Designing An Effective Practice Schedule

Monte Nitzkowski
US Men's Olympic Coach '72, '80, and '84
03/15/06

Over the years, I've often been asked by fellow coaches how I design my practice schedule for a season of water polo. Questions most asked are: "How do you keep season-long training from becoming boring? "How do you keep the team from slumping, particularly dur­ing midseason training'?"

These problems are common to all athletic programs, regard­less of the length of season, the club or school, the age or the skill level. Boredom and slumps are real concerns and, if not resolved, can negatively affect a season. Physical and mental "letdowns" are natural seasonal happenings which can be controlled to some extent through proper structuring of the training schedule.

Recognizing there is seldom a total solution to problems affecting both mind and body, let me describe how the training season should be designed and organized to minimize problems. I strongly believe that the most important part of designing a training schedule for any sport is for the coach to know what and how much to teach at each step of the season. Obviously, based on how the team is progressing, there needs to be some flexibility. However, in my opinion, more mistakes are made by well-mean­ing coaches doing too little (or too much) of the wrong (or right) thing at the wrong time of the season. This is a common problem for water polo programs, as it is for swimming, track and field, football or any other individual or team sport. Coaches must understand how to organize an effective seasonal training schedule. Improper practice programming causes good programs to be negatively impacted - sometimes to the point of destroying what might have been a successful season.

A great coach is always effective in two key areas: designing and implementing an intelligent training schedule; recognizing potential or emerging individual talent so that players, early in their careers, can be placed and trained in their proper playing positions.

The seasonal training schedule should be divided into thirds as follows:

 

Early-season - first three weeks

Heavy conditioning

Maximum emphasis on basic fundamentals of passing, shooting, and individual defense

Team Defense

Six-on-five

Early work on counterattack

 

Mid-season - appoximately six weeks
Theme Coaching

Mon. Tue. Wed. Thu. Fri.
condition condition loosen condition loosen
counterattack passing &
shooting
passing &
shooting
passing &
shooting
frontcourse
offensive
six-on-five
passing &
shooting
defensive
drills
frontcourt
scrimmage
regular
scrimmage
defensive
scrimmage
creative
scrimmage
game
six-on-five six-on-five six-on-five
six-on-five

 

End of season - final three or four weeks

 

Most teams have "two-a-days" (practices) during the heart of the season. No effort is being made in this chapter to break down the information to be presented between morning and afternoon practices. No matter which time of day, the general design and organizational practice plans should remain constant throughout the season. When running two-a-day practices, my personal prefer­ence is to get the conditioning and basic drilling out of the way in the morning practice. My reasoning for this is simple: Many teams conducting morning practices do so at an early hour. Most players come to practice half asleep and are not ready to absorb a lot of strategies. All my major teaching is reserved for afternoon sessions when I feel the players' learning skills are at a higher level.

Early Season-first three weeks

This is the most advantageous time to "hammer" the players with conditioning. Do a lot of swim-team type of work -"boring stuff." This is the time for heavy aerobic conditioning. Also, I place heavy emphasis on simple fundamentals which, overly stressed later in the season, can "deaden" practice and cause a loss of concentration. Fundamentals featured are individual in nature­ - passing, shooting and basic defensive skills.

Tactically during the first three weeks, I concentrate on team defense, six-on-five, and the early elements of counterattacking.

The reasons I structure the first three weeks of training as described above are: I Players are mentally and physically fresh and alert when they first turn out for the team. They are energetic and raring to go!

Most players feel they can be "starting" on the team and will be making their maximum effort to create a good impression. They listen and actually hear you!

The team is undefeated at this point of the season. Interest is high for all practice sessions. So coach, "sock it to them"- the boring stuff is accepted as readily as the high-interest activities!

Midseason Training-approximately six weeks

This is where trouble can start. Players begin to tire physical­ly and mentally. As the coach, you've made some of your first per­sonnel decisions. Some players not selected to start have a natural letdown. Training becomes tedious and not as much fun. The so called "dog days" set in. Suddenly, negative results begin to occur. Games are won by narrower margins than expected. Games are lost which should have been won. Lost concentration and poor practices happen. All this can affect the mental state of the coach, who becomes more critical, short tempered, etc. This letdown psy­chologically impacts the entire team.

