While many have made suggestions on what to work on during practice, who to specifically focus on is largely unexplored. As a result, the coaching bandwidth, the limited time, attention, repetitions, and resources that can be expanded on players by the coach, is often misallocated to players who are relatively insignificant in the game. Although coaches likely recognize that some players have an outsized role in the game, they fail to act on the imbalance and invest in them accordingly.
I am advocating for implementing a differentiated practice plan that complements the team's objectives and game strategies.
Traditional practice plans invest in all players equally. However, this is contradicted by vastly unequal amounts of playing time and players who are evidently more valuable. The traditional practice plan's drawback is that it spreads limited opportunities too thin and leads to insufficient share for all. Coaches are essentially using a noncompetitive practice plan in attempt to achieve a competitive goal. While this well-meaning approach can certainly be commended for attempting to give players their “fair share,” it fails to give the team a competitive advantage.
The coach should invest in players in a way that corresponds to their roles and performance in
these roles. Although this may feel counterintuitive and uncomfortable at first, it ultimately gives everyone on the team their best chance of winning. To acknowledge their varying values in the game, the team should be sorted into “A,” “B,” and “C” roles. This will help the coach to recognize the relative impact that each role has on the game. The “A” roles, generally the starters, are identified as being central to the game strategy and disproportionately affect the outcome. The team’s performance and success are overwhelmingly determined by the performance of this subgroup of players. The “B” roles, such as substitutes, support the “A” roles. The “C” roles, to put it simply, are the bench players.
Even if all players are equally skilled, the relative impact of their roles is still highly variable. Suppose that starters average three at-bats per game, pinch hitters have one per game, and backup players are afforded one every three games. The starters will be three times more consequential than the pinch hitter and nine times more consequential than backups. Therefore, an underprepared starter will adversely affect the team’s performance significantly more than an underprepared role player or backup. By focusing on the players in the roles that determine and drive success, the probability of achieving success will increase.
If your overriding goal as a coach is to win, the practice should be structured to improve your performance in the game. The practice plan should be derived from the game strategy and differentiate the players in their relation to it, with primacy given to the “A” role players. Practice resources should be allocated the same way that water flows down a tiered fountain – it starts at the top tier with the “A” role players and once sufficiently full, overflows to the next. If there is not enough for every tier to be full, the lower tiers will not end up with additional resources at the expense of those above.
Although some players may receive an unequal share, the coach must treat all players with an equally
high level of respect. Additionally, players should be encouraged to invest in their development outside of practice and all players should have an equal opportunity to compete for the most desirable roles.
A differentiated practice plan will empower the coach to disproportionately invest in the players that have a disproportionate impact. It also puts into focus what will carry over to the game. Other things equal, this will give the team a competitive advantage over teams that invest in their players equally.