Training Varied Skill Levels

Originally posted Dec 2015

The following text is an edited version of a chapter in my book, "Developing an Efficient Training Committee.

There are so many coaches who are in situations in which they have skaters at various skill levels attending the same practice. It can be very difficult to provide a challenging and effective practice for all those skaters (especially when you have some skaters who aren't cleared for contact, skaters who are, and skaters who have been playing for years), but it's not impossible! I've got some ideas for you!  

Annual Scheduling

Being proactive with a curriculum can help you with training different skill levels. For example, I prefer to schedule new skater training at the end of the season 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 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-Sept: League and team training and games scheduled
  • Oct-Dec: new skater training / Vets on break

One of the main reasons for separating new skater 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 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! 

Don't Forget Your Vets

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 in each scrimmage and practice. 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 some coaches put on the vet. I've heard many coaches, during a drill, tell experienced skaters to challenge themselves by doing it faster or lower or harder. To me, 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 many 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. After that got boring, I just didn't know how to challenge myself and still be excited about learning something new. I became disengaged because every practice became disappointing - I was hungry to learn something new and this wasn't happening.  

Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced Levels

Because of this 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 after rolling over the jammer line without falling or going out of bounds. A skater at the beginner level will attempt to complete the stop at before the pivot line. A skater at the intermediate level tries to stop within 20-30 ft. The advanced level tries to stop within 10-15 ft. This allows all skaters to participate and work toward 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 stopping sooner.

Another example of dividing a drill into different levels is with an offensive blocking drill designed to help skaters skate in the opposite direction and provide offense without getting a direction-of-play penalty.

  • Beginner: provide a screen by putting your body in the way of the direction your opponent wants to move
  • Intermediate: after successfully and consistently executing the beginner level, add on a drive away from the line you are trying to clear.
  • Advanced: after successfully and consistently executing the intermediate level, add a cap by rotating in front of the skater you are driving in order to stop them from running forward to catch your jammer.

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 and levels. It's so important to keep all your skaters engaged and learning every practice!

Mixed Level Scrimmages

Organizing league scrimmages varied skill levels, 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 all-star level derby, skaters who had several years playing B-team games, and brand new skaters who had never played a game. 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 all-star 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 helping new skaters learn the game. We did not get the opportunity to work on the higher level skills we wanted to 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, 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 AND skaters are at risk for injury. 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 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, 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 skill levels. Schedule a "learning scrimmage" that focuses on higher level skaters helping the newer skaters learn the game. Schedule regular scrimmages, too. If you have enough experienced skaters to field a team, schedule a scrimmage against an equally-matched or higher skilled team. Try to make this happen 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, collaborate with them by scheduling scrims against them or by inviting them to mix in with your scrimmages. 

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 quality training. They deserve to learn new things and feel challenged. 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!


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. 

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