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Coaching to Different Skill levels Together

Hands down, the biggest frustration I hear from coaches is how to conduct a practice when you have a large variety of talent and knowledge all playing for the same team.  One player can’t scoop, doesn’t care to learn how to scoop, another player can but is bored, then there’s the super star who can scoop ground balls in her sleep and wins every loose ball in just about every drill and craves a challenge.  Put them together and that team drill looks, well, let’s be honest, it’s a mess!

The inevitable end is that the talented players leave to play with more talented players, the newer players or more slowly to develop players quit because they hate losing all the time or feeling unsuccessful. Or is there another ending? Can we create a practice plan that engages the new, the bored, the impatient, the less experienced, AND still grow the players with experience, all in one place? What if you could run a practice that not only challenged every level of player on your team but also got results quickly?

We often coach to the highest denominator, try flipping that around. Coach to your newest player, your weakest link instead and add on challenges for each player depending on where they are. When we try to focus on the needs of the self-driven, super athletic players on our team, we leave everyone below them behind.
What we have to remind ourselves, is that these phenomenal athletes are the exception, not the norm and many teams are bound to have a couple of them. They are easy to coach, are competitive in drills – even the not so fun ones. They make us coaches look great in games, and often lead us to have unrealistic ideals about the rest of the players who simply aren’t at that level. Would we all like to have a whole team of these athletes? Of course!  But in reality, coaching is a lot more challenging because we just aren’t going to get handed a team of super stars, we have to find a way to build with what we are given without leaving anyone behind.

Try this approach at your next practice and see if you can get all of your various skilled players engaged in learning and feeling like they were personally challenged all while having FUN!

1. Choose your fundamental skill. The foundation of your practices is going to be improvement and adding onto the fundamentals from individual skills through using those skills in a fast paced game like scenario. Pick a focus for your practice and get ready to build on it.

2. Assess the players, looking at the weakest player first. Introduce/reintroduce the skill and have them perform it individually so you can see just where you need work. Note the struggles of newer players, seek out bad habits of more experienced players. If it’s throwing, go over the basic mechanics and then have them pass around while moving and see the skill ranges you have to work with.

3. Create a challenge ladder. Each rung in the ladder can be mastered all season long as they try to get to the top.  Some will move up faster than others but the top challenges should be very difficult so that it proves to be challenging to any player you may get.  For example: if you’re working on catching and cradling on the move, the challenge ladder can look like this: 

  • Jog the boundary line around the field cradling and trying not to drop the ball 
  • Try to switch hands while moving and cradle on both sides 
  • Pop the ball up in the air, cradle it, switch hands, all while jogging the boundary 
  • Pop the ball up and catch it on the back of the stick, switch hands while on the move and keep cradling 
  • Two stick it – using an extra stick so that you have one in each hand, try to pass the ball one handed back and forth to yourself while on the move
  • Two stick it with the back of the stick as the pocket

4. Up, Down, Playground ball.  Running a drill around the goal doesn’t have to be too slow for experienced players or too hard for the newbies if they get the choice of Up, Down, or playground ball.  A player going in for a feed and then taking a shot can point up for the feeder to pass it in the air, point down for a ground ball or ask for the playground ball to be passed to them without a stick if they just need to work on footwork. An inexperienced player can toss the ball with their hands for a feed to a more experienced player if it helps with accuracy.  If you have enough players for stations, put new players learning team defense together to work with a playground ball and let them work up to sticks. Put out options of stations that have sticks and no sticks and let some of them choose where they want to start.  Experienced players can go into a 3v3 or other small sided drill focusing on a particular defensive drill. Again, use the challenge ladder with the most fundamental skill at the bottom and refined challenging options at the very top. Let the players choose to move up when they feel ready.

5. Keep groups small for skill building so that you can focus on each player’s needs. Groups of 3 are always my favorite because they get tons of ball touches and you can really put similar skill levels together and offer specific challenges to each group.

Before you know it, those girls that were lagging behind or brand new will be catching up with the experienced players because they were allowed to really master the fundamentals at their own speed and with the motivation to learn it quickly so they could attack the next level on the challenge ladder.   Players are also great at helping to come up with new challenge levels, encourage them to offer a harder challenge if they can think of one, creativity is part of the fun and a big part of the buy in process for your players.

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