How to Develop the Ultimate Practice Plan

Written by VersusThu Aug 18 2022
How to Develop the Ultimate Practice Plan

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Guidelines from a master coach that can be applied to any sport.

One of the most important and difficult jobs for a coach is developing a practice plan.

No matter the type of sport, level of competition, or number of athletes on a team, there are always enough variables to leave a coach with quite the challenge when it comes to practice.

  • Have I allocated enough time for each skill?
  • Are we working on weaknesses, as well as strengths?
  • Should every player get 1:1 attention, or just those who are struggling?

The list of questions to consider are endless.

Yet the only thing worse than leading practice with a partially formed plan, is going in with no plan at all. And the good news is, any practice plan can be refined over time.

The best coaches are those who have put in the reps and experimented over the years to find out what works and what doesn’t. They can draw upon a giant library of techniques to adapt to any athlete, team, or situation that comes their way.

If you are a newer coach looking to increase your knowledge—or an experienced coach wanting to refine your skills—finding one of these master coaches to learn from is one of the fastest ways to level up.

Fortunately, Versus has a coach of this caliber willing to share his advice on developing a practice plan. And his name is college softball coach extraordinaire, Tim Walton. We interviewed him to get his take on what coaches need to know about developing the ultimate practice plan.

Level-Up Your Practice Planning

We’ve called Coach Walton in to cover a few topics now, including How To Build a Winning Culture, 10 Rules to Manage Conflict Like a Pro, and How Knowing Your Players Promotes Success.

All of these were video interviews that covered a lot of ground.

Tim is a passionate guy. When you get him talking on a topic he knows a lot about, he’s going to tell you everything he’s learned in his two decades as a head coach. And when you’re talking to a deep thinker like Walton that equals a massive amount of information.

We’ve done our best to summarize each interview into an article. However, if you are a coach, parent, or athlete interested in any of these areas, sign up to watch the videos. It’s not often you get the chance to learn from one of the greats like Walton.

If you want to know more about Walton’s background check out one of the other articles, as we’ve covered it in depth there.  

Here, we will outline the advice Walton gave on developing a practice routine that is applicable across all sports. He gives a lot of softball-specific advice in the video—including a detailed breakdown of a typical practice, plus examples of his famous ‘finishers’—but we just couldn’t fit it all in here.

Let’s jump right in, starting with Tim’s overall philosophy of practice.

Practice the Way You Want to Play

One theme that weaves itself through the entire conversation with Walton, is the importance of practicing the way you want to play. This is a common line that often gets thrown around without much thought. It’s easy to say, but very hard to execute.

Everyone knows that practice is not competition. But the coach’s main job is to look for every opportunity to incorporate the key elements of game play into practice.

Throughout this article, you’ll find this overarching philosophy underpins a lot of the strategies Walton uses in practice. It applies just as much to skills-based work as to mindset and teamwork.

Have An Objective

“When I develop a practice plan, I always look at what my goal is— then I work backward,” states Walton.

It’s very easy to get lost in a sea of priorities as a coach. It’s human nature that players, staff, parents, and other stakeholders will bring their individual concerns to you—that comes with the territory. But first and foremost, your job is to set the strategic direction for the team.

That direction always begins with winning games. And the most important game is always the next one. Decide on the objective for practice by thinking ahead to your next game, then working backward to figure out what you need to do to win.

Check Your Bags at the Door

This is something Walton tells his players every single day. As he explains, “What that means is nothing going on in life is stepping onto this field. Clear your head. Clear your space. Give me everything you have—every single day.”

The challenge here is that you’ll likely have to teach your players this, they won’t automatically understand what you’re talking about. You will also have to role model it yourself.

Start by checking your own bags at the door. Then, when players let their personal issues spill onto the practice field, deal with it firmly but respectfully in a way that helps the whole team learn.

Focus On Quality Not Quantity

This is a big point for Coach Walton. To help clarify how this fits into his mantra of, “We go hard, every day”, he uses a couple of similar phrases with his players:

“I want you to be quick, not fast”
“Don’t be in a hurry—do it the right way”
“I’d rather someone take 10 swings the right way, than 100 the wrong way”  

In practice, Walton aims to get his players to operate in the “sweet spot” of giving everything they’ve got—but above all else—doing things the right way.