It's hard to totally avoid the "dog day" syndrome, but some steps can be taken to minimize the negative effects. Let me suggest some ideas for midseason practice schedules:

Theme coach-in other words, limit the tactical thinking each (lay to one or two subjects.

Where possible, pyramid the week's work load, making it lighter as the week progresses.

Change daily subject matter.

Example Practice Week

Monday - During midseason, Monday workouts can become a disaster. Players often return from the weekend physically and mentally tired, not refreshed. As far as each player’s concentration is concerned, I look at Monday as a wasted day. Therefore, I fea­ture heavy conditioning, some passing and shooting, and a lengthy game scrimmage. Knowing concentration will be poor, I don't let it worry me. I work on improving player conditioning and finish with a brief six-on-five practice. Working on the type of tactics which require a lot of player concentration and focus will often turn "Blue Monday" into a bundle of frustrations for the coach.

Tuesday - By Tuesday, player concentration usually is better. I shorten the conditioning and present more intricate passing and shooting drills. I theme coach team defense. Defensive practices can be boring to players, but defense is a must for team success. I follow team defensive tactical drills with a defensive game scrim­mage and finish with six-on-five practice.

Wednesday - I present no conditioning on Wednesday. After loosening out, the team does counterattack work the entire prac­tice. The players swim so much in the counterattack drills that sep­arate conditioning is unnecessary. The practice features counterat­tack passing, shooting and tactical development of the counter structures. Finish with a scrimmage which emphasizes the counter­attack and transition aspects of the game. six-on-five work com­pletes the day.

Thursday - Players should be giving you maximum concen­tration by Wednesday and Thursday. Therefore, following Wednesday's counter theme, I spend Thursday with frontcourt offense. After conditioning (now emphasizing special work on quickness), the passing and shooting drills all directly relate to Frontcourt Offensive strategies. Tactical Frontcourt Offensive drills follow, and I finish with a half court-offensive scrimmage. At the end of practice, I have the team play an abbreviated game ( 4:00 -minute quarters), stressing all aspects of the tactical game.

Friday - Assuming Friday is game day, I have the team loosen in the morning. We pass, shoot and work a little six-on-five. We meet prior to the game to go over the tactical plans for that particular game.

I find that by following a theme approach to midseason coaching, I reduce some of the loss of concentration normally associated with this difficult time of season.

End Season-final three-to-four weeks

Both individual and team concentration improves immensely during the final weeks of the season. The end is in sight and if the season has gone well, players are looking forward to the champi­onship games.

I start to "peak" the team by shortening workouts and limiting conditioning to speed and quickness work. From a tactical stand­point, I spend short periods every day working on each of the tacti­cal aspects of the game. Each individual area is timed (an assistant coach or manager works the stop watch) and, I seldom spend more than 12:00 minutes with any particular area of the game. Finally, I feature total gamesmanship - protecting a lead in the last minute, restart plays, etc. I use a lot of positive reinforcement during the end of the season-things are made to feel right. All practices are structured to cover a lot in a short period of lime; total practice time is seldom more than two hours.

(Monte began coaching water polo internationally with the Pan American Games in 1967 and retired following the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles . He served as Assistant Pan American Coach in 1967 (Gold Medal) and 1975 (Silver Medal), and as Head Pan American Coach in 1979 (Gold Medal) and 1983 (Gold Medal). Monte was the Assistant United States Olympic Water Polo coach in Mexico City (5th place) and Head Olympic Coach for the 1972 Munich Olympics (Bronze Medal), the 1980 Moscow Olympics (boycott) and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (Silver Medal). The 1980 Olympic Water Polo Team was one of the finest teams ever to represent the United States and was con­sidered a strong contender for the Gold Medal. During his career, exclusive of the boycott, every Olympic Team which Monte head ­coached won an Olympic Medal. Monte was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale , Florida in 1991.

Monte has written two excellent water polo books, United States Tactical Water Polo and Water Polo, Learning and Teaching the Basics. Starting March 15 , Water Polo Planet will feature a monthly water polo article by Monte Nitzkowski. His books can be found at his Water Polo Consulting Service web site. - Doc)