Coach Sheffer asked:
How do I deal with players not taking practice seriously? We are also having discipline issues and low practice turnout.
Let’s generalize the problem to “players are not taking practice seriously - they aren’t showing effort, are goofing off, are disrespecting their teammates and coaches.” And let’s be clear: perhaps the greatest disrespect of all is to disengage completely and not even show up for practice.
One talking point we use often with both parents and players is that the most valuable time spent during the season is practice time. We get six hours a week once the seasons starts (10 hours before), and only about 2–3 hours of game time. And during game time, there’s very limited opportunity to coach and develop players. Game time is the reward for great practice.
So… the first step is to make sure that your practices are great. This part is 100% on the coaches and their willingness to prepare and be creative. The entire coaching staff also needs to be on the same page. Questions I would start with in a chat with Coach Sheffer if I were sitting across the table sharing a coffee or beer include:
- Do you plan out your practices to minimize downtime and keep players engaged?
- Do you have a time keeper to keep you on schedule?
- What is your player / coach ratio? If it is 10 to 1 (or worse), you’ll have to get creative to keep players engaged. Or get more help.
- How do you approach conditioning? If the players dread practice because of endless gassers, up-downs, push-ups, etc., it is time to rethink conditioning.
- Do you vary your practice plans throughout the week, and throughout the season? Routine repeated in measured doses is OK, but a defensive practice with the same tackling drills, the same skill drills, the same group drills, every week will encourage disengagement. You want the players to be excited (or at least interested) in learning a new drill, ideally something new each practice. And towards the end of the season we go a bit crazy: running passing routes for offensive linemen. Games they haven’t played at practice since they were 9 years old.
What if you have all of the above under control but are still having discipline issues? Solving this takes observation and a calculated plan. Are there just a few bad instigators involved? Or is this a team-wide issue? Some steps to consider taking include:
- Isolate the bad actors and have feedback / coaching sessions with those players (and possibly their parents, depending on the age) away from practice. Explain specific observed behaviors and the impact they are having on the team. Don’t condemn the player or attack their character. Try to avoid talking about other players. Ask the player to commit to changed behavior and to give their own examples of what this would look like. Establish consequences if the agreed upon bad behaviors continue, including withholding playtime or even removal from the team.
- For a team-wide issue, consider a wholesale “team reset”. Consider talking about shared and individual goals for the players. Why are they playing football? What do they hope to achieve, and how do they think they can help the team? Finally, what needs to happen at practice to achieve those goals.
- I’m not a big fan of using conditioning as a penalty for behavior issues, but in measured doses I think it can be effective. This is especially true if it is in contrast to the “normal conditioning” and is viewed as less fun than other things they could be doing in practice.
One final comment: my focus is on youth coaching here, and I think the approach would be quite different for high school players. In HS you have different challenges but also certain advantages, the main advantage being a hierarchy of age / class plus the ability to leverage team captains to supplement the coaching leadership. I’ve seen first-hand how HS team captains can have a dramatically different impact on team culture and discipline than the coaches can. At the age I coach (13 year olds) we have a harder time getting team captains to take ownership in this way, partly because of their age and partly because they are only trying to influence peers their own age.