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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

The Magic of Training Camp

This weekend I was lucky enough to spend three fantastic days in the Perthshire countryside with the East Kilbride Pirates Women's American Football team, supporting their training camp as a coach. The team has been around for a few years now, and I've done a few guest coaching sessions along the way, but annual training camps (which are a staple of the senior and junior teams I was involved with) have not featured on their annual plan. For most of the players and coaches on the team, this was to be their first such experience. As someone who has planned, organised, lead and been involved with countless training camps for both club teams and the GB programme, and spoken about the process at several coaching conventions, I was asked if I could come along and help ensure it ran smoothly and delivered maximum value for the players and coaches, in preparing them for the season.

As it turned out, a wave of Covid swept through the staff in the weeks running up to camp, so my role went from coaching support and supervision, to a much more hands on role, as the de facto Head Coach. Still, despite the team missing their HC, I was determined to ensure that it was a formative experience for all, and so I immersed myself in their playbooks and looked through scout film of their opponents from previous years, to make sure that everything we did was relevant to things that they'd see on the field in the games ahead.

For anyone who has never been involved in a training camp environment for sport, the approach I've found to be most effective is to split the weekend into a series of cycles:

practice and record specific elements of the practice > pleyers shower/relax/rest/eat while the coaches break down the film > watch the film as a team and analyse strengths and development areas > practice again, focussing on refining the areas of need identified by film.

Each practice is relatively short by the standards that the players are used to. A typical practice through the year will be 2 hours, whereas the practices at camp are 90 mins. The idea of camps, as I run them, is NOT to wear the players out. Some coaches treat the experience like a Navy Seals Hell Week, but that, in my mind, is not productive use of the time, especially when you have a depleted squad, meaning that injuries can really impact on training effectiveness. I want a refinement of technique, a deepening of the understanding of both the individuals role and the system they operate within and a broadening of the player's football IQ. Smart football players who know what the team is trying to achieve and the best ways in which to help this, and who have the technique and ability to provide that help, are the kind of players you can build a team around.

On top of this, of course, camp is a HUGE bonding experience. Friday night practice is under the floodlights, the astro turf field glowing in the gloom that surrounds it. Saturday morning practice sees the team on the grass for 06:30, with the sun still low over the hills. Pool recovery sessions and mealtimes offer the chance to recuperate and enjoy one another's company. And the film sessions themselves are an incredibly supporting environment, where everyone in the room must make themselves vulnerable and open to feedback. Psychological safety is a must - and I can speak from my experience as a player when I say that you never look as fast, as refined or as good on film as you are in your head!

Reflecting on camp during my morning walk today, there were a few things which stood out as leadership practice, which have applications outside of sport, and in the businesses that we all lead and support.

Firstly, the shortening of the feedback loop. Our players complete the final play of a practice and less than three hours later, they've rested, reflected, watched film of what they did, received instruction on its effectiveness and are back on the field with the chance to do it again, with the benefit of that additional knowledge. As such, the speed with which the capability of the players improve is unbelievable. Looking at the film from practice 1, side by side with practice 7, the two teams on the screen are almost unrecognisable to one another. What opportunity is there for you to help your people grow, using this principle? Firstly, observe and them on the things that REALLY MATTER! The core parts of their role, or the role that they're moving towards. Do it regularly, give them feedback quickly after you've observed, and provide the opportunity for them to get back in the saddle quickly and put their learning into action.

Secondly, the psychological safety that exists within a camp is implicit, almost unstated. Everyone has spent their money, given up their weekend and come there to get better. How can you create that within your workplace? The understanding that we're not just here to do a job, we're hear to help one another get better at doing the job, so that every day we grow. What do you need to do as a leader contribute to this? I shared stories and film from my own playing days, talking about my experience of being reviewed on film (including the time an opponent punched me right in the family jewels and I folded like a house of cards, and the team replayed it over and over for five minutes until I thought some of them would have a hernia from laughing!) and was sure to balance the developmental feedback with the positive and share the feedback around to avoid singling anyone out in a way that could damage their self image. What are you doing that's adding to or diminishing the psychological safety within your team?

Thirdly, everything has a purpose at camp, and aims towards a clear goal. Even though you're together for a whole weekend, your time is limited, so every single drill needs to be planned and purposeful. That doesn't mean inflexibility - if we review film and find that we're struggling with our tackling technique, we tweak the next practice to do more work on tackling - but it ensures that the value of every minute on the field is clear to everyone involved, which drives engagement and effort. How often in your workplace do you find yourselves of others doing things where there's no clear purpose? Find the purpose or stop doing them. Focus on what matters.

And finally, the development of football IQ. Helping players see the bigger picture. How often do we do that as leaders, vs telling our people to JFDI? The more they understand what the whole is trying to achieve, the more chance there is that they'll refine their contribution to the part that they're responsible for, to help with that.

What can you do this week, to bring these ideas to life?

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