“It’s strange to me too, but we’re talking about practice man, we’re not even talking about the game…the actual game, when it matters…We’re talking about practice. We’re sitting here, I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re in here talking about practice.” – Allen Iverson 2001.
Some who read this post may be too young to remember Allen Iverson’s rant against Coach Larry Brown’s criticism of him for missing practice after the 76ers’ lost to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Some might agree with Iverson that Brown was out of line for criticizing him for missing practice. After all, it was just practice. He didn’t miss a game. He just missed practice. What’s so important about practice?
Games ARE important, especially at the professional level where WINNING is the most important thing. Some might argue that we play a sport, such as baseball, to play baseball, not to train to play baseball. When you play in games, you learn the rules and strategies through the process of trial-and-error which can be refined with good coaching and game experience. There is no substitute for the experience gained by playing in a real game. You can’t simulate or imitate the numerous nuances of the game in real time, it’s not possible. Games provide the reaction elements of baseball that make it unique. No matter how hard or how much you practice, you can’t be prepared to defend against a squeeze play or perform a cut-off and relay if you have never executed them in an actual game. Game reps are essential for player development.
But how about learning the skills of the game? Are games the most efficient and effective way to develop skill sets? Successful coaches will tell you that playing real games, while important, has a minimal effect on skill development. Why? Because playing in a game doesn’t offer enough repetitions to improve the fundamental skills needed to improve hitting, fielding, throwing, pitching, base running, sliding, etc. Most improvements occur during practice when players are given enough time and opportunities to work on specific skills with concentration and immediate feedback.
Have you every gone to your child, sibling or friend’s youth game and counted the number of times he swung the bat, fielded a ground ball, caught a flyball or made a throw to a base or cutoff man? It’s not very many. Most player get 2-3 ABs per game and except for the pitcher and catcher touch the ball 1-2 times per game. The numbers get better as you move up to high school, college and pro ball, but not enough to provide the volume of reps needed to improve skill.
Why do you think the pros take ground balls and practice catching fly balls during batting practice? It’s not because of tradition. It’s because they don’t get enough reps during games to maintain and improve skills. If you watch a game and record movements, you will see that most MLB players on average get 3-4 at bats per game, swing the bat 5-6 times, put the ball into play every 2-3 PAs, run all-out every 3-4 ABs and field and throw about 2-3 times per game. These values will vary somewhat by position and from game-to-game, but over the course of a 162-game season, even MLB players don’t consistently get enough reps during individual games to maintain and improve performance.
In theory, if you only play games, you will eventually get better. In real life, however, playing lots of games without practicing skills and correcting mistakes from previous games is not the best way to improve performance. In many youth and high school teams, the kids show up hoping that they will play better than the last game. When they win, the coach says – “We are getting better.” But when they lose, he says – “We need more practice.” Why did the team get better when they won and worst when they lost? Because their game did not develop, the opponent changed. It was better or worst. Players develop the skills and abilities needed to succeed in games during practice. You can’t play effectively without practice. You have to practice essential skills until you are comfortable enough to apply them in game situations. Practice reps are essential for successful team performance and player development.
Practice has to be meaningful, efficient and purposeful. The quality of practice is more important than the quantity of practice. Fewer good reps are better than a lot of lower-quality reps. Practice versus game reps is no different. Quality practice reps develop skills and improve ability on a continuous basis. Playing a lot of games provides limited time and opportunities to develop skills. You learn how to play against your present opponent and have to learn a new opponent each game.
You have probably heard the phrases “You play like you practice” and “Practice is Permanent.” That’s because when you practice and train, you not only train your muscles, you train your brain. Your brain can accept quality, directed, purposeful practice and training or it can accept laziness, inaccuracy, sloppiness and poor skill execution. It’s foolish to believe that you can give sloppy, half-hearted effort and your performance will be OK and everything will somehow magically be right during the game. For optimal performance and effective player development we need both quality practice and in-game experiences.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.