Stop Doing Drills; Start Using Challenges


no-drillingOne mysterious day many years ago — maybe around the Industrial Revolution — coaches and teachers started using a particular word to describe repetitive learning activities. It was a vivid, mechanical word: implying pressure, precision, progress. And it caught on in a big way.

The word is “drill.”

“Drill” has become the single most common word we use to describe practice in sports, music, and academics. And that’s a problem.

The problem is not that “drill” is a bad word in itself. The problem is that it often sends the wrong message to the learner.

The word “drill” is a signal that:

  • There is one correct way to do something, and only one way
  • This group values machine-like repetition above all else

Now, there are moments when that kind of signal is perfectly appropriate. But the ethos of “drilling” has been applied to a far wider range of activities, like soccer players learning to control the ball, or math students solving algebraic equations, or musicians working on improvisational skills — situations where you are seeking to create creativity, energy, and innovation.

So what word is better?

I think the answer is “challenge.”

I know, it seems like a tiny change. And yet, there are differences between the two terms that are worth appreciating.

The word “challenge” is a signal that:

  • This is social, fun, and gamelike. It’s connective. (After all, it’s not called the “Ice-Bucket Drill,”is it?)
  • Difficulty is expected; mindfulness is required; innovation is embraced
  • This group values challenging obstacles, competing, and creating

One of my favorite examples is the Bonner Challenge, invented by Matt Bonner, reserve forward for the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. A few years ago he was messing around on the court and came up with a pre-practice routine he loved. He started challenging others to match him, and it caught on.

It works like this: you take your first ten shots of the day from ten pre-determined spots on the floor (layups, free throw, college three-point line, pro three-point-line, etc). Make all ten with zero misses, and you’ve won the Bonner Challenge. (If you take any other shots, you’re ruled “Bonner Ineligible.”) The team keeps track of the latest winner, and who’s won the most over the year, and they get a championship belt. It’s competitive, fun, and contributes to the team’s culture of togetherness (even the coaches compete).


Now, what Bonner invented, of course, is basically a drill. You could easily construct an alternate scenario where a coach orders the team to do the exact same ten-shot drill — but would it have the same engagement, impact, contagiousness, and mystique? Not even close. It succeeds because it’s not called a drill. It’s a challenge.

Like many successful organizations, the Spurs understand and embrace the power of words. Another example: when a Spurs player comes into practice early for individual work, they call the extra sessions “Vitamins.” Every other team in the league calls the sessions “early work,” or “extra work,” which carries negative connotations. But not the Spurs. Because they view those sessions as positive, essential opportunities that make players better. Vitamins.

The larger lesson here is that words matter far more than we think. Each element of the learning process exists within the fabric of the group’s culture and values. The words we use create the path to the behaviors we get. So take the time to pick them carefully, one by one.

(Which, come to think of it, is sort of like doing the Bonner Challenge.)

I’d love to hear any other good terms you’ve heard for practice or drills or anything. Which ones are your most favorite? Your least?

PS – here’s another great example of a challenge, courtesy of reader Stuart Crampton: Bayern Munich playing Bucket Ball

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37 Responses to “Stop Doing Drills; Start Using Challenges”

  1. Coaching in context . In the context of the game and in context with the needs of the child. Instead of developing game understanding , develop understanding IN the game.

  2. Tom Molloy says:

    Good one Dan. In response to your article I just changed my latest tweet to.
    Booklet with 200 on-ice practice exercises. A – Individual B – Partner – Team Skill Drills To Booklet with 200 on-ice practice exercises. A – Individual B – Partner – Team Challenges

  3. djcoyle says:

    Hey Tom, That is awesome! Glad to hear it.

  4. Jack Moran says:

    IPP’s: Individual purposeful practice, quite good as it gives ‘purpose’ in itself.

  5. EJ says:

    I am a golf coach, and constantly looking for a way to better myself and my students. In golf the word drill is thrown around like candy on Halloween. I plan to use this word challenge and also by using this word, I believe it can be a start to actual fun/learning challenges.

  6. Alex says:

    You did say Bonner challenge right?

  7. djcoyle says:

    Hey Jack, I love that — especially the “Individual” part. Thanks.

  8. scott says:

    I will take a tennis drill and make it a competition. So rather than mindlessly hitting, they’re trying to get twenty in before the other kids. Focus improves exponentially.

  9. Neil H says:

    In the same vein, use the term; teaching moments and not coaching points.

  10. Sara Penny says:

    In violin studies we’ll take a phrase and play it with different rhythms, different bow strokes, slower then faster, soft then louder, etc. to provide variety. At the same time this reinforces the difficult finger patterns. In other words, identify the task and then apply “theme and variation” ideas to polish and refine the skill.

