In last week’s post, I defended what I called "the More Complexity for Fastest Skill Learning argument" and explained how that can produce a high rate of adaptation in a sustained way as a person works to develop a skill set. One of the key points that was made there drove at the idea that more complexity in practice can be a good mimic of the demands that the game places on a player.
Why then, don’t we view the game as the best preparation for the game? Why do drills in practice at all instead of just setting up competition and letting ‘er rip?
Indeed, I think we actually have seen a growing trend, to some degree, of more small area games being implemented in hockey practice planning. It is true that small area games are great preparation for the game. Their benefits include peforming under reduced time and space, more puck touches (due to their often being fewer players involved so there are more puck touches per player), and custom rule sets that force the players to get out of their usual habits of play. Recognition of those benefits is a big part of their recent popularity, but I think the simple concept of letting the game prepare players for the game has been a driving force as well.
What holds us back from pushing that trend further? Why seek complexity in drills as opposed to just letting competition create that complexity spontaneously?
For me, there are two main reasons why we shouldn't just let competition create the complexity of challenge we need. They are control and flow-through. Lets start with control.
As a coach, you should have a sense of the “frontier” of the skill set of the group you are working with. The group may be a team, just some skill-training group (if you are a “skills” coach), or just whatever set of kids you happen to be in front of on a given day. There should be some set of skills that you know the group has a handle on, some that are too challenging that they aren’t ready for, and then the frontier which is the region in between where they struggle but also show some signs of success. We should be aiming for that frontier with challenges that we place in front of a player because this does create the stress needed for adaptation and it bridges the gap to those skills they aren’t ready for yet.
Can competition provide “frontier” challenges? It can. But players can avoid them to some degree also. They can try to put themselves into situations that are in their comfort zones.
In drills, we can define the challenge. We can control whether or not skaters are training in their frontier.
Most coaches probably wish that they had this level of control over how their players perform. Clearly its not remotely possible. But drills offer more control over things for the coach than small area games do.
The second reason I mentioned was flow-through. It may be helpful to understand this concept using a factory. With a factory, raw materials or partially processed parts go in one end, things happen, and assembled products come out the other end. Lets say that in an effective factory, lots of steps are able to happen in the space provided (and that these steps add up to create value in the product at the end). In a hockey practice its probably best to think of the “space provided” as the icetime. And the “things that happen” are the challenges that the players encounter and must try to meet during the practice. An effective practice packs a lot of those challenges in for the players in the given time. Flow-through refers to how the players flow through the challenges of a drill and how many players flow through each for, say, each minute of the drill.
I don't know if this factory is "highly effective" but there does seem to be a lot going on.
The game isn’t designed to create a high flow-through of challenges for all of the players during the time allotted. There is only the one puck. And, often the safe play is the less challenging play. In other words, the smart play is one that avoids challenge in many (most?) situations. No, if we want high challenge-flow-through for players in a given time, we should design for it.
The need to control and the need for high flow-through ensure that there will always be a place for drills. And, when players have a really solid base of skill and we have to seek complexity to keep the challenge high, only relying only on competitive dynamics to ensure players continue to stress their movement control systems and thus experience an adaptation response is leaving a lot on the table because we can't ensure either that the challenges encountered are the ones that players need to work on or that there is a high flow-through of players through the challenges.
Finally, a creative coach usually can come up with a few ways to push the complexity of skill in practice drills, but one great way is both mix dynamic skating with puckhandling and put some obstacles in the way of both the skating and puckhandling using slip under devices. They are trendy right now for a reason!
Here we see a way to create and control some high-challenge skill repetitions in a hockey practice that you order right from this very website!