Training Varied Skill Levels

The following text is an edited version of a chapter in my book, "Developing an Efficient Training Committee." Read more about the book here!

Many coaches have difficulty creating and leading practices for skaters at varied skill levels. That's because it's incredibly challenging when you have a league with skaters who aren't cleared for contact, skaters who aren't cleared for scrimmage, skaters who are new to scrimmage, and skaters with years of experience. You need to offer training at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced level. And if you have skaters who have a lot of experience, you need to offer training at the elite level. How can you possibly manage all of that in one practice? 

There are several ways to do this, but first, being proactive with your curriculum can help you with training different skill levels. For example, I prefer to schedule fresh meat training at the end of the season (typically in the fall) when vets are burned out and ready for a break. This allows the training committee to put most of their focus into training new skaters. Ideally, all skaters have passed to scrimmage level by the time the vets return from break for the beginning of the new season. League practices are for general game-playing skills and the new season starts with basic game skills and progresses as the season goes on. Team practices are where team-specific skills take place, and training is determined by team coaches. The annual schedule looks like this:

  • Jan-Oct: League and team training and games scheduled
  • Oct-Dec: Fresh meat training / Vets on break

One of the main reasons for separating fresh meat training is to dedicate a full focus on raising new skaters and to provide a learning environment in which they will thrive. They need an environment where they can feel safe to make mistakes, build confidence, and bond with their fresh meat peers. If you can't provide this, it doesn't mean that you won't offer quality training to your new skaters. If you can, well, even better!

Once you have everyone at scrimmage level, this allows you to train without limitations. The only challenge is making sure that all your skaters are being challenged. During a league practice, it's easiest to challenge the newest skaters because they have so much to learn, but providing a challenge for vets, especially ones who have many years of experience, is an area many coaches put on the skater. I've heard many coaches, during a drill, tell experienced skaters to challenge themselves by doing it faster or lower or harder. This is lazy coaching. You need to provide the challenge. It's your job as a coach to challenge all the skaters you coach. I'll explain more about this in a second.

I used to think that telling a skater to do a skill faster, lower, or harder was okay because there used to be a time when I needed to work on doing it faster, lower, and harder. After years (literally years) of attempting to do it faster or challenge myself in some way, I ran out of ideas. At one point I started doing most drills backward because it was the only challenge I could find. I don't say this to mean I'm some amazing derby player. I'm not. I have a million things to improve. I just didn't know how to challenge myself and still be excited about learning something new. After years of trying to do the same drill faster, I became disengaged. Every practice became disappointing because I was hungry to learn something new and this wasn't happening.  

Because of my experience, I dedicated myself to learning more about coaching. I focused on figuring out how to create practices that would challenge skaters at all levels. I spent a lot of time thinking and mapping out possibilities, and then it came to me, and it was sooo simple. For each drill (or most drills), include a beginner, intermediate, and advanced level. Like yoga. 

For example, if I'm leading a practice on urgent stops, I include a drill in which skaters line up in single-file on corner two. On the whistle, the skater at the front of the line sprints at full speed around the track. They must come to a complete stop before the pivot line without falling or going out of bounds. A skater at the beginner level will begin their stop about 20-30 feet before the pivot line. A skater at the intermediate level begins their stop 15-20 feet before. The advanced level begins at 10-15 feet, and the elite level begins at 5 feet. The track is marked so skaters can see where they begin their stop and can work towards moving up levels. The goal is to improve all your stops (not just execute the one stop you're good at) by sprinting faster and beginning your stop closer to the pivot line.

Another example of dividing a drill into different levels is with a partner blocking drill. In this drill, skaters are divided into two groups. One group will be roving jammers and the other group is paired up and scattered around the track. They act as stationary partner walls. The jammers skate around the track, trying to get past the walls. The skaters in the wall focus on catching the jammer and keeping them for as long as possible. For the skaters in the wall, the beginner focus is working together and moving laterally to catch the jammer with their butts (instead of throwing yourself at the jammer). The intermediate level focuses on catching the jammer and adding a stop, so they don't get pushed forward (they have to let the jammer go once they are moved 10' ahead). The advanced level focuses on catching the jammer, adding a stop, and guiding the jammer to the track boundary to block her off and recycle her behind them. Skaters are instructed to partner with someone of a similar skill level. Before they start the drill, they know what their focus is. If they consistently execute the beginner level focus they can move on to intermediate, and so on. This allows skaters to work with a partner who has the same focus and goal.

