How much is too much?


As we progress further into the fall, as teams start to realize who has a shot at playoffs and who doesn’t, practices undoubtedly start becoming harder and start lasting longer. I am here to ask, does that really work? I understand the conventional wisdom and tradition that comes with practicing out in the hot sun, or in a hot gym, for hours because it builds character, makes kids tougher, teaches resilience, etc. However, coming from the standpoint of a former athlete, I question its legitimacy, and if it is rooted in any sort of fact and not just speculation. I want to take a slightly different, slightly scientific approach to this piece because I believe I can introduce things people haven’t considered.

For starters, are you familiar with the law of diminishing returns? Now this is a law in economics and is often applied to technology, but why not apply it here? What the law states: benefits that beyond a certain point fail to increase in proportion to extended efforts. In laymen’s terms, adding more practice TIME (only one factor) and holding all other factors the same, will at some point yield lower returns. I think this can be applied to all sports. Think about it, as the season wears on, and teams start gearing up for the playoffs, practices almost always start becoming longer. What I find funny and so interesting about this is that most coaches and sports fans in general are very superstitious. They don’t like changing anything, especially if it has been working. Then why do they begin extending practices when the games get more important? Conventional wisdom might suggest more time on the practice field leads to sharper players, but the contrarian in me screams if you made it to the playoffs practicing a certain way, why would you change it? More does not always mean better. Sure, hitting someone hard might make you tougher, but at some point it’s actually going to make you weaker as your body breaks down. Mental fatigue also figures into this equation — the longer kids spend practicing the easier it becomes for them to lose interest and the cycle continues as the coach stops practice to articulate something for the third time.

At this point I would like to introduce another law, one that is much lesser known: Parkinson’s Law. I came across this law when I was reading “David and Goliath” by the brilliant author Malcolm Gladwell. If you are unfamiliar with his work, he uses data to provide context to some of life’s weird phenomenons. Have you ever wondered what the chances are that nearly every job in America takes exactly eight hours a day and 40 hours a week to complete? The answer is zero, a zero percent chance. The origin of  the 40-hour work week can be debated amongst yourselves, but the fact of the matter is that it is an arbitrary number that we all conform to because, well, that’s the way it’s always been (if you’ve read my columns before you know this is my biggest pet peeve). Plain and simple, it doesn’t take an accountant and a construction worker the same amount of time to finish their jobs, yet they usually work the same hours. Parkinson’s Law essentially states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Basically, you will find things to do in order to make sure you finish everything you need to in the time that you have been provided. Ever noticed how when you have to leave work early for a dentist appointment, or take a half day on Friday that you still get your work done? Why can’t this principle be applied to coaches and practices?

A typical coaches answer might talk about how kids don’t listen, or that they need more time, or that they were goofing off, but perhaps this happens because they know there will always be more time. Shortening and/or cutting down practice times, eliminating all the time for shenanigans and fruitless pondering that coaches do in between drills can affect the team in two ways. First and foremost, coaches would be forced to be efficient. If someone can’t adequately instruct their players in the time allotted then maybe coaching isn’t for them. There are rarely repercussions when a coach is unprepared for practice and what ends up happening is the players are punished and forced to practice longer. If a coach’s position group starts performing poorly, coaches will have to make adjustments to how they communicate with their players.

Players that like to goof off will start losing playing time as they lose their grasp on the plays and will be faced with an important decision, pay attention or ride the bench. Per Parkinsons Law, we will fill the time we have, so WHY schedule so much time.

These kids are supposed to be student-athletes, emphasis on the student. Making practices more efficient will give kids more time to work on their studies or perhaps take up an art of some sort. Trust me, if these athletes want to dedicate all their time to sports, they will have every opportunity to do so in college. So in high school, let’s let them be kids.

More In Columns