Nothing I’m about to tell you has any substantial value unless you put it into action.
Whether a player or a coach, practicing “by doing” or practicing by “teaching others,” will often translate to more skill acquisition than just reading, watching and/or discussing lacrosse.
John Wooden, one of the most renowned coaches of all time, explained how coaches are essentially teachers at the core. Coaching is not lecturing, it is more so showing players how.
Almost all of Wooden’s early practice sessions in a season would be devoted to fundamental skill & drill development, conditioning, as well as imparting the team philosophy. These are the pillars that we will use as the essence of this LAX 101 blog I’ll be writing over the next couple of months, in an effort to strengthen our Thunderbirds grassroot lacrosse culture.
Speaking to philosophy. This game has such a rich history, and I’ve been told by my First Nations brethren that we should always start with the history when we teach the game. One of the teachings that I’ve chosen to live my life by is that “lacrosse is a metaphor for life,” and holds the answer for every situation in life (including the present one). The current situation (Covid19), calls for self isolation for example. This is, in fact, an opportunity to spend quality time with family, with nature, with your thoughts, and also with your stick. In some of the lowest points of my life it was my stick that gave me the medicine that I needed to carry on. At times, it felt like it was all I had. I have followed the stick ever since...
Skill, as it pertains to lacrosse, is the knowledge and the ability to quickly and properly execute the fundamentals. They must be done quickly and precisely, at the right time. Skilled performers develop more flexible and precise memory representations than do less skilled individuals; which is the main point I will try to get across in this article.
Skill development in itself is non-linear, and there is a tremendous natural range both in short and long term success. For example, people can be 2-3x better or worse, bigger or smaller in any human measure at any given time. Regardless, you will only get better at things that you consciously work on.
Consciously working on something usually starts with doing some sort of research first: reading, watching some videos, and perhaps discussing the topic with a local expert. You learn best when you have some idea of what you are trying to accomplish. Both peer and expert models (or videos thereof) can be effective for demonstrations, but in the end, it is the right combination of explanations and demonstrations, visuals and videos, that enables you to learn or correct skills - you need to be engaged in your learning!
In a relatively short period of time, it is possible to see some great improvements relative to your initial physical literacy upon entering the sport (accumulated via one's multi-sport experience & genetics).
In just 10 weeks players new to the game could, in theory, improve their lacrosse competency by 80%.
Eventually you will move through the 4 stages of learning: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence (aka “habits”). Advancing from stage-to-stage requires action and it will likely take thousands of consciously competent reps to get to unconscious competence.
One of the strongest differentiators among young athletes who later went on to become professionals versus those who did not achieve that level, was simply the number of hours spent playing pick up games.
Top musicians started taking SYSTEMATIC lessons around age 8 and decided to become musicians around age 15. “Professionals” differed in time spent practicing on their own, 25 hours per week, versus the “best experts” who practiced 10 hours per week. As a professional lacrosse player myself now, it’s ironic because I used to tell people before I knew these facts, that I used to play “wall ball” 5 hours/day, 5 days/week during my summers.
Where I went wrong, at times, which is probably the most important differentiating factor in the studies on the topic of accumulated hours of practice, was in terms of DELIBERATE PRACTICE; I used to just do what I thought was best, at random.
Deliberate practice is the kind of error focused, hard, effortful work that only those who are supremely motivated to excel will do. It requires high focus, concentration and attention to inputs, with behavioural flexibility of outputs. It is often more of a solitary activity. It has to be at an appropriate but challenging level, providing opportunity for repetition of new skills and the correction of errors as skills are being learned. Deliberate practice involves the constant transitioning from one skill state to a higher, more proficient one.
A central feature is the constant evaluation of one’s current skill state against that of a more skilled model. Experts continue deliberate practice for a much longer time, possibly indefinitely, in order to advance skill. The late Kobe Bryant was well known for his efforts in this capacity. Continued deliberate practice enables top performers to maintain skills that would otherwise decline with age.
For the record, 4-5 hours a day is the upper limit of “deliberate practice” (with sessions lasting 60-90 mins). You can push players to this volume of practice, as long as it’s done methodically, and as long as they can count on basic human comforts like eating and sleeping well.
The average person usually drops deliberate practice for a less rigorous, more repetitious form of practice once an acceptable level of competence is achieved. This was me, in my early wall ball days; I was kind of just doing whatever, whenever. Was I relying on repetition too much?
A very important question for coaches is when do performers need stability of movement vs. variability of movement? The task for a good coach is finding an appropriate balance between stability & variability. Stability provides structure to the players’ performance; while variability allows them to deal with the uncertainty of situational-specific task demands, created by specific opposition & performance conditions (situational awareness).
