Make Games More Like Practice

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When I started coaching over 30 years ago, I like most others, ascribed to the notion, “make practice like the games.” In fact, as coaches, we try to make practice harder than games.

It made sense. When practice is more challenging than games, the games become less difficult and, theoretically, the games become easier and players play better. As my belief in many situations, I think that many coaches take action without first evaluating what the results might be. This is the way they learned so this is the way they work it, whether it was effective for them as a player or not.

But does making practices like games really work? I have been to 10s of thousands of practice. I have watched hundreds of teams. I have seen all types of practice plans and practice intensities. I have also seen many different methods and results. I have seen very intense practices followed by a team as soft as Dairy Queen in games. I have seen very relaxed practices followed by games played by intense warriors. While there are lots of reasons for this, players, practices and games do not exist in a vacuum, I try to look for common threads for success and failure.

I am not saying to make practice less challenging. Nor am I saying that the way you practice is not relevant to the way you play. I am asking would it be more effective for your players for you, instead of make practice like games, why not make games like practice?

The Changing Role of the Coach

To understand the question, you have to understand the changing role of the coach.

IMG 4323In practice, the coach is a teacher, a corrector, a communicator, a support system for the players. He motivates, sells and instills confidence in his players. He is a team builder, someone who tries to include all the players in the activity. He is a mentor and concerns himself with the big picture and development of players and the team as a whole.

In a game, he concerns himself with the 5 players who are on the floor and is in the moment. Mistakes are chastised; reserve players are out of the picture. There is a personality change. The patient teacher of practice becomes a yeller and a screamer. He shifts his attention from his team to the referees and the other team. When a player makes a mistake, he comes out of the game. Because of the immediacy of the situation, there is no time for teaching. Where in practice, the coach would take that mistake and make it a teaching moment. In a game, half the team may not even be aware of what happened.

Often I have watched a practice in which the coach preached patience and confidence. “I don’t want you to worry about me,” he would say. “I don’t want you to play, looking over your shoulder,” is the message. Then, come game time, the first bad shot taken, he is up, yelling and screaming, even taking the player out of the game and chastising him.

Now the coach wonders why the team plays different in games than they do in practice.

From The Player’s Side

In practice, coaches concern themselves with improving their offenses and defenses. They continually evaluate their players.

IMG 4348What many coaches don’t realize is that, in practice, the players are doing the same thing. To play in a zone that will allow them to give their best performance, players need a measure of consistency. In practice they are constantly evaluating, in this situation, how will the coach react? What will he do with this mistake? How will his reaction be if I do this? The players develop an expectation of your behavior.

When the coach reacts differently in a game then he does in practice, it causes confusion and conflict inside the players. No one wants to play poorly when they take the court. If the player has problems in practice, he knows when he can approach the coach for help. When the same situation comes up in a game, does the player have the same comfort level? Does he have confidence that the coach will give him a path to a solution as he does in practice?

Inconsistency in players drives a coach crazy. Sometimes coaches forget that their inconsistency will drive players crazy. They become tentative and unsure. Some players are afraid of their coach in games. Fear is not a good motivator.

Make Games More Like Practice

Go ahead and make practices as hard and challenging as you feel is necessary. Be as intense and in the moment in games you need to be.

But, when you have situations similar to the situations you have in practice, try to handle them similarly. If you would jump on a player in practice, jump on him in a game. But, if you put your arm around him in practice, put your arm around him in games. If you would stop and teach in practice, do the same in a game. Of course the situations are different, but only in the moment. If you stop practice to teach something to a player, in a game you might have to take him out to teach him. Then, put him back in. If is a team issue, call a time out, teach them, then go play. Sure you may have time out limitations, but what are they for. Use them for your team.

To get players to react positively in games, bring their minds back to practice. The most common phrase I use in time outs is, “remember we prepared for this in practice.” Players almost instantly recognize what you are trying to accomplish and what the issues are. And, they are comfortable with the solution.

Of course, you are going to run into situations that you have not covered. Things happen in games. But if you can relate the situations back to similar situations in practice, if coaches treat their players the same way in games as they do in practice, your players will react the same way. they will be more receptive to changes and adjustments. They will trust the coach is on the same page as his team and they will follow him anywhere.

If the coach becomes a different person than the one the players know, they will question who he is and it will affect their commitment to the task at hand.

Try making games more like practice. Be a consistent person if you want your team to give consistent effort and performance.

For More Information on Don Kelbick, go to

Don Kelbick

Coach Don Kelbick has had 27 years of coaching experience, 25 at the college level including 14 years as a head coach and 10 years as a Division I assistant including stops at Hofstra University, Marist College, Keene State College, and Florida International University. In 2 years as a high school coach, his teams produced 6 Division I players and was ranked #1 in Florida 28 out of a possible 34 weeks. In addition to coaching he has scouted for NBA teams, including the Knicks and the Hawks, and served as a general manager in the USBL.