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01.12.15Annals of Coaching: How Paul Valenti Starts Practice Will (or Should) Rock Your World (Video)

This video is for coaches.  Mostly.  It’s about how to make some apparently simple changes that can make your practices dramatically more efficient and productive. And it can help you build the sort of culture you want into your team as well.  But I should note that this is also about a topic that’s central to good teaching anywhere–establishing strong procedures and routines—so I think teachers may appreciate it too. Sometimes seeing an approach executed in a setting unlike your own can be especially revealing.

So… this clip shows the first four minutes or so of Paul Valenti’s practice with his U16 boys at Empire Revolution, a US Soccer Development Academy in Rochester, NY that’s part of the New England Revolution.  Here’s what I’d say about this clip: it shows you a lot of very practical ways to get more time spent playing per hour of practice.  In the end that’s going to be a key driver of results. There’s a limit to how many hours you practice so at some point the question becomes, how much do you get out of it?  To do that Paul has made a habit, a routine, out of key procedures. He’s taken the sorts of things that take time away from playing and replaced them with consistent expectations about what to do instead… routines… so the boys know just what to do and do it that way every time as a habit. In so doing he’s also shaping culture- their beliefs and feelings about what it means to be on his team.

I count at least 11 procedures that he’s made a routine out of that are visible in these four minutes.  Here’s my challenge to you.  See if you can find them. Watch the video and them cross reference what you find with my notes below.  And feel free to point out if you see more.

1)      There’s a standard way that you stand, as an individual and as a team, when the coach gives you directions at the start of Paul’s practice. When everyone is standing in the expected way they are locked in to the coach’s words. They’re not distracted; they’re not creating distractions. They stand in a circle. No soccer balls. They’re focused.  When Paul tells his boys, “Today’s a day, like every other day, [when] we’ve got to get better,” there’s a seriousness to the words. The listening expectations make the words matter. Notice that Paul has chosen an approach that not only eliminates potential distractions that waste time—guys not listening and interacting with each other while he’s talking—but he shapes what he wants the team to be about. Their arms are around one another. “We’re a team.”


If you wanted to take this idea to the next level you might institute another “listening positon” for other times at practice. That is, when you say, “Ok guy, I need to explain the next drill to you,” do guys mill around and stand far away? Do they juggle a ball while you’re talking? Or do they stand in a semi-circle with the soccer balls out of reach and with their eyes on you? [Answer: yes, the latter] Setting that kind of expectation can help make every explanation you give for the rest of the season several times more efficient.

2)      You might also notice that the boys are already in their colored vests.  They did that before practice. No time wasted while everyone watches Paul get 8 yellows and 8 oranges out and hand them to certain players or lay them on the field.  You get to practice. You get ready. When practice starts, it’s all action. Boys don’t waste time because Paul, through his own actions, communicates that time matters.

By the way, when I watched one of Paul’s colleagues, Ben Cross, he had it so that it was the job of the captains to distribute the vests before practice started.  Great bit of responsibility for them and I’m guessing Paul did something similar.

3)      As the video opens, Paul notes that everyone except one player texted him their workout.  Brilliant that.  It makes the accountability for fitness work outside of practice real without his having to waste time saying “Did everyone work out? How much did you do, Charlie? Why didn’t you Peter?”

4)      Before they get going they do a couple of mental routines: they “take some breaths” together and then they greet each other.  I have no opinion about whether you should do these specific routines with your players.  I can see the argument that the breaths help players focus themselves. I can also see an argument that it’s just not something that some coaches could or would want to try to pull off.  I can see an argument that investing a little time in reminding guys about the mutuality of being teammates is important and drives behavior on the field or that the hand shaking it’s not worth the time.  Either way you feel about it, you’re probably right for your team and your culture. But what Paul has done here is still powerful and valuable. He’s set out to build culture through regular habits and those things include the mental parts of the game and the elements of being a teammate (greeting each other).  You of course could choose to build different routines into your practice—or none at all—but it makes me a bit crazy when coaches say “the kids do this” or “the kids do that” without seeing the role of the coach in shaping behavior.  I observed one team where the girls on the team were brutal to one another, shouting at their teammates for mistakes. “I let them have it,” the coach said to me, referring to a time after a game when he’d finally had enough.  Sorry, but since when does a teacher (of which coaches are one type) allow that to go on anyway?  If you don’t shape culture you are responsible for what you get in its absence.  So take or leave Paul’s mediation and greetings (I kinda like ‘em) but recognize the opportunity to make who they are as a team something you shape intentionally through habits. And realize that if they behave in a way that’s not positive, it’s the adults who are responsible for that.  Period.

