I would like to think we do some very good drills and I would like to think we surf the line between creative and usefulness very well. I 100 percent think this is due to our philosophy behind drill design and creation.
It’s important to first consider why we do drills in the first place. The answer is exposure, which is very different from mindless repetition. The science is pretty clear that the more specific and representative the exercise, the better the transfer of the skill we will get. We also know that small-sided games and game-like training are the best ways of developing players, so again, why do drills? And again, the answer is exposure. The games approach may not provide the opportunity for significant frequency of certain skill sets. Due to the chaotic nature of a play, some skills may not be used in an entire training session.
Now, a high-quality coach may set some constraints that push the envelope toward using certain skills, but for most, the answer is a drill. Where coaches run into trouble is clearly not all drills are created equal. So how do we design the best possible drills?
For me, it begins and ends with one question, “What makes it difficult on gameday?”
If we are not looking into this aspect, we are not addressing the aspects of play that limit technique and skill in the first place. If we are trying to create game-like training, or at least add the proper context to our drills, the most developmentally important component is what makes it difficult on gameday.
When we look at something like an offensive line player striking in pass protection, it’s useful to ask questions. “Is accurately punching a big blue square really the issue? Is a teammate holding a shield at half speed a meaningful solution?” I’d offer what makes it difficult on game day is the defensive player is normally faster, giving head and shoulder fakes, limiting the strike surface and using swipes and chops to parry the strike. This is what makes a solid strike difficult on game day. Therefore, it should be included in our drill work.
Next, let’s consider a defensive back getting beat over the top for a deep pass. In this case, what makes the turn and run technique hard on game day is the initial movements and reads before even starting the turn and the huge amount of mental processing. The defensive back has to read run/pass, find the initial threat, read the release, process the combination, explode the eyes to new a threat and take appropriate turn to intersect. With all information as context, can it really be as simple as the “star drill” to force lots of defensive back turns as our answer?
We want to train our players in the context of the actual challenges they face so they learn to process and activate their skills in a timely and appropriate manner. Simply stated, when a core technique lets you down, ask yourself, “Last time we stripped down the drill (think pass pro punch and turn to run), did they do it well?” If yes, the challenge is at a deeper level. Consider what makes it difficult on game day to layer the learning and skill development.
Your defense is only as good as each tackler. Equip your staff with a common language, a systematic teaching progression and evaluation tools to coach better tacklers.