Practice Is for Coaches, Games Are for Players

This one statement highlights the absolute personal and professional integrity of Tim Walton. It also helps explain why he is such a successful and respected coach.

While Walton no doubt enjoys winning games, it’s clear this isn’t for the praise and accolades he might receive as head coach. Walton likes winning games because of what it does for the players—that's his “Why.”

For Walton, practice is his game time. His time to show up, to perform, and do his best work. “Practice is my favorite thing to do every day”, he states. Everything he does in practice and on game day is focused on giving his players the chance for the best possible outcome.

Influence Each Skill Group

Not all sports involve as many distinct skills as softball and baseball, but this principle still applies in any team setting. It also ties in closely with Walton’s desire to “positively impact every player on the team.”.

Walton believes that it's the role of every head coach—even those with a bunch of good coaches under them—to directly influence each skill group at every practice. He has gone to great lengths to do this with the Gators and explains exactly how in the video.

The key takeaway is that to achieve balance within the team, each coach needs to find their own way of regularly influencing each skill group and each individual player on their team at every practice.

Develop ‘Everydays’

“Everydays” are fundamental to Walton’s approach to practice. When he says “everydays,” he’s talking about skill-specific drills that each athlete does every day. No matter whether it's in-season, off-season, practice, or gameday: everydays get done, every day.

Walton has created a card listing everydays for each position in softball (ie. pitchers, catchers, infielders, batters, etc). Players do everydays in pairs or as a group—with or without a coach. Athletes are solely responsible for getting their everydays done.

Having everydays frees up the coach’s time by ensuring that athletes always have something to work on at practice independently. They make sure each athlete practices the fundamentals, whether a coach is there to direct them or not.

Master ‘The Finisher’

This is a technique Walton has been using since his days coaching junior college. He ends each practice with a collective activity that includes the whole team, called a ‘finisher’. A finisher can mean a lot of different things, but they all share the same three characteristics.

  • Finishers are hard.
  • Finishers are collective.
  • Finishers work on mental and physical toughness.

A finisher highlights that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. To complete it successfully—and to finish practice—everyone on the team has to meet the specified goal. This creates a controlled level of pressure and anxiety that's very close to that of a game. It includes the unique combination of peer pressure and team bonding that usually only shows up during competition.

How can you create your own finisher? For some examples and more information on finishers, you’ll have to check out the video. We break down some of Coach Walton’s favorite finishers, plus he covers everything else you need to know to incorporate them into practice.

Boost the Vibe

Considering how intentional and intricately planned Walton’s practices are, this one caught us by surprise. Walton is a huge fan of incorporating music into practice—he even lets his players choose what gets played!

Over time, Walton realized that music consistently had a positive impact on mood and energy levels during practice—so he uses it all the time now. He reports that it makes practice more fun, gets his athletes in the right mood to work hard, and keeps them focused on the task at hand.

Walton finds music so beneficial he urges coaches to incorporate it however they can. If you don’t have a sound system, “buy a small speaker,” he says. Walton and his athletes have even resorted to making a DIY speaker by putting a phone in an empty bucket when they didn’t have any other option for music.

Practice Is About Standards

To round out this epic masterclass, Coach Walton reminds us that practice is about setting the standards..Walton rewinds back to pre-season practice, stating that's when the standard for the season is set.

In his words, “The level of excellence. The standard we go about our process. We do things right every single day. It’s ok to make a mistake—you’re just not going to make two”.

Walton explains that his players might not like the drills they do in practice every day—they even tell him so sometimes. But they also tell him they know they need them to do well.

It’s precisely because Walton sets the standard of practice so high: Remember his motto, “Practice the way you want to play”—that he gets so much buy-in from his players.

Every athlete on the team knows that practice is for them.

They see that Walton puts everything he has into practice for one reason, and one reason only—so when it gets to game time, his athletes are as prepared as humanly possible to perform at their highest level.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this summary of Tim Walton’s advice on developing a practice plan. What you just read was adapted from our exclusive video interview with Coach Walton on this topic, where he goes much deeper on many of the points outlined in this article. Anyone with an interest in softball will want to head over to Versus to sign up, as the video includes more specific information about practice planning for this sport.  

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