Three Tools for Highly Productive Practice

images-6What if you could measure the productivity of each practice session? That is, what if you could look beneath the surface and see precisely how much learning and progress each session generates?

If you did, I think you’d find that your productivity, like so many things in life, probably follows a bell curve.

At one end, you would find a small number of practice sessions that are unproductive. In the middle, you would find a majority that are fairly productive. But out on the far end, you would find a small handful of practice sessions that are insanely productive.

The question is, how can you nudge your curve so that you have more of those super-productive sessions? Here are three ideas, drawn from high-performing coaches and teachers.

1. Keep Score 

Games are fueled by a scoreboard — why should practice be any different? University of Virginia women’s soccer coach Steve Swanson (who’s also an assistant on the U.S. Women’s National Team) scores each of his team’s practices on four qualities, rating each on a scale of 1-3:

  • Performance
  • Effort
  • Attitude
  • Communication

The most important part: Swanson posts the practice scores in the locker room. In addition, prior to each practice he secretly selects two players to receive what he calls Accountability Scores — basically, how well they achieved the goals of performance, effort, attitude, and communication that day — then delivers those scores to the players when practice is over.

Sometimes players disagree with the scores he gives. Which, as Swanson points out, is not a bad thing. Because it creates the kind of conversation he wants the team to have.

2) Design to Maximize High-Quality Reps

Probably the most high-leverage factor in productive practice is how you plan and structure each activity. The key metric here is the number of high-quality reps being generated.

Here’s a good example from Doug Lemov (whose books on building teacher skill are indispensable).

Designing class this way — cold-calling, so that each student generates an answer — the teacher maximizes the number of high-quality reps. If the teacher had selected a student before asking the question, one rep would be generated. By asking the question and then selecting a student, thirty reps are generated. That is, a small change in design leads to a massive increase in productivity.

Good design is revealed through a simple eye test: Are people standing around, waiting for their turn? Or is everyone on point, leaning forward, actively engaged?

3) Build a Practice Culture

The real value of a practice session isn’t determined by what happens in practice, but by the way the group’s leaders value practice. That is, how they talk about it, treat it, and the set of group habits that gives it meaning.

Here’s a vivid example of how an organization builds a culture around practice, from the Seattle Seahawks

Look at how intentionally Pete Carroll establishes the value of practice. That prioritization is upheld by a series of habits — tapping in to start, competing on each rep — that serve as signals that orient everyone to the larger truth: practice is the most important thing we do together, not just because it’s where the games are really won, but also because it’s where our identity is created.

I’d love to hear about any other tools teachers and coaches use to make their sessions better.