A Quick Cure for Ineffective Practice


Practice sessions, like everything else, occur along a broad spectrum of effectiveness. At one end you have the perfect session where everything clicks, everyone is engaged and working productively.

Way, way over on the opposite end of the spectrum you have the Really Bad Practice. The sessions where no one is engaged, where no learning happens, and where you begin to suspect everyone would have been better off skipping the entire thing and going to a movie instead.

When we try to understand the causes of bad practice, we instinctively tend to focus on the learner’s state of mind and their emotions. For whatever reason, they just didn’t show up today, didn’t give effort, didn’t get engaged.

But is that true? Or is there another way to think about this problem?

The following two videos give us an insight by performing a simple and brilliant experiment: they ask adults to play in spaces that replicate the exact dimensions a kid would experience: supersize hockey rinks and soccer fields. The result is a Petri dish of contagiously bad practice: a dysfunctional circus of non-engagement, frustration, flailing, and non-productive effort.

This is, of course, a powerful argument for kid-size spaces, but the deeper message for us is to give insight into the causes of bad practice. Because it’s not about the learners; it’s really about the space.

All the behaviors we witness here: the exhausted flailing, the poor decision-making, the drifting attention spans, the low-boiling frustration, are not a function of their character (after all, these participants in the videos are coaches who love the game). All the bad stuff is a function of the fact that the space is too big.

In other words, engagement is not an emotion; it’s a design feature. When it doesn’t occur, the leader’s first move should not be to blame the learners, but to check the space to see if it can be improved.

The main principle of effective practice design is to keep the degree of difficulty in the sweet spot: neither too hard nor too easy, so that learners are constantly on the edge of their ability.

The other principle? Teachers and learners should trade places a lot more often.

Rate This

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Share This

Bookmark and Share

9 Responses to “A Quick Cure for Ineffective Practice”

  1. Mark Watts says:

    I am sure you have seen this video from Martina Navratilova and Mary Joe Fernandez demonstrating what it is like for kids to play with adult sized rackets and courts.


    Thank you for sharing this blog and everything you do for coaches and parents. It is appreciated.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Hey Mark, Thanks so much for sharing that video — I hadn’t ever seen it, and it’s amazing.

  3. Mike says:

    As a teacher I know in education, we get caught up in standards, Common Core or the latest standardized testing results. This is a sobering reminder that we need to remember that we are teaching kids and not curriculum.

  4. Tony Wright says:

    Thanks for this post Daniel. The most brilliant things are often, looking back, the most simple. !!!

  5. Dan Cottrell says:

    Excellent set of videos.

    Creates some more questions:
    1. Ball size. Could we do that with adults as well?
    2. Appropriate language. Could adults be coached with more jargon or highly conceptual terms?
    3. Pressure. Is there a different sort of pressure in training for adults/children?
    4. Adults demonstrations – don’t show the right shapes?
    5. An adult playing in the game…not sure how we would video this!
    6. Relative fitness – perhaps the pitch size is a good starting point…

  6. Great videos, ideal for anyone who questions Mini Tennis!

    With regard to having one of those bad days in practice (or in a lesson) where nothing goes right. As frustrating as they are, I find they’re often the sessions that tennis players get the most out of when it comes to making progress. As good as it is for confidence to have one of those days when everything goes right, a session with lots and lots of mistakes is a session where lots has been learnt. So often after giving a lesson to someone that just can’t hit the ball that day, they come back looking a better player the next lesson.

    It’s all about embracing the mistakes. I love the saying ‘if you’re too afraid to make mistakes, you’re too afraid to improve’.

  7. djcoyle says:

    Leon, That is perfectly put. Almost like an ace serve, you might say. Your students are lucky to have you.

  8. Bill Dooley says:

    As they say, size matters.

    This past Saturday I attended a soccer game for 12 year old girls on a 115×75 field. Except for the player who would be competing in this week’s middle school cross country championships, it was a waste of time for all involved. With all credit to Rodney, I went to a soccer game and a track meet broke out.

    Fields of a more appropriate size were available at the complex.

    Getting the size right (and recognizing when it’s wrong) is one of the hardest things for coaches to learn. Too big and an exercise becomes a fitness activity. That said, in my experience training exercises in soccer fail more often because the space is too small for the number and skill level of the players involved. Find the size where it’s working, then make it more difficult by gradually reducing the size.

  9. Ray Salomone says:

    With respect to youth hockey, the ADM (American Development Model) plays cross ice for 6/7 year olds and half ice for 8 year olds. Great program.

Comment On This