The Power of Planning a Practice (Tony Lepore)

(Doug Lemov, the author of best-selling school teaching books "Teach Like a Champion" and “Practice Perfect," works with the U.S. Soccer Federation to improve coaching through better teaching and has been researching soccer coaching techniques.)

By Doug Lemov

On the day I observed Tony Lepore, the Director of Scouting for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, he had a lot to accomplish at the U.S. Soccer Training Center session. He had 36 players in from across the Northeast for a two-hour training. In that time his goal was to run a practice that developed the skills at the core U.S. Soccer's approach to the game, short controlled passing and possession.

In addition to that he wanted to evaluate the 36 players, not just who might be ready to take the next step individually and who was on the steepest (or flattest) development curve, but how was the group progressing? What parts of their collective game were and weren’t being developed at their clubs? What’s more, Lepore was trying to model a practice that matched U.S. Soccer’s style of play for a group of assembled coaches from elite clubs that feed players to the national team system. Ideally this would allow them to align their training to U.S. Soccer’s and develop payers more effectively.

When you’re trying to get that much done in two hours, you’ve got to be efficient, and Lepore’s practice was a monument to the effective use of time. He accomplished more -- more high quality touches per player; more productive feedback; more relationship and team building -- in two hours than other coaches might do in twice that, and the key to this was planning.

Days before Lepore had mapped out not just his activities but the physical space and he and his assistants had the equipment laid out in advance: grids were laid out with color-coded cones (each grid an alternating color so the players could tell their grid from the neighboring one apart easily), a soccer ball sat waiting exactly in the center of each grid (it was clear by this set up that they were not free for the taking) and even the required pinnies sat in a pile just to the side of each grid. But the impeccable preparation wasn’t just for the first drill -- the equipment for the entire practice, was laid out in advance.

WASTED TIME ADDS UP. At most practices, there’s an inevitable five-minute downtime -- often disguised as a too-long water Break -- while the coach scurries around to set the cones for the next activity. When Lepore finished a drill he merely asked players to remove a certain color of cone and they were ready to move on to the next activity with zero down time.

“We often use a stopwatch in evaluating practices,” Lepore noted, “how long downtimes last, how long transitions are from one activity to the next. We try to measure how many touches, how many repetitions, how many of the players are involved.”

The differences may seem trivial at first but efficiency is surely among the most significant determinants of success is how productive training is.

Consider a coach who starts a practice exactly on time and transitions directly from activity to activity. Compared to a coach who starts 2 and half minutes after the designated time and takes just one minute to transition the difference will be almost 11 extra hours of extra training over the course of a typical year. At roughly six touches per minute that’s about 4,000 more touches. Add just one additional touch per minute by making things more efficient during running time -- smaller groups with a ball; less time chasing lost balls; clearer directions followed the first time, and you add another 9000 touches per year, the equivalent of another 20-plus hours of training.

FEW WORDS; PRECISE WORDS. Lepore’s commitment to engineering training to maximize time on task was consistently supported by his planning and evident throughout his practice, sometimes in surprising ways. Consider his approach to talking. A coach’s words are one of the most critical teaching tools he or she has. High quality explanation and feedback are necessary to achieving excellence in execution and to shaping players’ perception and mindset, but too much talking can be a problem.

A few precise words make play more efficient, but too much time spent standing and listening rather than playing has a negative effect. Moreover words have a diminishing marginal return -- people listen carefully at first but give progressively less attention to each additional sentence.

A coach who uses too many words dilutes his most important ones. Further, human brain capacity is finite. Giving players one or two things to focus on while executing a drill will likely improve them, but giving them four or five can have the opposite effect. Trying to do five things at once has the same result as trying to do nothing.

In Lepore’s first drill, “Triangle Passing,” the feedback was part of the planning. Players executed for about three minutes at a time, during which they received only limited feedback -- a coach might tell a player he’d done well; another might remind players about crisp passes. Then players stopped for 30 seconds of precise feedback before starting up again.

At each interval Lepore gave them just one new thing to focus on -- how to open up their bodies in the direction of play when they received the ball, for example. Lepore not only used a stopwatch to time how long the boys played but more interestingly, to time his own feedback and to hold himself accountable for staying brief, clear and to-the-point. Thirty seconds to make the point -- then back at it.

Even the question of what to give feedback about was part of the planning. Lepore keeps a list on a note card in his pocket of the most important teaching points about any drill -- the three most important things to get right or the two most common mistakes.

EFFICIENCY & CLARITY. But perhaps the most unexpected effect of careful planning was evidenced in the intangibles of Lepore’s practice. While people sometimes associate high levels of organization with a cold impersonal tone, Lepore’s practice felt thoughtful and responsive. As players arrived, Lepore mingled and greeted, asking about families and club progress. In a potentially tense environment Lepore created a mood that was focused and serious but warm and open -- “serious fun” as he put it, and it’s worth observing that he could afford to focus on people during the first few minutes because his other work had been done -- the field was set up, the pinnies distributed, his fellow coaches briefed on activities and roles.

After practice, Lepore shared observations of training sessions at elite clubs around the world. The mundane aspects of the training session often pass beneath the notice of observing coaches but they are critical to driving results. Regarding a trip to observe at Dynamo Zagreb, Lepore notes that to some “it didn’t look that different,” except that everything was a bit more efficient and on-message.

“Some coaches might expect magic. And they might say, ‘I didn’t hear much’ but they might not notice the progression among the exercises, the efficiency, the clarity of the guidance on how to do it well.”

This observation is not only a crucial but exciting as well. Just about any coach could make great strides in building a better practice regardless of his or her tactical knowledge and experience, merely by being a little more efficient: Planning feedback, tracking time talking vs. time playing with a stopwatch, setting up space in advance. Such things are easy to execute if coaches make them a priority.

(Doug Lemov is the author of “Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College,” a study of teachers who get exceptional results in high-poverty schools. He’s also co-author with Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi of “Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better,” a study of the art of practicing. His books have been translated into nine languages and he works with the U.S. Soccer Federation to improve coaching through better teaching. He blogs at Twitter: @Doug_Lemov)

Further Reading:
Earlier this year the Youth Soccer Insider featured a three-part interview with Doug Lemov:
1. “What Teachers can Teach Coaches”
2. "Say it carefully, quickly, clearly"
3. “Don't get mad at kids for struggling”

1 comment about "The Power of Planning a Practice (Tony Lepore)".
  1. Charles Inverso, March 2, 2014 at 8:24 a.m.

    Nothing that was written here should come as a suprise to anyone who knows Tony. He is one of our top coaches and his influence needs to be felt throughout all levels of US Soccer. He had a chance to grow up around some of the best coaches this country has ever produced and he is taking full advantage of that opportunity.

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