I think about that question a lot. Based on feedback from the athletes I’ve coached, repetition is not boring.
We need repetition, there is no skill acquisition or progressive overload without it. But how much is enough before it becomes mundane?
When it comes to both skill acquisition and the timeless training principle of progressive overload, the answer is probably: as long as the athletes are engaged in the training process. This idea is rooted in the theory of deliberate practice, which popularized the 10 year/10,000-hour rule linked to expert performance (Ericsson et. al, 1993). You can’t have deliberate practice without effort, task knowledge and feedback. The art of coaching is taking these three ingredients and applying them to each training session in appropriate dosages.
A defining characteristic of deliberate practice is that it typically ranks lower in enjoyment compared to play or other unstructured activities. That means, purposeful training - aka deliberate practice - will not always be fun. I work with youth athletes and would admit that having fun is paramount in long term athlete development. That being said, I think we as coaches need to think critically about the distinction between having fun and entertaining athletes. I know these two words are synonyms, but for me they hold two different connotations in the context of developing competitive athletes.
Here’s the way I understand the subtle differences in my own mind:
The main difference here is the time course. This subtle distinction and applying principles of deliberate practice has changed the way I coach.
I no longer worry about repetition and boredom the way I used to. That doesn’t mean I am not cognisant of athlete engagement. In fact, I am more aware of it today than ever before. I have a greater appreciation for the depth of this topic, and the difference between engagement and entertainment.
My athletes know I am not here to entertain them; I am here to teach them. I am honest with them in my approach and expectations. I want them to have fun - in both the literal sense and my own definition (which I can do a better job of reiterating). It then puts the pressure on me as a coach to create an environment in which my athletes can excel within the training process. I am accountable for establishing deliberate practice and guiding the process.
Here’s an example of how I’ve applied these ideas into my on-field/court warm-ups over the last few years.
Case Study: Warm-Ups aka Movement Preparation
Few would argue that there is nothing more repetitive than your classic dynamic warm-up. While many coaches will strive to add variety and spice to their warm-ups, I’ve taken a bit of a contrarian approach.
I’ve been running the same on-field warm-up – which can be more aptly referred to as movement preparation – for the last 2.5 years with all the teams I’ve trained. That is a serious faux-pas in some coaching circles.
Surprisingly, athletes like my boring warm ups.
Alright, let’s get technical about it. I run the same “general prep” phase of the warm-up which is approximately 5-7 minutes. Athlete’s don’t necessarily like this part of the warm-up, but they don’t not like it.
The initial phase of a warm-up has its purpose: elevate heart rate, blood pressure and increase fluid dynamics through your joints, muscles and everywhere in between. You can add a few things to that list, but let’s not get too technical about it.
Typically, this phase of a warm-up – often referred to as “general preparation” – includes some running, skipping, shuffling, along with dynamic stretches across a range of muscle groups. The menu items can simply be thought of as cyclical, continuous movement to achieve the previously mentioned goal.
No one who just read the description above thought to themselves “I love this part of practice”. The truth is, the only people who like warm-ups are the people who call them movement preparation.
Circling back to the idea of deliberate practice, I educate athletes on the purpose of the general preparation phase, why I use the same sequence of exercises, and lay out the framework for each session (see below). This task knowledge and understanding of when effort is required, can turn a mind-numbing routine into one with purpose and intention.
My athletes know that the general prep period is a time to talk, laugh, and sometimes mentally prepare for the session that day. I usually make small talk with some of them during this time and lay out some specific instructions for individual players. They also know that I will begin coaching once the general prep sequence is complete and we move onto movement skill development in the next phase of warm-up.
While my athletes may not like my boring warm-ups, they certainly don’t mind them, while some do prefer the monotony. One common remark is that they get time to talk and ease into the coaching intensive pieces as opposed to being instructed the entire time. They seem to appreciate that I aim to coach intensively for 10 or so minutes and can focus their cognitive effort during that time.
Through educating athletes, setting expectations, and having a clear purpose in my warm-up model, I have been able to coach more effectively. By doing so, I would like to think we are taking something that may be regarded at times as “repetitive” and “boring” and have made it deliberate.
While I may come across as if I have this all figured out, I certainly don’t. I’ve learned a lot by wrestling with these ideas over the last few years. One thing I should point out is that I was not present for every single warm up for all the teams I coached – except for one. After month 3, I applied the same general prep warm-up for the next 12 months.
In my current role with the Whitecaps Academy, I am looking to expand and further develop this warm-up model. One thing that will definitely change is doing the same general prep routine. Shocking, right? I’ll save those thoughts for another blog post!
How do you approach repetitive components of the training process? What about athlete engagement? I’d love to hear your thoughts/comments.
Please share in the comments section below, or email me to continue the conversation - firstname.lastname@example.org
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.