What’s better for our teams: practice or game experience?” This is the hardest question to answer in youth sports today. So many experts have studied what is best for young athletes. There are obvious benefits to both practice experience and game experience. There is no cut and dry answer to this question. The reasons for why there is no true answer depend so much on five areas that we will address in this article.
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is: “It depends.” So much is dependent on different situations and programs within your Christian school athletic department.
We believe the answer to this question can change depending on the following five areas:
The philosophy of your program will greatly affect whether you and your coaches value a majority of practices or a majority of game experiences.
We all want to win. Championships, titles, tournaments, and games: we never want to lose. Some programs value the “W” more than anything else. Emphasizing winning is fine, but you do need to think about the slippery slope that this philosophy leads to.
Programs that focus on results tend to value games over practice. Everything that is done is to prepare that specific group for the big games at the end of the season. Even the fewer practices that they do have are focused more towards tactics than they are to technique.
At a higher level, this may be appropriate. However, high school athletes typically have not mastered the necessary skills that are taught and reinforced in practice.
The most fulfilling athletic departments will focus on developing the whole athlete in multiple sports. Each individual sport is then focusing on winning, but also on making each athlete the best that they can be. They continue to develop skills that can help them reach the next level. These programs will philosophically tend to value practice time over game experience.
Some sports require more practice than others. Whether its because the games are so physically demanding, or because there are so many skilled positions required will greatly influence the amount of practices versus number of games.
Sports like soccer are very taxing physically and very skilled technically. As a result, a soccer season will typically rely on a heavier practice schedule.
Cross country seasons usually have only five to seven competitions. This is due to recovery time and training requirements. Developing the endurance base for a two or three mile race takes time.
Basketball and volleyball, while physically taxing when played right, do not require as much recovery time. Multiple games can be played in a shorter time frame sometimes even on back to back days.
We won’t take time to go into every conceivable sport. As you can see, there is no set formula. It truly does depend on what sport you’re dealing with.
This is where the argument is most in favor of higher practice volume versus number of games.
Youth sports are the biggest culprit when it comes to scheduling too many games and not enough practice or training.
Much of this “over-gamification” has to do with the drive to win tournaments and leagues. However, keeping the best interest of the athletes in mind, the focus should shift more on training.
If you have an elementary sport at your school, they would benefit most from practicing three or four times a week with only one game a week.
More practice and less games gives more of an intrinsic value to the actual game competition. The more games the athlete plays in, the less they value game performance.
Dr. Istvan Balyi advocates in his book Long-Term Athlete Development
that athletes should not be “training to win” until they are at an age that we would consider post-high school in the United States. Athletes should be “training to train” from about 12-15 and “training to compete” from 15-17. If high school programs were to adhere to this process, then their athletes would spend most of their elementary and junior high years focused on training in more practices. Games are involved in this process, yes. However, the greater value is placed on training.
That’s a foreign concept to many of us, but the age of the athlete should be taken into consideration when putting together a schedule of practices and games.
By “time” we’re referring to the time of the season. This is the easiest to clearly define, because it makes the most sense.
Your pre-season or early season should be 100% practice time. My high school basketball coach firmly believed that it took ten full practices to get a team ready to play. He felt this so strongly, that he would be upset if a game was scheduled before the tenth practice or if one of his practices were cancelled or cut short due to other school functions.
As you get deeper into the season, you will schedule fewer practices as games begin to take the priority.
However, a stretch in the middle of a basketball or volleyball season where you take time to refocus with a week of fewer games and more practices would benefit many teams.
Bad habits are often formed in games and can rarely be addressed or corrected without practice.
This is the biggest issue for many Christian school athletic directors. We’re dealing with one field or one gym and multiple teams lobbying for use of those facilities.
Because of this, often times we’re tempted to skimp on practice time for younger teams. However, we need to guard these practice times. As we say in the section on age, younger players need to train.
Field or gym rentals may be necessary to ensure that all of our teams, especially the younger ones are getting enough practice time in order to develop their skills properly.
There is certainly something to be said for game experience. You need to play against solid competition with results on the line. That’s part of sports. However, try to shift the focus away from games in your elementary, junior high, and JV sports.
Players will benefit more from training while they grow and develop. It will also keep more of your athletes interested in playing longer. The biggest reason athletes drop out of sports is the amount of playing time they get. In a “game heavy” season a lesser player does a lot more sitting on the bench. Keep your athletes interested; practice does that.
If you can’t get the proper quantity of practice, then you need to focus on the quality of the practices that you do have.
Remember, too, techniques are developed in practices and tactics are used mostly in games.
However, players with better techniques are better equipped to handle teams with good tactics. Example: a basketball team with excellent three-point shooting (technique) can handle any defense (tactic) another team throws at them. Shooting is best developed in practices.
So as you make your schedules, remember both practices and games have their benefits, but practice time will best prepare your teams for success.
Which do you and your programs value more? Games or practice time?