Practice like you play is one of the most common terms used in sports. Unfortunately, most teams and programs are not enabling their athletes to do this. The current model for many programs consists of pairing general strength training with aerobic exercise. This model has been used for a number of years. While general strength programs and aerobic exercise maybe good for general fitness, they are certainly not optimal for building elite athletes and preparing them for game-time situations.
The scientific literature and proven methods for training athletes in more sports specific ways are available, yet many teams, even at the highest level, refuse to abandon their archaic models of athletic development and game preparation. The teams that are willing to abandon their old models of athlete development and start applying more sports-specific based programs that focus on high intensity movements and tailor to each athletes physical needs will no doubt have a tremendous advantage.
A recent article in the New York Times magazine, written by Michael Sokolove, provides an excellent example of this. Sokolove’s piece, titled Speed-Freak Football, examines the factors that have lead to the extreme success of University Oregon’s football program this season. This excerpt from Sokolove’s piece draws attention to the types of methodologies that more teams should apply:
Oregon does no discrete conditioning during practice, no “gassers” — the sideline-to-sideline sprints that are staples in many programs — and no “110s” — sprints from the goal line to the back of the opposite end zone. The practice itself serves as conditioning. Just as they do during games, Oregon’s players run play after play — offensive sets; punt and kickoff returns and coverages; field goals; late-game two-minute drills — but at a pace that exceeds what they can achieve on Saturdays. Nick Aliotti, Oregon’s defensive coordinator, explained that the team can go even faster in practice because the “referees” — student managers sprinting around in striped shirts — spot the ball faster than any real game official would.
Oregon practices faster than they play and the form of practice they conduct is much more in tune with the physiological demands of the sport. A football game consists of many high-intensity, short-duration bouts consisting of many different movements, each having varying effects on energy cost. The high intensity short duration bouts are commonly followed by a certain period of rest, where players are in the huddle or lining up for the next play. If a team is doing side line to side line sprints or “110s” too often, they are not using their time efficiently and are hindering development. An athlete may be able to run “110s” all day, but what happens when someone jams him at the line of scrimmage and he has to find a way to get free, sprint 30 yards down the field, jump, make a catch and then avoid getting tackled? Will he be able to get up and do it again and again throughout the course of a game? When Oregon practices faster than they play, doing game specific movements, they are enabling their athletes to develop energy systems and the type of endurance that will allow them to thrive when the lights are on.
There are two things that stand out about the Ducks. First is the way they practice, which focuses on tempo, speed and efficiency above all else, second is the way coaches call plays, emphasizing the cumulative effect of running plays very quickly, ultimately making the opposition completely exhausted and utterly confused.
Oregon sequences its plays and formations in such a way that it can push the tempo even after pass attempts. The running-backs coach, Gary Campbell, told me that if a receiver on the right side of a formation is sent on a crossing pattern to the other side of the field, Oregon coaches have already planned a formation for the next play that keeps him on the side of the field where he finished. (Sokolove)
After Oregon’s extremely successful season it will be interesting to see how many teams begin to apply the innovative means of play calling and rationale game specific types of practices. While it may take teams a few years to integrate Oregon’s style of sequencing plays into their system, every team could begin to improve their performance right away if they started conducting more efficient practices that focused on building their athletes anaerobic capacity with frequent high intensity movements, short periods of rest, in a way that is specific to the needs of the individual athlete and sport, as well as the demands of the actual game. The science and proven methods are there and it is time for teams to say goodbye to their old models and attempt to start practicing like they play.