Improve Your Team's Performance By Making The Games More Like Practice

When I started coaching over 30 years ago, I ,like most others, ascribed to the notion, "make practice like the games." In fact, as coaches, we try to make practice harder than games.

It made sense. When practice is more challenging than games, the games become less difficult and, theoretically, the games become easier and players play better. As my belief in many situations, I think that many coaches take action without first evaluating what the results might be. This is the way they learned so this is the way they work it, whether it was effective for them as a player or not.

But does making practices like games really work? I have been to tens of thousands of practices. I have watched hundreds of teams. I have seen all types of practice plans and practice intensities. I have also seen many different methods and results. I have seen very intense practices followed by a team as soft as Dairy Queen in games. I have seen very relaxed practices followed by games played by intense warriors. While there are lots of reasons for this, players, practices and games do not exist in a vacuum, I try to look for common threads for success and failure.

I am not saying to make practice less challenging. Nor am I saying that the way you practice is not relevant to the way you play. I am asking would it be more effective for your players for you to, instead of make practice like games, make games more like practice?

The Changing Role of the Coach

To understand the question, you have to understand the changing role of the coach.

In practice, the coach is a teacher, a corrector, a communicator, a support system for the players. He motivates, sells and instills confidence in his players. He is a team builder, someone who tries to include all the players in the activity. He is a mentor and concerns himself with the big picture and development of players and the team as a whole.

In a game, he concerns himself with the 5 players who are on the floor and is in the moment. Mistakes are chastised; reserve players are out of the picture. There is a personality change. The patient teacher of practice becomes a yeller and a screamer. He shifts his attention from his team to the referees and the other team. When a player makes a mistake, he comes out of the game. Because of the immediacy of the situation, there is no time for teaching. Where in practice, the coach would take that mistake and make it a teaching moment. In a game, half the team may not even be aware of what happened.

Often I have watched a practice in which the coach preached patience and confidence. "I don't want you to worry about me," he would say. "I don't want you to play, looking over your shoulder," is the message. Then, come game time, the first bad shot taken, he is up, yelling and screaming, even taking the player out of the game and chastising him.

Now the coach wonders why the team plays different in games than they do in practice.

From The Player's Side

In practice, coaches concern themselves with improving their offenses and defenses. They continually evaluate their players.

What many coaches don't realize is that, in practice, the players are doing the same thing. To play in a zone that will allow them to give their best performance, players need a measure of consistency. In practice they are constantly evaluating, in this situation, how will the coach react? What will he do with this mistake? How will his reaction be if I do this? The players develop an expectation of your behavior.

When the coach reacts differently in a game then he does in practice, it causes confusion and conflict inside the players. No one wants to play poorly when they take the court. If the player has problems in practice, he knows when he can approach the coach for help. When the same situation comes up in a game, does the player have the same comfort level? Does he have confidence that the coach will give him a path to a solution as he does in practice?

Inconsistency in players drives a coach crazy. Sometimes coaches forget that their inconsistency will drive players crazy. They become tentative and unsure. Some players are afraid of their coach in games. Fear is not a good motivator.

Make Games Like Practice

Go ahead and make practices as hard and challenging as you feel is necessary. Be as intense and in the moment in games you need to be.

But, when you have situations similar to the situations you have in practice, try to handle them similarly. If you would jump on a player in practice, jump on him in a game. But, if you put your arm around him in practice, put your arm around him in games. If you would stop and teach in practice, do the same in a game. Of course the situations are different, but only in the moment. If you stop practice to teach something to a player, in a game you might have to take him out to teach him. Then, put him back in. If it is a team issue, call a time out, teach them, then go play. Sure you may have time out limitations, but what are they for. Use them for your team.

To get players to react positively in games, bring their minds back to practice. The most common phrase I use in time outs is, "remember we prepared for this in practice." Players almost instantly recognize what you are trying to accomplish and what the issues are. And, they are comfortable with the solution.

Of course, you are going to run into situations that you have not covered. Things happen in games. But if you can relate the situations back to similar situations in practice, if coaches treat their players the same way in games as they do in practice, your players will react the same way. They will be more receptive to changes and adjustments. They will trust the coach is on the same page as his team and they will follow him anywhere.

If the coach becomes a different person than the one the players know, they will question who he is and it will affect their commitment to the task at hand.

Try making games more like practice. Be a consistent person if you want your team to give consistent effort and performance.

To view coaching products from Don Kelbick, go to Don Kelbick Products.

For more info about Don Kelbick, visit

What do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments, suggestions, and questions...


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Jennifer says:
11/12/2015 at 2:45:25 PM

This is wonderful! Much needed reminder and motivation for a new head coach, after many years of assisting. Being an assistant is sort of like being Mr. Hyde to the head coaches Dr. Jekyll. This is a great article breaking down the importance of finding a happy medium and being supportive for your players in a game like you are in practice. Thanks! Really needed this article to focus myself at the start of our season!


coach joseph says:
11/21/2012 at 11:18:15 AM

Thank you and i think it will help us a lot.


Ken says:
11/17/2012 at 10:28:43 AM

Practices are only good IF you are working on fundamentals and breakdowns that translate to the next game. (this is once the season starts)

That DOESN'T mean that you don't work on the fundamentals that are necessary to play the game at a high level and prepare your players to play at the next level. JMO

I have seen coaches run drills that have nothing to do with what they are trying to accomplish with their teams.


Tiffany says:
11/17/2012 at 9:58:02 AM

This makes loads of sense, wish I had this knowledge when I was coaching. I spoke with one of my coaches last night about evaluating himself to determine how he can improve his team. He was baffled because "practices are so good", but it doesn't translate to the games. I'll be forwarding this article. Thanks!


Pat Fanning says:
11/15/2012 at 1:05:58 PM

This is why a competent assistant is crucial in games. Our assistant coach (me, for a 7th grade team) is tasked with keeping the players on the bench mentally involved in the game by pointing out positives and negatives that are seen in the game. I am also responsible for speaking with players who come out of games about what may or may not have gone well for them. While I am doing these things, the head coach is focused on game management. We don't win every game of course, but our players have always played hard from start to finish.


Rick Allison (C2E) says:
11/15/2012 at 10:13:31 AM

Great points..NEVER stop teaching! Also, never stop learning..


Lonnie Howard says:
11/15/2012 at 10:12:46 AM

I recently finished coaching football and wish I had this advice during that season. It makes sense. I will use it from now on in coaching all of my sports.


Ken says:
11/15/2012 at 8:22:39 AM

By the way Don - GREAT ARTICLE!!


Ken says:
11/15/2012 at 8:21:57 AM

Don -

I was a firm believer that whatever you allowed them to do in practice, they will do in games.

We did try and make our practices harder than games... and my AD couldn't understand why I was correcting them all the time ( stopping something we were doing ) I had to explain my philosophy... I am not going to allow them to not do things correctly without me or my assistant correcting the situation... otherwise, they think its ok... and its NOT. JMO

In one game we screwed up the opening tip and I got all over my players (as I would do in practice) this freshman player talked to me after the game and said... " I heard that you were a little emotional during games (haha) but the opening tip?" I told him that I was not going to make sure that they were focused right from the opening tip otherwise they would make a lot more mistakes than I was willing to allow. I know players make mistakes... but I wasn't about to allow the mental ones.


Kris says:
11/15/2012 at 7:30:35 AM

Great insight. What you say is so true. If only coaches could act like they do in practice players would probably play better in games.


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