Chip Kelly’s 6 Keys to Run a Great Practice

Current UCLA and former Oregon football coach Chip Kelly is recognized as an innovator in his approach to the game. It all starts with the way his teams practice. Here are his 6 keys to running a great practice.

(The following was excerpted from the book – The Football Coach’s Gameplan for Leadership: Interviews with Football Legends, Detailed Organizational Plans and Coaching Strategies to Build Your Team’s Leadership Culture).

1) Improved Execution by Speed and Repetition. “If your players have not run that (game-deciding play) over a thousand times in practice, you will not have a chance to be successful. My old high school coach told me a long time ago that ‘If your head is moving, your feet are not.’ That means if you are thinking about what you do, you are not doing it as fast,” Kelly said.

To Kelly, practice is for one thing: repetitions. Learning by doing. Teaching and talking takes place in classrooms and video sessions beforehand, whenever possible. Stopping to talk during practice is a wasted opportunity and pulls you away from the rhythm of actual games.

As much as possible, every aspect of practice, emulates the game environment. If you can’t stop a play and instruct your player in a game, don’t do that in practice. Kelly’s assistants only correct players if they are substituted out of the scrimmage. The loud music is designed in part to simulate game conditions, specifically players’ ability to communicate without shouting or hand signals, but also the excitement of the event. It’s an exercise in focus despite distractions.

Kelly’s practices start fast and keep accelerating. His teams typically run 135 plays in each practice and sometimes more than 150. Some players have said that games seem slow in comparison. They ran no wind sprints; the entire practice was a wind sprint in the form of reps.

2) Building Trust. The teaching isn’t just to make players learn new systems. It also builds trust as Kelly takes the time to explain why they do certain things other teams don’t.

A former player noted: “One thing I liked about Coach Kelly is that you can go in and ask him why am I doing this – why am I running this route instead of that route and he will tell you directly – boom, boom. That makes you respect him more and gives you a place where you can voice your opinion. He doesn’t take it as a threat. Everything has a purpose. If it’s not proven, we won’t do it.”

When trying to innovate in a very traditional sport, this type of open communication is crucial and so is lack of defensiveness. It’s not about the coach having to be right, it’s about finding out what works and giving the players a say in what brings them to their best performance level.

3) Developing Leaders. At Oregon, instead of having one or two team captains, they had sixteen – one leader for each position. Kelly let the players choose who those leaders would be because: “Those guys have a better feeling for it. Once we have those sixteen squad leaders, I spend more time with those guys than anybody else. Talking about what being a leader is all about. Be the first one to serve, be the last to be served. Be the first one to indentify what our team standards are and be the last to break them.

4) Communication. Kelly’s programs have done this both with the players and with assistant coaches. In Philadelphia, plays will not just be called by the head coach and relayed in. Position coaches will be sending signals in to just their players, allowing much more specific and complicated messages and making it impossible for opponents to steal the calls in time to relay them to their players.

5) Changing Bad Habits. It’s crucial in the Kelly system to catch bad habits in practice and break them there. In the pressure and unpredictable flux of a game, players don’t have time to analyze or think about what to do. They will react based on the instincts developed in practice, so bad habits not corrected will emerge at game time.

This has been proven by research into the brain. It turns out that pathways in the brain actually reinforce themselves through use, so the concept of habits is not just a nagging point – it’s burned into the brain through repetition.

6) Daily Super Bowl Mentality. Much of the even keel emotional state that Kelly encourages comes from the idea that “every game is the Super Bowl.” No rival is more important than another. No one is getting caught up in next week’s glory. The focus is always to perform the next play as well as possible. That is the only thing that matters. It’s an attitude that keeps you focused in a game, no matter what the score says. He wants his teams to play with a focused intensity that he calls “fearless and fun.”

Want more on how the greatest football coach’s run their programs, check out – The Football Coach’s Gameplan for Leadership