“The Press Box” for December 23
Practice. The word often induces fits of whining, tears and tantrums from grade school students when parents schedule practice time for things like piano and reading. I don’t have any musical talent, so my parents never made me play an instrument, but I do remember my folks making me practice spelling words. I also recall well the embarrassment and disappointment the times I didn’t listen and was handed back a graded spelling test that was going to need a parent’s signature. Little did I know then how practice would make such an important impact in my adolescent life and adult career. Let’s break it down.
The title I chose for this Press Box is not the often quoted “Practice makes Perfect,” but rather “Practice makes Permanent” for the simple reason that perfect is not obtainable but practicing something regularly will make it a permanent habit. The human brain is an amazing tool. It has limitless power to learn, remember and create. The brain also has the ability to change and evolve over our lifetime. According to Judy Willis, M.D., M. Ed. and Psychology Today, “Each time a memory circuit activates electric impulses travel through it. These impulses generate more expansive and stronger connections among the brain cells of that memory circuit. The newly enhanced information becomes more durable, more readily retrieved, and more easily applied to new applications.” In other words when we understand it’s within our power to build more powerful memories and a stronger skill set through repeated activation of memory circuits, practice suddenly seems a lot more attractive!
There are numerous questions surrounding the value of practice. I have my own opinion which I will share, but we have many great coaches in our own backyard, so I set off to find out their different philosophies and thoughts on the subject.
In the very beginning of my career straight out of college, I landed a job as an assistant coach at Magnolia High School. Under Dave Cisar, I served as an assistant in both football and baseball for four years, and then six years as the head football coach at Nicholas County High School in Summersville WV. Coach Cisar gave me my start. He helped set my desire to be a head coach and how I would conduct my program someday. I can tell you that many of things that I did offensively came from Coach Cisar; however, my philosophy on practice was my own way of doing things.
I believed that you had to find ways to make practicing fun and productive. It is not easy to convince kids in the heat of August to practice football. In Nicholas County there were many kids that played for me, and some had to be on the activity bus which ran everyday at 6:30 p.m. in order to have a ride home. Nicholas County is a big beautiful mountainous county in West Virginia, and I can remember on one particular day, practice was not going well. I told the kids they would be missing the activity bus, but that I would give those that needed it a ride home, so we continued to practice until 7:30. BIG MISTAKE on my part. I had 4 kids that needed a ride, and by the time I dropped them off and got home it was 11:00 p.m. I didn’t realize how far these kids had to travel in order to play football, and it opened my eyes to the fact that length of practice is not nearly as important as quality of practice. I was famous for saying one more play as we neared the end of each day. I can recall one day after 25 “one more play” statements the kids came back to huddle and said, “Coach, if we go one more you will be driving us home again.” Practice ended on the spot.
Bob Ripley, Assistant Football Coach for 40 years and Head Basketball Coach for 6 years at Magnolia High School applied the same goals and philosophy to both sports. His tried and true belief is Attitude Controls Behavior. “If you practice with a great attitude your behavior on Friday night will be successful,” explained Coach Ripley. His expectations for a great practice would be that every drill must be short but with great intensity and always do drills with best on best players. Coach Ripley believes the whole practice should mirror game type conditions. “That’s how you get in game shape. I was never a big fan of after practice conditioning. The players sometimes hold back during practice waiting on after practice conditioning!”
Vance Ash, Assistant Baseball Coach at Tyler Consolidated, believes in bringing great energy to practice and using practice for teachable moments to stress fundamentals, to instill discipline by repeating the correct way to do things, and conditioning. He also feels prepared athletes succeed more than they fail. “You need to convince your coaches and players that what they are working on in practice is the best thing for the program and the kids. Once everybody is on board, then your program has a chance to be competitive. Wins and losses will take care of themselves,” said Coach Ash.
Ryan Walton, Head Football Coach at Tyler Consolidated, shared his philosophy. Coach Walton believes in teaching the game of football in practice by pushing the kids to be the best they can be and then taking them a little further. “Never be satisfied with where you are, always look to get better.” Coach Walton addressed the importance of off season training. “In today’s sports, if you’re not working in the off-season you’re not going to reach your ceiling of performance. The offseason is foundation building; during the season is when you display your individual and team gains,” Coach explained. Also, he stresses to his athletes the importance of accountability. He feels if the athlete is not committed to practice and getting better they are wasting time, and the difference is very evident between an athlete that puts time in during the offseason and one that doesn’t. Coach Walton makes sure he goes into each practice with a schedule. “It’s a must to me, or you end up not completing everything you want in a day. A schedule keeps you on track” Coach Walton shared.
Zach Heasley, head football coach at Paden City High School, explains he approaches practice with the mindset that his team needs to get better every day. “Two things I expect every day from our guys when we go into practice are high energy and execution. Without those two things, what can we truly accomplish? When the guys bring energy, it leads to confidence,” stated Coach. “When it comes to execution, seeing improvement in balls caught, great passes, and plays timed right, it makes for a great practice. The overall success rate in games comes from practice.” Coach Heasley also doesn’t see value in his guys conditioning at the end of practice because he believes his guys aren’t running suicides on the field during the game; they are running plays. “Our conditioning is running two minute offense up and down the field and running pursuit drills for defense.
This gives the guys a sense of urgency to get on the ball and execute the next play even if tired. In games, you’ll notice that our guys are in good shape, and I believe it’s because of that.”
Thanks go out to Coach Ripley, Coach Ash, Coach Walton and Coach Heasley for making time to talk with me. I appreciate their input and value their opinions.
It seems a lifetime ago I was playing college ball for the Fighting Falcons of Fairmont State College, but I can easily remember my playing days, and how I thought I was prepared for training camp. It was tough. Continuous two and sometimes three a day practices made you wish you were doing something else. Full pads every practice and full contact was the normal. Water breaks did not exist. Oh how times have changed in the last 40 years and all for the better. Practice is still hard, but water breaks are many and less contact is vital. Losing a player to injury today in practice is a no-no. Even the NFL has strict guidelines governing how much you can practice and how much contact you can have during the week.
I was able to observe many practice sessions when Bill Stewart was the head football coach at WVU. Bill and I played together at Fairmont State and were good friends. Watching his approach to getting things accomplished was very impressive.
He was a big believer in teaching and delivering the message in ways only he could do. For example, when things didn’t go well for any individual Coach Stewart would make them run the stadium steps. There were times Bill would run the steps with them constantly reminding them of their mistake. It only took one time on the steps for any behavior not to be repeated.
In closing, I believe all coaches approach practice differently and each has his own way of conducting a practice with one goal in mind – prepare the best you can to face any obstacle that is in front of you. Acknowledge it will take time and a supreme effort just like any other part of becoming excellent because this is true, not only in sports, but in life. Writing this makes me want to go to the practice range.