  11. djcoyle says:

    Hi Sara, I’m going to suggest that challenge to my daughter tonight for her violin practice. Thanks!

  12. Lee Ness says:

    Great article. I’m going to use this straight away. Starting with home workouts for me sprinters being renamed “vitamins”!

  13. Tony Wright says:

    Thanks for the great post Daniel. I recently started reading “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning,” by Peter Brown and others (a superb book). They use the word “testing” in their book, I think their intent is the same.

    I think many who use the word Drill have good intent at heart. But I fully agree that Challenge and I also think Test are better words to describe what needs to be done to improve at anything.

    Tony Wright

  14. Candace Carryer says:

    Conscious use of language models the highest potentials for youngsters
    in JR. tennis development—and in all of us in all ways. For instance, the whole “suicides’ in tennis training is actually archaic, negative, punitive and ‘uncool’ as well as UN-motivational. Several kids lives have been touched by actual suicide (fathers) so be conscious people! Don’t think oh ‘politically correct’ think… what can I say to usher in the new era/awareness and elevate language for highest good here for young people? Thanks very much for this post. I use ‘challenge’ in many contexts and in tennis it is SUPer! Let’s model for us all–K? Kids have enough ‘pressure’. Let language be supportive. Fear indoctrinates weakness anyway don’t ya think? Competition is really TRUE cooperation(Gallway, ‘Inner Game of Tennis’ oldie—still a goodie…thanks TIM!)

  15. John Forman says:

    I won’t speak for other sports, but in the case of volleyball my feeling is that the term “drill” has been very washed out over the years – in part because of the advance of the “the-game-teaches-the-game” philosophy in coaching. In my own usage a drill is merely an in-training activity which is not a game, and the differentiation between the two is a simple matter of competition. Games have winners and losers. Drills do not, though they generally have some kind of objective in terms of successful execution/performance. As such, the same activity could be either a game or a drill, depending on where you put the focus.

  16. gary says:

    Think this article is missing the point. It’s not what you call the activity that makes the differnce it’s the context and structure of the activity. A more game-based activity that retains some of the pressure, cognitive engagement and physcial demands of the game is always going to be more fun, engaging and motivating activity than an isoltaed, technique driven drill. Taching games for Understadning, Constraints-led Coaching and Compexity Approaches in Physical Education provide the evidence of this.

  17. Tony Wright says:

    Daniel, another word I thought of is Calibrate. ?

  18. Frank says:

    I like this idea of redefining the word “drill” to “challenge”.

    The only challenge (sorry!) I see with it is that it doesn’t convey the sense that the exercise is meant to be repeated over and over again. In my interpretation of the social context in which I’d use this most… A challenge is meant to be met but once “completed” there isn’t a any feeling of need to continue.

    In my (adult) community it’s hard to get people to practice at all – let alone participate in Deliberate Practice where they have to *gasp* be mindful and figure out what needs work and change what they do while practicing and create simulated challenges and…

    All in all, I think that the strength of your idea (re-wording “drill”) is the same as it’s weakness: it purposely obfuscates the fact that it’s a drill to make it sound “fun.”

    I’m all in favor of gamification but, to me, the definition of the game must include a sense of the required elements. 1. Mindfulness, 2. An iterative process of test-play/debug-repeat, 3. Deliberate changes of the parameters/environment (simulation) to make the skill more robust, etc.

    Calling it a “challenge” may or may not undermine the sense of those elements.

    “Challenge” by definition is a call or invitation to compete in games of skill, strength, etc, or to do battle.

    So it comes down to how you interpret the semantics of “challenge.” Ultimately, that’s it’s downfall. Each of us can revel in our own confirmation bias, believing that _our_ interpretation is correct and others are wrong … but the fact that there exists multiple popular interpretations is a problem.

    I truly think that the best skilled people are built and not born. They may start gifted but they have to work to build on those gifts. Hiding the fact that excellence requires work may seem like a good idea in the short term, but builds a social context and personal mindset of “everything is a game”, “I don’t have to work hard” and “I’ve never had to work; I am where I am because of who I am as opposed to the hard work I have done.”

    I believe that Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford, and author of the book, “Mindset,” would call this a “Fixed Mindset” as opposed to a “Growth Mindset”. This view is reiterated in Megan McArdles, “The Upside of Down,” in which she argues that failure is a necessary component of ultimate success.

    Ultimately, I feel that Gary (an earlier commentator) has it right – it’s not _that_ important what you call it, but how you design it. If you design drills with a gaming component to it and you make clear that the game is a method to practice or simulate another activity, you set the stage for all three components – fun, work and learning. And you set up up an environment where you, as coach/instructor/audience, can praise the hard work of the student, fostering the idea that growth and the work itself can be fun and rewarding.