With “Constant” practice, conditions don’t change, you always use: same balls, same surface, same time of day, same footwork, same stickwork, etc.
In the early stages of skill acquisition one typically focuses on emulating the model and the process of properly executing the mental and physical strategies necessary for competent performance. Eventually focus shifts from process monitoring to outcome monitoring (desired result). During this acquisition phase, mental or cognitive resources are limited because the individual must continuously process the activity requirements in their working memory. Drills should be repeated until good habits/instincts are established; players must go through the physical act of making adjustments until repetition is replaced by instincts.
During the acquisition stage there is a clear advantage for players who practised under “blocked” conditions. By definition, these are simple drills based on repetitions for a set period of time. Blocked practice facilitates early performance but is not as effective as random practice during later retention and transfer to game situations. One exception is that at minimal levels of practice, blocked practice produces better retention than does random practice, but this effect is reversed with additional levels of practice. There is actually a strong advantage for retention with players who practice under random conditions in the acquisition phase.
Retention by nature, requires random conditions. Most real-world behaviours are not produced in blocked contexts. Manipulations that degrade the speed of acquisition can better support the long-term goals of training. As sports scientists we often say “specificity of practice comes first.” Well, variability of practice comes next…
Variable practice adds a layer of “Contextual Interference” to the fundamental skill development process, creating better long term retention of skills.
Increasing the amount of task variability required during practice depresses performance during training, yet facilitates performance on later tests of the ability to generalize training to altered conditions. “Variable practice” alters the practice context to force a change in behaviour from trial to trial. During this “Motor Complication Phase,” subtle changes in timing, tempo or situation may result in significant disruptions in performance. Skills should be performed from various distances, directions, and speeds.
It can be useful to progressively build up the speed (using constant practice conditions) at which a fundamental skill is being executed, helping establish generalized motor patterns (muscle ordering).
Intermediate players should practice all varieties of a skill in a more unpredictable way (as opposed to block repetition). Variable practice by definition is practicing many variations of a single class of actions instead of simple repetition of the same skill and can also include environmental factors such as: heat, noise, fatigue, anxiety, pressure, ball type, bad calls, etc. During truly random practice, tasks from several classes of skills are experienced in random order and randomized so that a given task is never practiced on successive trials.
If the final retention interval is short, massed reps can yield better performance than spaced reps.
The focus of this article thus far, has primarily been on the variability side of the practice equation. The point of this last infographic (seen above) is to show you that the distribution of drills/reps is equally important.
Minor box lacrosse is played at a 1:2 work:rest ratio, meaning that for every 1 minute shift, you get a 2 minute break on the bench. How often do you consider that as a coach? Do you do it when you are arranging drills in one end versus both ends? Do you do it when you are developing the cardio capacity of your players?
The fact is that new concepts are best learned at a 1:7 work-to-rest ratio. Of course, we do want a lot of repetition early in the acquisition stages, so we gradually consolidate the skill to a game-like distribution of 1:2. Do you account for this in your training?
So imagine yourself at the sacred wall. The one you’ve been scoping out for, everywhere, since you moved to town. The one with a fence at the back of it, so if you miss the ball you don’t have to run a mile to get it. The one with a level playing surface, similar to a box (maybe you are lucky enough to have an outdoor box closeby!). I used to play my “wall ball” behind a grocery store. We would chalk small targets onto the wall and play games to see who could hit it the most, using some specified technique. My business partner Looney B, said him and his brother Flip used to chalk out and measure a 4 x 4 net against the school wall, and his Dad would make them hit the top corner 10 times in a row before they could leave.
This is how you get to the unconscious competence, or automatic expertise. In the autonomous phase cognitive processing requirements are low, thereby freeing up mental resources for other activities. This gives you more time to notice other things that matter. If you become extraordinarily good at noticing and then acting to deal with what you notice, you may eventually move into the realm of unconscious competence, or automatic expertise. There are days when Tiger Woods stands over the ball and everything is automatic. But most of the time he has to be consciously competent, fully aware of what he is doing and making small adjustments. This level of automacy spawned from thousands of hours of deliberate practice, among many of the character traits required, including the discipline.
- Beginners try to hit a 30cm by 30 cm target
- Intermediate try to hit a 15cm by 15 cm target
- Advanced try to hit a 10cm by 10cm target
Stationary Passing Routine (15m Away):
Stationary Shooting Routine (15m Away):
*Dynamic Passing Routine (Various Distances/Angles):
*Dynamic Shooting Routine (Various Distances/Angles):
*perform all variations with a short run forward (north-south), east-west across the net, east-west dragging across the net, short back-pedal (north south)
**Use a 1:1 (Offense) or 1:2 (Defense) work:rest ratio (i.e. hard effort for 30 seconds - 1 min active recovery)
March 26, 2020