Practices: Make the hours count, don’t count the hours

What does that mean? If you ask any successful athlete or scientist or mathematician or any professional what had the biggest impact on their success, they all say it is practice. The key with practice is to put the effort in. That does not mean just showing up and going through the motions of practice. It means showing up on time, being ready mentally and physically to participate, having all your gear and being “turned on” to put in the effort.

Making the hours “count” is the key to success. To go with another old saying, you get out what you put in. So many times you see athletes at practice just sort of going through the motions, not really paying attention and not putting in 100 percent effort all the time. Most of the time those are the less successful players. Conversely, you may see another teammate putting in a high effort on every drill, asking questions, paying attention. Those athletes tend to be your best performers. Coincidence? Probably not.

My first year coaching at NYAC, we had USA Eagle Louis Stanfill come play for us. Louis is slightly too small to be a second row and slightly too slow to be a flanker. But what Louis did have was determination and effort. To this day, I have never seen anyone practice harder and put in as much effort in every single practice as Louis. I was so impressed that at the end of the season, I made it a point to tell him that I had never seen anyone be so consistent with his effort. That year, Louis made the Eagles for the first time and has been on the team ever since. The coaches see his effort and see how far he has come as a player and they find a place for him.

To a much lesser extent in my own playing career, I saw the same thing happen. I always told myself that if I practiced hard and did all the little things right, I had a chance at being selected to start. I was a hooker, so I made sure I could scrummage. I made sure my lineout throws were perfect. I made sure I could pass and catch. I also made sure I was fit. Especially as I got older, every year a young guy who was usually bigger and stronger would join the team looking to start, but most of the time they did not put in the effort. They had the ability to be better than me, but they did not put in the effort. Youth truly was wasted on the young! I always enjoyed practice and tried to improve my game every practice. I did not count the hours; I was making the hours count. Many of my competitors looked at practice as a necessary evil and would count the hours of practice instead of making the hours count.

Another example of this is the way we run practice at NYAC. We have some of the best players in the nation playing for us. Many are former or future pros. Everyone used to ask how many hours a week we practiced. They would be surprised when I said three to four hours max. We would practice one and a half to two hours for two days a week. But the key was not how many hours. The key was how we used those hours. No standing around while coaches set up the next drill. No drills that only practiced one aspect of the game. No long talks about what we were going to do. We would show up early, set up the field for what we needed, and once the players arrived, we would get to it. We would expect the players to go hard for short periods of time—simulating game speed. We kept talking to a minimum and moved from drill (usually small games) to drill quickly. All players were expected to be ready and have their cleats, mouthpieces and water.

So remember, don’t count how many hours you practiced (four hours of crap still equals crap). Instead make the hours count!