  19. Jack says:

    Drills are for dentists….is what I tell the coaches I work with!

  20. BJ LeRoy says:

    Ah, but it is important. When kids hear “game” they get exited. “The game is to get ten in a row…”

    Yes of course the activity needs to be a competition. If you can change “drills” into competitions, then you’re 3/4th of the way there.

    Changing the word “drill” to either “game” or “challenge” will set the tone for the change you’re making, and raise expectations of fun, and intensity.

  21. djcoyle says:

    Frank, that is an outstanding comment. Thanks very much for taking the time to go deeper into this question, and for doing it in such a precise and useful way. So much of this lies in how the activity is defined and explained by the teacher. “Challenge” could easily be expressed in a way that undermined the activity, as could “drill.” So yes, in the end, it’s all about the good old factors of design and communication.

  22. Carla says:

    Another re-wording of an activity that I do in my practices for my teams is “rehabilitation” instead of punishment. In practices we will focus on an aspect of the game and then in scrimmage expect them to execute that skill or tactic under pressure, or they will have to do a “rehab”. Most often the rehabilitation is a sprint for each mistake, run after the scrimmage. I set it up at the beginning of the season that the sprint is the chosen “rehab” because if you can’t execute the skills and tactics, then you better be able to get back on defense and that requires good fitness. I am sure someone will tear that logic apart, but it’s working with high school girls.
    Sometimes, the rehab is stepping out of a challenge or game and doing a specific exercise for a certain number of repetitions – so, really a drill, instead of getting to participate in the team challenge.
    The girls, in their infinite negotiating, requested that they could also earn “coupons”. For every time we catch them doing a specific tactic well, they earn a “coupon” that they can cash in for a rehab. AND, both of these have no expiration date. Though, I never let a rehab burn a hole in my pocket. We run them before we leave, or I intentionally forget.
    The result for us has been that they correct each other and they encourage each other. When a coupon is earned, the whole team celebrates the accomplishment, which then reinforces the good habits.

  23. Alex says:

    What about the game red arse in football, you wouldn’t call it red arse drill don’t think that sounds to good

  24. Rob says:

    I use “drills” for a select few concepts that I want drilled into the players’ minds. One big one in rugby is getting into a safe an effective position for tackling. I’m especially concerned how poor technique leads to injury, so have players repetitively go through the motions in the build-up to the tackle (usually without actually completing it), but ensure the target is active and trying to evade the tackle, so there is a challenge involved.

    In almost everything else, I’ve definitely avoided the term, using instead: skill activity (testing open skills under pressure but with constraints that focus the learning objective(s) ), scenario (looks very much like the game or a snippet of it), and game (either the game itself or a small-sided game that’s either scenario or skill based, much more open than a ‘skill activity’) … I might start using ‘skill challenge’ instead.

    Cheers for the article!

  25. Doc says:

    I enjoyed this post and believe there is a lot of truth to it. However, I think the problem is not the word but what we associate it to. I can teach a dog to “sit” using any word in any language as long as the dog associates that word to the act of sitting. If a coach is using motivating, challenging techniques that the players enjoy (either because they are fun or they can see the purpose of “drills” to help them improve: and hopfully both)then I’m not sure whether it matters whether you call them challenges, drills or sits.

  26. Sarah says:

    I use the term “The 110% experience in practice a lot when I am challenging and athlete to do something really, really well, not just meeting expectations. I think they like the idea of pushing it a little more to see if they can gain a little more.

  27. Ángel says:

    Real Madrid’s junior teams program is literally called “the Factory”. In this case, words show the reason behind the purpose they have in mind by developing these players.

  28. Frank Murphy says:

    I teach math to 70 sixth graders, spread out over three classes. I also teach language arts to 22 of them. Yesterday I began assigning “vitamin” homework (which is optional homework that is a challenge!). I actually will now draw a vitamin bottle and write the assignment inside! The kids are already using the word “vitamin”! (We also studied the word, breaking down the “vita” & “min”.) They now more clearly see these assignments not as extra work, but as vital opportunities to help them grow.
    We actually did a lot with this article yesterday; I shared it with all 70 kids and the other 6th grade teachers. we read it and discussed key points and points of interest or confusion. We did the Bonner challenge in small groups, with six baskets in the gym. My homeroom kids are now writing their own article about their experience yesterday. I told them the article that best reflects their learning and what we did will win – I’ll be sending it to Daniel Coyle! To say they are excited about this challenge is an understatement!!!
    Such important stuff you are doing Daniel!!!

