Start here at this post from Daniel Coyle, the author of The Talent Code. From teaching methods to brain function, Coyle is all about figuring out how talent is developed. Useful stuff if you’re into something like, say, coaching ultimate.
The linked article recaps a fit-to-operate-on-the-President trauma surgeon telling Coyle about the the best training session he’s ever been a part of. A staged accident interrupted a med school lecture and the students had to react as if it was real. Instructors taped the whole thing and after the “victims” were “treated” the class went back to the classroom, watched and analyzed, and– he calls this “the powerful thing”– did the whole thing over again to correct errors.
Coyle goes on to discuss the difference between learning by listening to a lecture and learning by “doing real things, paying keen attention to your mistakes, then doing those things over again.”
Wait, are we talking about medical crisis response… or building an ultimate team?
Both, it turns out. In emailing back and forth about Coyle’s recap, Mario O’Brien, our producer and creative director aka the man behind this here machine, told me that every ultimate drill he builds is based on this progression: technique leads to reps leads to performance in a pressure or game-like situation. I’ve always tried to do the same: one example is starting practice with a focus on turn mechanics, then having players run isolated cutting patterns with a defender, then adding in more pairs of offense/defense so that they have to share space and ensure that there’s a continuation option.
Rio’s and my conversation got interesting when it turned philosophical. What, exactly, is a drill?
Is it throwing with a friend? Focused throwing with a friend? Scrimmaging? Probably not; throwing is practicing a skill, and scrimmaging is practicing a game. A drill, we agreed, is practicing a skill you’ve learned in a setting that replicates a particular section of the game. Teams run drills for endzone offense and what to do when the disc swings into power position, for example.
And the way we drill can be better.
“What I’m working to get away from,” Rio told me, “is the idea that we’re stuck with the drills we all came up learning.” Using the standard breakmark drill where a cutter goes out up the break side and then back in, he said teams often practice movements they rarely use in games: people rarely make long cuts out on the break side and then back in on the same side, yet here 90% of teams are, practicing throwing to that cut. Instead, it’s more common to see offenses that use short breaks to the front of the stack, continuation throws to the break side off of dumps, or getting the disc off the sidelines. As coach of the Rainmakers, Rio said he’s been building drills to practice the throws the team’s offense actually faces in game situations.
Makes sense, right? The obvious next question for coaches is the how? of making drills replicate games. Let’s take a look at Season 5, Episode 2: Defending Cuts with Heads Up for a few key concepts.
1. Know the difference between an objective and a skill. An objective is what you’re trying to accomplish strategically while a skill is the specific action you’ll need to make it happen. In this episode, the objectives include seeing the field and and maintaining the same distance between a defender and the person they’re marking as often as possible; a skill needed to make these happen is the ability to steal looks at the right time.
2. Drill for those basic skills. In this case, it’s the mechanics of running with an offensive player and looking for the disc when they are least likely to change direction or leave your visual periphery. As you teach skills, it’s helpful to zoom out and point to where they’ll be useful on the field– ““I don’t know in a game if he’s going to go that direction, or that direction” as an explanation of why you don’t want to turn your back to who you’re guarding, for example.
3. Add game-like layers. Here, it’s the expansion to four cut points rather than two, or said differently, offering the offense a greater menu of choices so that the defense has to account for more variables. Another way the Four Cones drill reinforces a skill is by offering the defense an incentive for seeing the disc– knowing that the throw is coming when the thrower’s hang goes up is a whole lot like seeing a handler get open up the line.
Coaches, are you drilling, or just practicing? Teaching your players to use specific skills in specific situations is teaching them to play the game like a natural. It’s a beautiful thing.