The idea that we coaches should make practices harder then matches is one you hear quite frequently. How exactly do we do that, though? Here are some ways.
The conditioning element
One way to think of the “harder” angle is in terms of conditioning. From this perspective we can approach things in terms of making practice more physically demanding than matches. This is something I talk about my how to add conditioning to your practice post.
Reducing processing time
Under match conditions there is a rally, then a period of reset time before the next serve. That gives players a chance to mentally reset. We can remove that reset, though, and force them to immediately focus on the next sequence. This is as simple as adding a second ball immediately after a rally – a feature of wash games. Now players have to go through 2 or more rallies before they get the mental break. As an aside, I like to do this to keep them from thinking too much about their mistakes.
In game conditions there are a lot of situations where execution is “good enough”. By that I mean they are sufficient to get the job done. For example, a hitter might not have a great swing but still get a kill. Or a server might miss their target, but still put the other team out-of-system. In practice, however, you can require proper execution of a skill, play, or whatever you’re focused on. Anything else simply doesn’t count.
Increasing the mental challenge
Another thing we can do to make practices harder than matches is to ratchet up the mental demands. There are a couple angles on this. One is the problem-solving angle. We really work them mentally by forcing them to constantly have to evaluate situations and make decisions. Another is to create pressure situations, though they have to be either repetitive or persistent to go beyond match conditions.
Mixing and matching
It tends to be that these areas of increased challenge overlap. For example, any exercise which reduces player processing time also tends to increase physical conditioning. And increasing the demands for precision can definitely induce more pressure. Keep in mind, though, that for a practice to truly be more challenging than a match you can’t just do one or more of the above for like 15 minutes. They need to be factored in through the whole session.