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3 Ways to Encourage Purposeful Practice With Your Youth Athletes

goalsetting practice youth Jan 30, 2018

Recently, a 13 year-old athlete came to our meeting in the shirt below. Sam received this gift and was waiting to share it with me. We’ve been working together for 3 months and introduction of mental skills training to his sport development has been instrumental in his injury rehabilitation and confidence. He showed up ready to train, journal in hand. The part that struck me was the level of maturity, preparation and passion for his sport that he chose to share and therefore, this simple t-shirt and conversation starter became the focus of our session. “No Apollogies”, a play on words and the brand of shirt, but at a thematic foundational level, commitment and motivation.

 Lately, I have been challenging athletes to incorporate individualized planning and use performance profiling, specifically in relation to their training, competition, and development. Simple to some however, I have discovered the significance of motivation as the catalyst that puts things into action and thus, needs to be included and discussed within their sporting experiences. We know that value of mental and psychological preparation is significant but ultimately it is the “understanding the psychological factors that can influence athletic performance” (Gould & Eklund, 2007, p. 231) when combined the other types of training as each is interdependent on the other.

After a review of his recent training, Sam said to me, “we need to work”. Talk about motivation. For such a young athlete to be THIS engaged and ready for a mental training session was a little shocking. Needless to say it motivated me to up my game.

So what do you do when such an intrinsically motivated young man says, it’s go time and isn’t referring to on ice training? I had to think on my feet as I was not prepared for this level of engagement. Throw debriefing the last game out the window - his imagery program was already designed and being practiced so I went straight to purposeful practice as I thought to myself, “we need to turn this motivation into a tangible thing”.

Purposeful or “Deliberate Practice”, a term commonly used by coaching staff and athletes alike emerged from research by Florida State University Professor Anders Ericsson.

“Purposeful Practice” just like it reads, reflects the experience of having a plan or intention or deliberate behavior when practicing a skill or training in sport. 

Throughout the session, Sam and I discussed aspects of his technical training he wanted to work on and came up with a plan of what to focus on for his next 2 practice sessions. He felt that sometimes he gets distracted by others (who perhaps aren’t on the same page as him) which can be a common issue for dedicated and competitive youth athletes in team sports. So I said to him, “what do you think we need to do for you to find value in practice?” His response, “I need to get something out of it”.  Made sense to me – he needs to find his OWN value. So how do we encourage athletes to find this “individual value” in skill development and mastery at such a young age? 

Cue Purposeful Practice and Goal Setting!  Below are three topics we reviewed together. I am looking forward to an update and if he was able to implement in practice. 

3 Ways to Put Purposeful Practice into Action

 ·      Be Prepared: Have your athletes prepare for practice by following their same routine and encourage a discussion about the intention of practice, the purpose of the drills or types of training for the session. Clearly outline directions and offer an opportunity for athletes to ask questions about “what and why we are doing these specific drills or exercises”.  This facilitates a solid setting for each athlete to understand their responsibilities, to work within the coach-driven practice while creating some autonomy in their role within it. Also, it enables athletes to think critically about what they need to work on within this space.

·      Goal Setting: Take 5 minutes and have your athletes set one simple goal for practice. Use the “S.M.A.R.T acronym (see below) to provide direction on goal setting if they are the age where they need assistance. If they are older athletes, have them quantify the goal of each drill.

 Sport Example in Volleyball:  If they have to dig 5 balls from a defensive position, 3 of them need to be “3 passes before they get out of the drill”.

Once they achieve the goal, aspects of confidence and mastery are being built, developed, and explored from a mental training perspective.

·      Review and Reflection: Have your athlete use their training log to record their focus for their session, goal setting exercises, and review experience. Don’t be afraid to ask questions regarding the challenges they faced, what they focused on technically, and how they might apply to a competition at a later date.

Athlete Reflection: When you practice in your sport, what is one thing you need to be better at doing? Example:  A Technical Skill, A Tactical Decision, Focusing on your job on the court? How might you prepare to work on this one skill in practice with purpose or intention? How will you make it your focus in different drills and communicate with your coach in regards to your development?

Coaches Reflection:  How might you encourage your athletes to stick to purposeful practice when they hit the field/court/ice and find value in these training sessions? Depending on the age and competitive level, how will you discuss motivation in practice while still supporting “having fun”? 

For further toolsregarding goal setting and training your mental game check out our store page.

Works Cited: Gould, D., & Eklund, R.C. (2007). The application of sport psychology for performance optimization. In D. Smith & M. Bar-Eli (Eds.), Essential readings in sport and exercise psychology (pp. 231-240). Windsor, ON: Human Kinetics.