How long should practices be?

Here’s an interesting question from the mail bag.

What do you think is the maximum (or optimal) amount of time High School teams should practice each day? I coach Freshmen but I am also the assistant for JV and Varsity. I ask this question because last season our Varsity team practiced only about 1.5 to 2 hours per day. Two other teams in our district practiced 3-4.5 hours/day! And it just so happens those two teams ended up playing for the state championship….

The first observation I would make is that you can’t necessarily equate practice time to playing in the state championship. It could simply be that those schools have a higher level of talent in their program than everyone else. This sort of analysis is fairly common. Winning Team does [insert whatever it is they do] so everyone else starts doing it too because they think that’s the reason for the success when it might have little or nothing to do with it. In other words, beware of false causalities.

Now, getting to the question of optimal practice length…

It seems to me that being in the gym more than 3 hours at a time is pretty old school. If you ask around these days I think you’ll find that the vast majority of coaches – especially the betters ones – come in under that. Certainly none of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards we’ve interviewed are going 4 hours these days – though some certainly did back in the day. What you hear from them is that they might start the year at 2.5-3 hours, but by the end of the season it’s 1.5-2 hours.

My personal philosophy is that you should only practice as long as you need to get done what you want done. Know what you need to work on. That’s only going to be a couple of things for any given session (at least it shouldn’t be more than that). If you are efficient in structuring your practice and maintaining your focus, you don’t need four hours. In fact, going that long to me sounds like you’re wasting a lot of time.

Efficiency aside, there is the question of how much the players get out of practice after a certain point. Plus, what’s the implications for their long-run fitness and health? Players are less able to learn as they become more fatigued. This includes mental fatigue, which is definitely an issue for long practices. Fatigue also increases injury risk, particularly if there isn’t sufficient rest/recovery.

Finally, I’d bring up match length. How long do your matches typically go? Two hours? Why would you train twice as long as your matches? That doesn’t really make a lot of sense, especially if you do a good job of keeping intensity up.

I would suggest that the teams going 3-4.5 hours are actually not helping themselves. But that’s without seeing exactly what they’re doing in that time. Maybe it’s not all on-court.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman

John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women’s team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women’s professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women’s Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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