First off, this will make most sense if you first read the first post on Practice versus Rehearsal elsewhere on this blog…
How do we learn, as fast as possible, to win matches?
I’d maybe go so far as to say that the least useful thing the average team can do at training is to play ordinary full-pitch 7-on-7. This ‘dress rehearsal’ stage is the icing on the cake, the time at which you make the most game-like decisions – and therefore the time you take the fewest risks, and learn the least. Playing matches against different opposition can be great training – for dealing with the pressure, for building team cohesion, for being surprised by different styles or skills the opposition might bring – but playing hours of 7-on-7 scrimmages within your team is much less effective than you think.
Playing 7-on-7 as a rehearsal might make you a better team, if your current aim is simply to gel together the players you already have (and if you have enough good players that you’re not splitting your starting seven in half anyway). But it’s a very inefficient way to make you better players.
Sevens, playing to win, with your best handlers handling and your best cutters dominating, and with your weaker players barely touching the disc, is often close to pointless. Unless perhaps you’re coaching at the very top level, or the big tournament is just around the corner, you’ll make far bigger gains by improving your players.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that the best way to learn a skill is to do it. Actually, often the best way to learn something is to do a whole bunch of varied things that are a bit similar, and preferably a bit more difficult, that will lead to retained and transferable skills. A very famous research paper on skill acquisition makes precisely this point. Two groups were tested on their ability to throw accurately over three yards. One group had been trained exclusively from three yards, and one group from both two and four yards but never from three – but this second group outperformed the first. Other studies with adults have shown similar results. If you want to shoot better free throws at basketball, try practising from a foot closer or further away, and make your brain learn instead of just repeating.
If you want to learn to play ultimate well, you need variation to keep your ‘learning circuits’ switched on.
In a sport like Ultimate, there’s a whole continuum between practice and dress rehearsal, with static throwing or sprinting form at one end, and play-to-win 7-on-7 at the other. In between, there’s a host of things – from getting 3 friends together to work on forcing and breaking, to structured drills, to goaltimate or 5-on-5. The average Ultimate team spends far, far too much time right at one end of that continuum – just going through one long-drawn-out dress rehearsal. Sure, you’ll get better – but it will be slow. Really slow.
There’s an infinite number of different drills you can run, or changes to the rules you can make, that will give people opportunities or incentives to practise specific, relevant skills. If the variations are more difficult than the skill you’re actually after, and if they result in more frequent performances of the skill than you would get in a normal game situation, then you’re doing something right. Failing, as often as possible, while being close enough to success to understand how to get there – that’s how you learn. You learn so much more from getting it wrong than from getting it right.
You want to learn to make quicker throws, break more forces, improve your fitness? Play 3-on-3 and touch the disc far more often. You want to learn zone offence? Do it in the wind. You want to learn zone defence? Do it when it’s calm.
Let’s say you want your throwers to make better hucking decisions. Which do you think would be better?
– a full hour of 7-on-7, simply asking your players to think about their hucks;
– 20 minutes of full-pitch 5-on-5 (all that space gives plenty of opportunity to huck) followed by 20 minutes of 10-on-10 (or maybe 7s on a narrower pitch – all that congestion forces you to be cleverer at spotting poaches and making choices) and then 20 mins of 7-on-7 to put it all together.
I’d say that’s a no-brainer – the variety will force you to learn.
If you want to learn specific tactical things, you could give 3 points for a goal and 1 point every time they successfully move the disc off the line, or swing it the width of the field, or call an endzone play. Incentivise the players to repeat the skill or tactic you want as often as possible. There really is an infinite list of ways to encourage different playing styles – and that’s without even talking about less game-like drills, where you really narrow the focus to maybe just one particular skill. All of this is more efficient than ordinary, full-rules 7-on-7.
The things you do at training should give you more opportunity to work on the skills you’re actually trying to perfect; more opportunity to make the mistakes that you’re going to learn from.
Drills or adjusted games needs to be suitably game-like in the relevant ways, but only the relevant ways. That usually means not playing a full game of sevens – instead, pick out what’s important and design something that will give the most repetitions of the desired skill in the smallest time. Do two or three variations of it if you can. Build up from a narrow-focus drill to one with more decision-making, then one which is more competitive, then one which is basically a game with a few rules adjusted. You need to move along the continuum, all the way from practice to rehearsal, with as many stops as possible along the way.
And when you get to the dress rehearsal stage, what is it you’re trying to learn? What are the relevant ways in which this needs to be game-like? I’d say things like intensity, pressure, and decision-making. If you’re using this dress rehearsal time just to practise your throws, and being relaxed about any turnovers you make, but then intending to play differently – to make safer decisions – at the actual tournament, then your dress rehearsal is very poor training.
Far better would be to have your scrimmage played at higher intensity than your matches, with greater pressure and even more emphasis on making the right choices, so that the actual match becomes easy. It’s not always trivial to generate intensity at dress rehearsal, but it’s always worth trying.
Crumbs, this post got long. Apologies. Doubtless there’ll be loads more in the future on the psychology of learning – it’s very possibly my favourite subject…
[Disclaimer – training always has to be fun, unless perhaps you’re lucky enough to be coaching professional (or at least very committed) players. Your players probably want to play-to-win at sevens more than would be ideal for them – and therefore that’s exactly what they should do. The players are in charge, not the coach, and even the best-designed drill in the world won’t teach much to someone who’s merely going through the motions and waiting to play a game. But bear all the above in mind too, and try to find a good compromise.]