Adrian (AJ) Ballantyne is a former elite men’s and mixed netball player, and has turned his love of the game into a coaching career spanning more than 10 years, including the last seven as a coach in Victoria’s elite competition, the Victorian Netball League. He is the Director of The Netball Coach website.
It’s the “F” word every netball coach should ensure plays a role in every training session, no matter how big or small a role that might be.
Without it, there is a significant chance our players will become bored, or worse, disinterested or disillusioned with the sport.
But use it the right way and it can be a powerful tool to help you and your players get the most out of every session and boost their performance throughout the season.
So how can we use fun effectively in our sessions to maximise our players’ output every week?
‘Fun’ Doesn’t Have To Mean Games
Dan Ryan, the Adelaide Thunderbirds, coach believes coaches often misconstrue the need to have fun as meaning they should play games at every single session.
Ryan says engaging a new drill or skill can be fun for players, which is a fact too easily forgotten.
“I think it’s critical that you don’t just recycle your drills and activities and your training sessions because you’ve done them before. It’s really important that as coaches we sit down and take the time to actually create things that are unique and are our own,” he says.
“I spend a lot of time just crafting up little drills and technical, tactical things that the players haven’t seen before that are new and fresh, because that kind of engagement is what keeps them going.”
“There are many staple drills that I think important to roll out to have that discipline and commitment and that high quality, but never underestimate how much impact a drill that you’ve created that they’ve never seen before can have on the athletes.”
Right Time, Right Place
That’s not to say that games don’t have their place within a session.
However, it is key to be selective about where you use them. It’s unrealistic for any player to re-focus quickly if you throw a game into the middle of a session, let alone a youngster, so it is important to choose your moments wisely.
“It’s always important to be very particular where you put your fun in your session,” Ryan says.
“I always make sure if I’ve got fun throughout my session that it’s at the very start, so everyone gets it out of their system, and then we go straight into the business of making the rest of the session intense and impactful and purposeful.
“Certainly don’t chuck your fun in the middle of a session and expect your athletes to be reengaged and get back into some high performance training. It needs to be done at the right time, whether it’s the very start of the session or at the very end of the session, because you do need to make sure that if you’re coming to training that you’re getting those high performance gains out of it. That comes from concentration and commitment.”
Make a time to laugh
There are few things that bond a group faster than shared positive experience, so make sure that the focus is on enjoyment rather than the result when using a game as part of a session.
It can be a welcome break for the players from the other parts of their training and competition, where the focus is on achieving a particular outcome, or performing a skill correctly.
“Not every session, but make time in your training program for your athletes to have a bit of a laugh and relax and enjoy spending time together,” Ryan says.
“Netball can be a stressful place, depending on what level you’re playing at, so make sure the athletes that are under your care are enjoying their experience.
“That’s the most important thing because that’s what will keep them in the sport longer and that’s what will hopefully see them progress.”
Some Fun Ideas For Coaches
Coach vs player challenges – Players and coaches take it in turns each week to select a game/challenge, and compete against each other. It can be something netball specific, like a shooting competition or a race, or a game guaranteed to get plenty of laughs, like “Chubby Bunny”, where each person takes turns putting marshmallows in their mouth and says “chubby bunny” until they are unable to complete the phrase in a comprehensible manner. The winner is the person with the most marshmallows in their mouth who is able to say “chubby bunny”.
Soccer/handpass football – Cross-training games are a great warm-up exercise, and also add a competitive element that many coaches would prefer. Handpass football is a variation of regular football, played within the netball court boundaries, in which players are only allowed to run and handpass the ball to each other (no kicking). Split your players into two teams and set out two cones at either end of the court, a couple of metres apart, to act as goals. Players can score by running the ball through the goals, or handpass it through. Players can also grab each other to try to knock the ball loose, but don’t tackle to the ground.
Relay races – If you’re lucky, your players won’t even notice they’re doing fitness work or netball specific skill work when you turn it into a relay. It’s amazing how a seemingly straightforward footwork or cone work drill gets players so much more engaged and working at a much higher intensity when you add a competitive element. It’s also a great way to get quiet teams to become a little more vocal.
Golden Child – It would take too long to explain the rules here, but almost every junior player is born with the intense desire to play “Golden Child” at every opportunity, so they’ll almost certainly be able to explain it if you ask them!
Ball tag – This gets players physically and mentally switched on. Ball tag is a good netball-specific warmup drill that adds that crucial element of fun.