  29. djcoyle says:

    Hey Frank, Tell your students that your note just made my day — okay, my whole month! And I cannot WAIT to read what they have to say. Best, Dan

  30. Frank Murphy says:

    Will do Dan!! Thanks!!!

  31. Frank Murphy says:

    This is a 6th grade student’s (in my class) take on the article and what we did in class after studying the article!! The piece is unedited!!!

    Drill vs. Challenge
    So, what do you think of when you hear the word drill? Probably either the tool that drills holes or something that you do to get skilled at what you are practicing. But, in this case we are talking about the second definition. A drill kind of implies that there is only one way to do something. At my sports practices when my coach says we are going to do a new drill, you will hear moans and groans, but when she says that we are going to have a competition or challenge, everyone gets excited and puts all of their effort into it. Drill is a term that leaves no room for creativity. It simply is dreaded work. See this is why no coach, or teacher, or any mentor should use the word drill anymore. Let’s switch out that word, for a new word that implies success, struggle, and innovation. Challenge. It is the power of words. The way we say things can completely change people’s attitude towards it.
    For example the San Antonia Spurs. They won the championship last year because they had great teamwork. They were playing the Miami Heat, who had more skilled players than the Spurs. The Spurs won because they take a lot of “vitamins”. They do a lot of extra practice, but they don’t call it extra work or drills, because they look at it as a positive. Like vitamins they need it to help them, to win. In class recently, we have been taking vitamins because we read Daniel Coyle’s article and thought that it was a great idea. In math, my teacher Mr. Murphy has been giving us extra work, but we call it vitamins like the Spurs. He would draw a little bottle of vitamins on the board, and inside of it he would write down sheets that will challenge us and make our myelin stronger. Such as the 10th grade accelerated math problems he gives us. Almost everyone likes taking their vitamins because it makes them healthier and it makes them feel better, so why wouldn’t you take vitamins in math, or science, or language arts, or social studies? I feel like now everyone in the class has a new attitude towards doing extra homework because we know that it is vital for us to strive in math.
    Another thing that we did, as a grade that was really cool was the Bonner Challenge, not drill. We were inspired by Matt Bonner on the San Antonio Spurs whose idea it was. We went down to the gym and came up with our own, modified rules (we aren’t as good as NBA players). Mr. Murphy called four people up to do it in front of the whole grade, and I was one of them. It was competitive and fun and exciting, since it was a challenge. No pressure, good attitudes. I actually did pretty well, except I didn’t make my three-pointer. The cool thing though, was that each time I did it later on in the small groups, I got better and better at it. And I am someone who loves basketball, so it was especially fun. I like how in the Bonner Challenge you are competing against other people, but you are also competing against yourself because you are really trying to beat your own score.
    So, now that you know a little more about drill vs. challenge, start telling your mentors and coaches and teachers to use the word challenge instead of drill. I bet you that more people will be engaged in it than ever before. And start taking your vitamins, not the vitamins for your body, but the vitamins for your brain. They are equally as important. Also you should try the Bonner Challenge! It doesn’t matter if you don’t particularly like basketball, it is still a lot of fun. You could probably even try it with other sports too. Have fun!


  32. Dan Cottrell says:

    Though I am very much behind the challenge idea, there’s a group of players who aren’t really that competitive. In fact they are mostly there because of their mates or, in school scenarios, it’s compulsory.

    I think our challenge is to find exercises/activities that can help these players find the level they want. Their competitive streak doesn’t drive them to participate more. Often it can mean they shy away and don’t want to touch the ball.

    Instead, I think they are seeking forms of success and belonging mixed together. Success can mean performing so they don’t look stupid or out of place. You keep them in their comfort zone. Now that flies in the face of development.

    But sport is more than just physical, technical and tactical development. So, my question (to myself as much as others) is, how do I cater for this group?

  33. djcoyle says:

    Nicole, That is AWESOME. Great job. You’re lucky to have Mr. Murphy as a teacher — and he’s lucky to have you as a student. Best, Dan

  34. Frank Murphy says:

    Thanks so much! It’s so great that you wrote back. I have been checking your site almost every day.

  35. Frank Murphy says:

    oh…and that last comment was from me – Nicole!

  36. Bill Daues says:

    I like to use the word ‘opportunities’. Every ground ball you field, pass you receive or shot you take provides you with a chance to improve.
    Give yourself many opportunities to get better with more ball contacts, swings of the bat or racket and shots. I think it is a positive word to use as all players want to become better at their sport or activity.

  37. Tyler Spraul says:

    Man, this really challenges my thoughts on planning effective training sessions (for individuals as well as for teams)!! Back to the drawing board in many areas!

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