a clear definition of what the individual session is designed to achieve.

Let's look at what the technical coaches "want" to do with the players and start to create definitions that help categorize what is happening on the field.   All field sessions are generally one of two things, with the odd deviation into a third.

  1. Learning - The session is characterized by limited or low demand physical content, and typically has many pauses in the session to address technical and or tactical errors.
  2. Practice - The session is characterized by implementation of team based skills within context and at a game specific pace (in theory).  This session should in effect be the equivalent of "special strength training" (Verkoshansky) and overload critical elements of team integration.  In theory pauses should only be implemented in order to maintain the desired speed of execution.  NB: I use the term "in theory" liberally here...I will come back to this point.
  3. Conditioning - This session uses simplified elements of the game in a modified context (reduced field size or players numbers) in order to achieve a physical overload.  Be clear...the overload is total not just physiological.  The mechanical and neuro-muscular adaptations that can be achieved as a function of this type of training are, in my opinion, critical to team based sporting success.  NB: These sessions typically are implemented by S&C staff with input from coaches.
Here's my key points for managing these session variations
  • Learning sessions are fine and necessary.  They typically will consist of "junk miles", which from a pure running perspective means your athletes will accumulate distance at slow to moderate speeds that achieve no specific energy system, musculo-skeletal or neuro-muscular stimulus, but does contribute to local muscle fatigue.  Avoid these sessions being implemented as stand-alone sessions.  These elements should ideally be integrated into Practice or Conditioning sessions as specific warm up elements.  Therefore they serve a specific physiologic purpose rather than simple adding unnecessary load.
  • Practice sessions should take one of two formats:
    1. Extensive - Drills are conducted over longer periods (slightly greater than your sport's base unit time frame) and at a pace that is slightly below that of game pace.  Intra- and inter-set recoveries tend toward the shorter end of the spectrum therefore providing a stimulus to aerobic and slow glycolytic-anaerobic capacity mechanisms.
    2. Intensive - Drills match or exceed your sport's base unit and should be sequenced in order allow overload of high quality mechanical and physiological qualities e.g. speed and anaerobic power.
  • In order for Practice Sessions to work, and not have them leer into the Learning Session void, session tempo must be maintained.  Session tempo is the overall rate at which a session is executed.  Session tempo must be established by understanding the speed at which drills will be executed and the recoveries between sets, and implementing them as accurately as possible.  This takes time to educate "raw" or "old-school" coaches.
  • Measure, measure, measure!  In order to influence how sessions are being executed you must be able to quantify to the head coach the difference between what he is doing and what is required.  Earlier I used the term "in theory" because too often what a head coach thinks he is doing, and what is actually being implemented are often two different things.  Use whatever you have at hand to compare to the desired performance; GPS, accelerometers...or just a simple stop watch will suffice.  Know the rate your sport goes at and insure you communicate clearly to the coach how his sessions compare.  I have a number of horror stories involving world famous coaches who have "thought" they were training specifically, when in fact they were doing the exact opposite. 

As much as we would like to keep it simple...some things just aren't!  Work hard to simplify the message to your head coach but understand that you will likely find yourself firmly "up against it" at times.  That being said, even if sessions do go soundly "off-piste" at times, it may be that your success is built around limiting those occasions rather than perfecting every session.

Train Well



Ryan Gaias

Great article Jason, session management is easily overlooked, when I track everything you can it makes me feel more in control of my athletes loads, making it easier to make adjustments over the course of the season.
Thanks again

Johnny Vincenti

A really great article JW. The importance of understanding the ‘purpose’ of a session, and how to best execute may sound like a no-brainer, but can sometimes be an area that fails to get clearly defined.

Loving the articles mate, keep up the great work

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