There is a myth in coaching that sports practice should be performed at game speed… to emulate the pressures of a real game. The theory is that it is pointless to learn a new skill at a slow, unrealistic, speed which will never get the job done against a real opponent.
Of course, once an athlete, in training, has achieved a high degree of competence at a sports skill, that skill needs to be practiced regularly at game speed (and even faster than game speed) but it is unlikely that mastery would ever be achieved if that athlete refused to progress their learning through a range of speeds from very slow, to slow, to moderate, to fast while learning the skill.
Taking it slow and basic can even work for elite athletes. One successful USA national ski team coach used to, occasionally, instruct his entire team of down hill skiers to take a top to bottom run doing snow plough turns as slowly as they could. He believed (and his athletes came to agree with him) that it is important to be reminded of what it feels like for a ski edge to bite hard into the snow from time to time.
Slower speeds first!
Like many people during the times of covid, I have spent a bit of time lately working on my house, cleaning my yard, and improving my guitar playing skills. The other day I was watching a well-known, on-line, guitar coach and his lesson turned towards the subject of speed of practice. He argued that, while playing fast was a great goal, few players achieve the goal of playing quickly and accurately without going through hours and hours of practice at slower speeds first. His approach to determining speed of practice sounded pretty clever and it occurred to me that it would work just as well for athletes learning a sport or new skill in their sport as it would for musicians.
The guitar picker coach believed that everyone should start learning a new skill at the slowest speed possible. Once the basics were achiev-
ed at a dead slow tempo, progress through faster speeds should be determined by the fuck-up rate of the musician. The coach argued that long blocks of practice time should be executed at a speed just below where the learning musician fucks up the passage or technique that they are learning. In other words, don’t keep practicing at the speed where you keep on fucking up in the hope that you will eventually get over the fuck ups. That might work eventually, but it is much slower and likely to produce bad habits far more than working hard at the speed range just below where you are fucking up. Once the passage or technique is nailed in terms of accuracy and style at the non fuck up speed, then the musician should move on to a faster level.
Many sports coaches would reel in horror at the “slow it down” approach. They would fear that their athletes might lose interest in practice (or in the sport itself) if they adopted such a “boring” methodology. Taking things through a range of speeds, though, doesn’t have to be boring. On the contrary, progressing successfully through a range of speeds in a game-like activity can be exciting and motivational as individuals (or a team) see their level of skill measurably increasing while enjoying the practice game at the same time.
Achieve success before moving on!
It’s simple really. The coach and his/her assistants describe and demonstrate the activity/game then instruct the athletes (both attackers and defenders – if the activity requires both) to start out by walking through the game initially. If the players struggle, even at walking pace, the coach should have a simplified version of the activity up their sleeve to enable the players to achieve success before moving on. When the players are performing well within the activity then the coach should provide feedback, demonstrate any refinements required, then ask the players to start the game again but, this time, at a slow jog. Bit by bit the speed should be increased until the players begin to make significant errors in technique or teamwork. At this point, the coach should ask the players to drop back the speed, just a little, so that the activity can be performed with optimum competence.
After the players complete minutes at the required competence level the coach might want to then move onto another activity but not before congratulating his/her charges with the progress they have made and suggesting to them that their goal will be to get even better at the activity at the next meeting. Over several training sessions the team should be able to ramp up their performance of the activity/game to full game speed and even beyond (which is the ideal).
The best part about the “start slow” approach for a coach is that it enables a really challenging activity or skill to be introduced to learning athletes without the fear that it will be impossible for them to perform the activity with any degree of success. If a really tough activity (that the coach might initially have thought was beyond his or her team) is started at walking pace then the team may well achieve a degree of success enabling them to move onto performing the activity at more challenging speeds as their competence progresses. This would be highly encouraging for the athletes.
According to the guitar coach the sweet spot for significant practice should be the speed just below where the learners fuck up. Makes sense to me. I reckon it could work in sport too.