The Power of High-Leverage Practice


Here is Odell Beckham Jr. last night, making what might be the greatest catch in NFL history.

That video is beautiful, but there’s something that’s even more beautiful:  Beckham Jr. before games, practicing exactly this type of catch.

This reveals the deeper truth behind his great catch: it was no accident. Watch how Beckham  keeps one hand at his side, as if  pinned by a defender; how he controls the nose of the ball with his index finger; how his eyes follow the ball into his palm. We normally think of this kind of catch as a feat of athleticism. This shows that it’s really a feat of preparation.

This is a very particular kind of preparation, systematically pre-creating the most difficult situations. You might call it High-Leverage Practice, because it shows how focusing relentlessly on pre-creating pressure conditions can set a performer apart from their peers.

It reminds me of a story about Steve Kerr, the former NBA guard who’s now coach of the Golden State Warriors. Early in his career, Kerr was having trouble coming in off the bench and performing his specialty, which was three-point shots. He tried to fix the problem by focusing on technique, shooting thousands of three-pointers in practice. It didn’t work.

Then one of his coaches, Chip Engelland, had an insight. The problem wasn’t the shooting. The problem was the pressure caused by Kerr’s coming into the game cold, without warming up. So Engelland and Kerr decided to try an experiment.

Here’s how it worked: Engelland and Kerr would sit on the bench together, chatting casually. Then, all of a sudden, without any warning, Engelland would yell NOW!, and Kerr would have to go shoot a single three-pointer, then return to the bench. Then a few more minutes would go by, with more casual chatting, then Engelland would suddenly yell “NOW!” an the process would repeat. For half and hour, they would do this, shooting only eight or ten times. And it worked. Kerr’s game performance vastly improved. Not because he was a better shooter, but because he and his coach had, like Beckham Jr., designed a smarter training space.

High-leverage practice shares a few common characteristics:

  • 1) It’s focused. You aren’t pre-creating the entire game, but only targeted situations.
  • 2) It’s often untraditional. It doesn’t tend to fall into the list of conventional practice techniques, and as such, is easy to marginalize or overlook.
  • 3) It’s habitual. High-leverage skills aren’t built in a few specialized sessions; they are built over time, through repetition and routine.

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15 Responses to “The Power of High-Leverage Practice”

  1. MdM says:

    It reminds me of a play when the Minnesota Vikings threw a series of laterals and backward passes and ended up getting a TD and winning a game with no time on the clock. Later, it was revealed that they would practice just that scenario during practice (to the disapproval of the coaches, who thought it frivolous).

  2. Larry says:

    Just like in soccer. It takes years of technical practice to have great ball control & manipulation. When we see a player hit a great volley, chip a keeper, make an outrageous move or just simply bring down a 40 yard pass, it all comes down to years of “deep” practice.
    There are no short cuts to the very top.

  3. djcoyle says:

    I love your word choice there — “frivolous” is the perfect word to describe how this kind of practice seems to people with more traditional mindsets. It seems silly, unnecessary or (worse) indulgent. When in fact it’s precisely the opposite. Thanks.

  4. Troy says:

    Love the blogs!….I have the opportunity to work with professional hockey players & many of them will work on very specific movements and/or skills in the off-season…This blog about high level practice & forming habits reminded me of this article /clip of James van Riemsdyk (of the Toronto Maple Leafs)

  5. Walter says:

    Go and watch an NBA or NFL game, but get there on time for the warm up. You will see these guys to the craziest, and i mean craziest things possilbe, including, Dennis Rodman, who i once saw in a Detroit pre-game hit 6 out of 8 baskets from center, but it was a one hand shot behind the back. These things don’t happen by accident. It’s hours sometimes years of practice

  6. It reminds me a lot of his namesake, David Beckham who many think was born with this unbelievable talent to do hit crosses and free kicks with pin point accuracy over and over again. The reality was, David spent hours and hours practicing these crosses and free kicks, usually after the hours he had already practiced with all his team mates.

  7. Brian says:

    Often with my high level youth soccer teams we need to practice penalty kicks with some real pressure. We will have shooters predefined and just randomly stop practice in the middle of an activity to take penalty kicks. Both team lined up and try to recreate the full ceremony of it. The pressure is elevated because I tell the teams that we will take PK’s until someone misses or there is a save. Once a miss happens we are done and we return to normal practice. Players feel immense pressure because they don’t want to be the player that ends the pk shootout for the whole team.

  8. James says:

    The Steve Kerr 3-pt exercise reminds me of a switch an old basketball coach of mine pulled.

    Instead of the usual practice of shooting 10 free throws in a row a couple of times during practice and having to run if you hit less than 6 of them, she stopped practice 4 or 5 times and made everyone shoot 2 free throws and you had to run for each one you missed.

    We got a lot better even though we were shooting fewer free throws in practice.

  9. Todd says:

    Terrific post (as usual!) Very reminiscent of the tip by Richard Sherman to his teammate Malcolm Smith in the NFC Championship last year between Seattle and San Francisco. The Seahawks had routinely practiced that tip drill before and even had prior success with it. As I watched this particular video with my son, he made an interesting observation: “Notice how he catches all of those with his right hand … I wonder if he can do it with his left?”

  10. doc says:

    Absolutely an unbelievable catch. However, my question is; Does the one handed practice he does have carry over value to the catches he will make 99.99999% percent of the time or is it just to make that once in a lifetime catch (which was early in a losing game). There is a point of diminishing returns and we coaches and the players have to decide where our time is best spent and how much is spent on each individual skill. This is what makes coaching an art.

  11. Matt says:

    Great post, Dan!

    Your point is valid, doc. No doubt that the majority of time and focus should be spent on developing the basic fundamentals. Speaking from experience as both a player and coach, I would always set aside some time after I got in my basic “challenges” to have a little fun and work on some Web Gem type plays. These moments were creative, intuitive, deep, and best of all, fun! And sure enough, there were a handful of times in my career where this type of work showed up. I had the pleasure of being teammates with Robbie Alomar and he used to always spend time working on special plays. As a coach, the challenge can be very beneficial to both the players and culture of the team when presented. Important to make the point as well that this is an added bonus and fun but not a time to just “goof around”. Even the Web Gem type plays have a fundamental element to them and it is amazing how much athleticism you will see come through. Always a good thing in my book…just make sure to bring the focus back to making the routine play and being a fundamentally sound player!

  12. Frank Murphy says:

    I definitely started ramping up incorporating focused, untraditional ball-handling “challenges” (not drills!!!) with my basketball players after reading The Talent Code over a year ago! I love getting these reminders of the power of doing this by reading your stuff on here, Dan! It really works – having my players challenge themselves, repetitively with difficult-to-execute ball-handling moves has really helped them in other aspects of their ball-handling. And then when a player can actually pull off one of these moves in a game – it’s just amazing, and fun on so many levels! Beckham is great with the easier, more fundamental receptions because he challenges himself with these focused more difficult-to-execute workouts. The video below shows a combination of doing the things you have taught & reminded me about, Dan – learn from masters (YouTube is a great place to find them) & introduce these challenges into practices (this adds oodles of fun while challenging) — it leads to some pretty great stuff!

  13. djcoyle says:

    Frank, Thanks so much for that, and for sharing the video. It is AWESOME.

  14. djcoyle says:

    Absolutely fantastic point, Matt — thanks so much for making it so well.

  15. doc says:

    Well said Matt.

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