I previously wrote a review of the book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Here’s an interesting excerpt which relates to the question of practice length.
“The advice I offered to Per Holmlöv in this area can be applied to just about anyone who is getting started on deliberate practice: Focus and concentration are crucial, I wrote, so shorter training sessions with clearer goals are the best way to develop new skills faster. It is better to train at 100 percent effort for less time than at 70 percent effort for a longer period. Once you find you can no longer focus effectively, end the session. And make sure you get enough sleep so that you can train with maximum concentration.”
I wrote before that the tendency among top coaches now for shorter practices than used to be the case. An understanding of the above is a big factor. There is clearly a point beyond which additional training produces diminishing returns.
Now, having said that, we train different things during a practice. Sometimes it’s individual skills. At different times it’s tactics and other elements of collective team play. Still other times it might be conditioning.
Each of those different training foci has a separate threshold for the influence of fatigue. For example, to develop improved conditioning you have to take players beyond their current limits. Pretty straightforward.
When it comes to skill development, however, fatigue is a serious limiting factor. Tired players simply don’t learn as effectively. As discussed in the book The Brain Always Wins (and to a lesser degree here), a tired athlete basically shifts into a kind of survival mode. When that happens, learning goes out the window. That’s why you see a lot of coaches focus individual skill training toward the early part of practice. The players are fresher then, thus in better position to learn.
By the way, that’s also why it’s probably best not to focus much on technical feedback later in practice. I’m thinking particularly of 6v6 type exercises.
The threshold for team oriented training is different. For the player, this level is more about gross movements rather than fine ones. Yes, they still have to execute skills. The focus, though, is on coordinated movement with others rather than just what they’re doing individually. At least it is if you keep the attention there.
Even still, at some point fatigue breaks down the player’s focus. They reach a point of just going through the motions. Here’s where coaches can make the mistake of blaming lack of focus on a lack of mental toughness. That’s a key point of this post.
So we need to understand how fatigue impacts on how we can train our teams. And I’m not just talking about physical fatigue. With that knowledge we can create practices that keep our players in their optimal training zones for longer. That means more learning. And getting even a little more learning out of each practice means a lot more development over time.