(Let me first start by saying that I’m not advocating running a 12U practice without a practice plan. That is not advisable. This is a tale about how I accidentally ran a practice without a plan and how it worked out pretty nicely.
Last Thursday I arrived at practice thinking I was going to assist, not lead a group of 12’s and a few of their friends. I’ll clarify that I wasn’t assigned to be the assist, I was assigned to be the lead, but my head was full from a day of homeschooling and somehow I just missed the full scope of information (it happens).
Anyway, the assist coach and I spoke beforehand and agreed to some slightly planned out drills and skill work between the two of us and then I would lead the remainder of the practice including drill setup, demos and game play at the end.
We had a few new athletes that night, so there was a range of ability and skill. It was clear right away I would have to adjust and tweak things as we went along but that’s normal for any practice, coaches are used to knowing when to progress or regress a drill at any given time based on the needs of the group or individual athletes or if something isn’t working all together.
Once the practice started, I felt the familiar tension of managing a group with different needs and abilities. The tension that makes you want to cater to the more advanced athletes and be frustrated with the ones who are just learning. Or the tension that makes you want to tell the more advanced athletes that we need all the skills, not just the skills that are fun.
The tension of the parents watching on the sidelines who might be thinking “what the heck is this coach doing?” I’m not saying this tension is necessarily true, only that it exists for me.
As I navigated this familiar tension, I remembered a coaches clinic I attended last summer; The Way of Champions Conference and one of the speakers, Dr. Jerry Lynch who had a unique and special way to beginning each of his sessions.
Jerry began each of his coaching sessions at the back of the room. An extremely passionate coach, mentor and teacher, Dr. Lynch is also an intuitive sports psychologist – so, he’s not just standing at the back of the room waiting for his turn to speak, he’s reading the room. He’s measuring and taking in the full energy of the group.
When it was his time to speak, he had all of us coaches come into a small huddle. All 100(ish) of us, in a small shoulder to shoulder huddle. Once we are shoulder to shoulder, he tells us to come in even closer. And then, once we are closer, he says to come in closer, yet again. By day three we know the drill and we just start all up in each other’s business to save time. (It’s summer 2019, pre-pandemic and nobody was thinking how much coaching would change and how huddles, high fives and respiratory droplets would be a thing of concern).
Once we are in the huddle, Jerry begins with a story. The whole time he’s still reading us, reading our responses to his story, to each other, to being a little bitty huddle with people who are no longer strangers. He’s also measuring his own energy and responses; after all, his own responses to us are also a mirror of the group. It’s an emotional, spiritual and physical circle few of us are aware of in that moment.
What he says in the huddle slips my mind. I recall a few details of a story he told us about his son texting him or a some details of a team he’s working with, but really what I remember is his ability to just vibe-out every single one of his sessions and how connected I felt.
No script, no slides – all vibes (make a sticker of that).
And so there I was last Thursday in the middle of a practice I forgot to plan just vibing-out the room (or the court). Watching when a drill became too stale and kids started tuning out. Looking at the connections between the girls and gauging if they were having fun, complaining, talking badly about themselves. Keeping an eye on my assist to see if he was confused (perhaps, at times) or if he was connecting with his group (he was).
As coaches, we usually see that kind of stuff from an analytical point of view and we are good at adjusting and adapting on the fly, but at this practice I felt different. I wasn’t analyzing. I was vibing (make another sticker). No, I WAS JERRY LYNCHing my practice.
At one point I remember hearing a new athlete almost scream the words “this is so much fun!” Her excitement bursting from her chest. The tension from earlier in the practice had faded completely. From me and the athletes.
Like I said, I’m not advocating running practice without a practice plan. In fact, I make sure to have a plan for the sole purpose of being engaged and in the moment – lack of preparation can create tension too – but it was kind of cool to see it with the wheels completely off.
I like structure and kids need structure too, but maybe every once in a while we Jerry Lynch a practice and see what happens. Maybe sometimes we ditch the slides and scripts and vibe our way through.
Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She is the co-author “30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, A Habit for Life” and author of “30 Day Return to Play Journal” available for pre-order now.
She is an 2x All-America volleyball player from the University of Georgia, SEC Freshman and Player of the year and was inducted into UGA’s prestigious Circle of Honor in 2006. She has played with the US National Team and enjoyed a season of professional ball in Europe and on the beach. She has coached at the youth, high school, club and collegiate level (PAC-12 Beach Volleyball). She is married with two children and currently coaches performance and mindset journaling to youth and college athletes and coaches.