5)      One other small routine in there is Paul reviewing what the boys are going to do that day.  There’s a ton of research on the fact that people learn more when they know what they’re trying to do and can engage intentionally. Paul’s players start the practice knowing what they’re setting out to do. They feel intentional.

6)       At about a minute and 15 seconds into the video Paul says, “Alright, let’s go!” and from there on everything is geared towards maximum efficiency and Paul’s routines drive it. you’ll notice his cones for the next two drills are already set up. “Small box” he says, directing his players to the correct set of cones.  You’ll also notice that they jog to the cones.  No languid strolling at your own pace.  We are about getting better here so a bit of urgency should be expected. Paul’s boys show that.

7)      “X-box small,” Paul says next.  One of his procedures is to have named his drills. This means he doesn’t have to spend time explaining the task to his players.  He just names it and they do it.  Near the end of the clip he switches the activity to Dutch Diamond and the boys set it up and start in about three seconds.  Now that is a huge time saver.  You install an activity and you name it–“Boys, this is called “Dutch Diamond.” Whenever you hear me ask for that activity this is what i want you to set up. Let’s practice that now. Dutch Diamond. Go!”–and your transition time cuts by an order of magnitude every time you run it.

By the way, during “X-box” Paul says, “Not players choice yet.” Players choice is when the boys get to make more decisions about what they do with the ball.  This is another naming convention he uses and can apply to all of his drills thus he can manage the shift from pattern execution to practice with decision making without even stopping: “OK, player’s choice now!” and he can do this on every drill he runs. (Just possibly it also remind Paul to include players choice and thus a decision making aspect to many of his activities in practice.

8)      “Ten seconds,” Paul calls at about 2:20.  This is tiny but simple.  1) He is telling his players that he measures how long they do everything for.  This shows them that every minute matters to him and asks them, implicitly, to value every minute too. Certainly if you show that how you spend time in practice isn’t that important to you, you players won’t think otherwise.  But Paul’s reminders about time also socialize the boys to maintain their intensity through the end of the activity.

9)      Paul then shifts to dynamic stretching.  This takes all of a second because he has routinized what this means.  He says, “Dymanics. GO!” and off they go.  So there are actually two routinized procedures in the moment: his naming convention—they know what dynamics mean and how to do them every time—and the cue to start a drill: “Go!” by making it the same every time he build a habit. They all react right away to the cue and there’s no lost time when a drill starts.   This is one of the simplest and most powerful routines you can develop: saying “go!” or “play” to start and “pause” to stop. It ensures that people don’t waste time waiting to see if the drill is really started or waiting for someone else to go first. (You can read more about this is Teach Like a Champion 2.0 under the technique 28 Brighten Lines.)

10)   During the dynamics, Paul uses non-verbal cues—clapping—to tell his players what dynamic to use.  This again. allows him to manage the activity for maximum productivity with no down time.

11)   The video ends with him managing the transition into the next activity with incredible efficiency. “Big Box. Orange. Dutch Diamond. Two balls. Right right.” In one second he’s able to communicate what drill he wants run and with what variations.  All the time another coach might spend talking is spent playing instead and his players internalize a culture of hard work and productivity.

Is it any wonder, as you watch this, that Empire Revolution and it’s team of coaches like Paul have developed multiple players who play in MLS and/or who are in national team pools at their age group?

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4 Responses to “Annals of Coaching: How Paul Valenti Starts Practice Will (or Should) Rock Your World (Video)”

  1. David Wurzer
    January 13, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    What is good?

    • Doug Lemov
      January 14, 2015 at 7:56 pm

      not sure if this is what you’re getting at but i think it’s legit to ask whether paul could give more precise and useful information in his feedback. ie who is doing well and what are they doing well so they know to replicate it. (and so kids who do it wrong don;’t think they’re doing it right.) that’s fair. but i would also just say that my sense for paul’s use of good here is that he is trying to “pace” his boys…. use his comments to encourage them to work hard and fast and diligently…. the implication being that he’s narrating each “good interaction” to show how frequent and how close together they are. that’s a theory at least. but i think it’s fair amidst all the glows to point out that the feedback could be more producitve… a “grow”

  2. Former Player of Paul's
    September 14, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Another procedure or routine can be seen at 1:05. Everyone puts their left arm or their “heart side” into the middle, signifying they’re invested and believe in what the team is doing. This would be introduced on day one.

    Regarding the “good” comments, I would say the “pacing” theory is probably pretty accurate here–just quick motivation. I can tell you there is no ambiguity with Paul’s feedback, you know exactly how your performance is looking.

    Good write-up and great coach.

    • Doug Lemov
      September 19, 2017 at 10:20 pm

      thanks for sharing the additional insight. also great to see a former player so appreciative of his coach.

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