[[ To be clear, this system is implemented once skaters have graduated the fresh meat program. During fresh meat training, I think it can be very valuable to partner an experienced skater with a new skater, typically when fresh meat are working on a new skill. ]]

Not all drills can be divided into beginner/intermediate/advanced options, but offering at least a few each practice will engage skaters at all levels. This also helps to teach skaters that there are different skills involved with just about every thing you do, and it impresses upon them the importance of mastering those skills. It's so important to keep all your skaters engaged and learning every practice!

Organizing league scrimmages involving skaters of varied skill level, however, is a different beast. It is hard to set up a scrimmage that challenges all your skaters, especially if you have extremely different skill levels. If the skaters on your league are fairly close in experience (0-3 seasons of bouting), I think it's fine to divide everyone into equal teams and have them play each other. If you have skaters on your league with little to no game experience and skaters who have years of playing high-level derby, I suggest you do not mix everyone into teams. 

Years ago (2011-12), my league had some fairly extreme differences in skill level. There were skaters who had 4-5 years of playing high-level derby, skaters who had several years playing B-team games, and brand new skaters. During a league scrimmage, we were all mixed up into two teams. I would play with and against my teammates (who also had years of experience playing high-level derby) and I would play with and against skaters whose skill-level ranged from B-team to just learning how to play. Many of my teammates and I felt that we spent most of the scrimmage time helping new skaters learn the game. We could not execute the higher level skills we worked on because our leaguemates were not at that level. Additionally, we scaled down the power and force of our blocks because it took very little effort to take out a new skater. We were not practicing at the level we played, and for that our game suffered.

If we had played at full capacity because we would have murdered the newer skaters. I mean, literally killed them. And if they didn't die, I'm convinced their confidence would have. When skaters are just learning, they need to be placed in a learning environment. I don't advocate for the sink or swim model because I think there are few people who excel in that environment. I came up with an alternative idea for my league scrimmages.

My solution was for the skaters to be split into four separate teams for scrimmage. The league had an A-B-C team structure, each having around 8-10 skaters on the team, some of them swinging between teams.  Instead of dividing everyone into two teams, we divided the B and C skaters into two teams that would play each other and we divided the skaters on the WFTDA charter (all of the A-team, and the members of the B-team who were being groomed for the A-team) into two teams that would play each other. The B/C skaters would play one jam, and when that jam ended, the charter skaters played the next jam. The teams switched every jam. (If you were sent to the box, you left at the end of the jam, and returned when your team played next.) It is as if you have two different scrimmages going on and they are taking turns every jam. Yes, this was somewhat confusing and complicated at first (especially with the officials), but after a few scrimmages we had it down.  

If you don't have enough skaters to create two teams for the scrimmage, you will have to mix your varied skill levels. In this case, I suggest that you ask your experienced skaters to not murder the new ones. This compromises their training, though, so you'll need to find alternative ways to challenge them. If you have enough experienced skaters to field a team, schedule a scrimmage against an equally-matched or higher skilled team. Do this at least once a month. Many leagues offer mixed scrimmages, so encourage your skaters to participate in those. If your city or one nearby has a league with experienced skaters, contact them to see if your experienced skaters can join their scrimmages. Here in Portland, Maine, we have two women's leagues and one men's league. Skaters from each league often join the practices/scrimmages of the other leagues. 

Regardless of what training choices you make, a coach's job is to challenge all your skaters. Everyone pays dues and (hopefully) works for the league, so they deserve of quality training. They deserve to learn new things and feel challenged. You need to consider the different skill levels when making decisions about training, when creating a practice, when scheduling a scrimmage. Always ask yourself: Will everyone be challenged during this drill/practice/scrimmage? This can be really REALLY time-consuming, but it's worth it. You will have happier skaters and everyone will be growing and learning!

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If you are struggling with training your varied skill levels, please contact me! I am happy to offer suggestions about how to create drills that offer beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. You can also hire me to create full practices and/or curricula for your league.