Optional Practice | Is it Really Optional?

Being a collegiate student-athlete is a huge time commitment. Throughout the competition season and the offseason, coaches will often open up their facilities to their athletes for “optional practice,” but what exactly does that entail? Are you wondering if you will be  penalized for not attending? Will you look like you don’t care if you do not attend? Let’s discuss what optional practice means and how athletes often feel pressured to participate. 

What is an optional practice?

An optional practice is a practice that the coaches do not deem mandatory. During these practices, coaches can run instructional drills and be present; however, attendance is optional. Optional practices differ from voluntary practices since a coach can present and facilitate the practice, and those who attend can log this practice as a countable athletic-related activity. These countable athletic-related activity logs go towards the required activity time limit for the championship season or offseason (hours vary per NCAA division). A voluntary practice is not monitored; no coaches are present nor can be initiated by the athlete. 

What does “optional practice” really mean?

Most college coaches believe that you should attend. Coaches want their athletes to want to advance and train hard. Besides, if you’re going to be the best, you have to train harder than the rest. Optional practices can be a test that coaches can take note of who is putting in the extra effort. 

The optional practice may be a check-in for the coaches, but it can be a useful tool for the athletes themselves. If the optional practice is in place of a regularly scheduled practice, the athletes can take advantage of these opportunities to work on skills without making extra room for their busy schedules. Being able to get in a session with your coaches can be very beneficial, and a way to showcase your hard work in a maybe smaller group setting. 

Note: If a Student-athlete needs to work on their mental or physical health, they should not be pressured into attending these training sessions.  

Quotes from college athletes

“Whenever a coach would tell me practice is “optional,” the first thing that goes through my mind is, is this actually optional? There is some sort of pressure we feel about participating in these optional practices. Even though technically there cannot be repercussions for not participating, the coaches will not be happy if you choose not to play. As a captain, This would always put me in a very uncomfortable situation because I felt like I had to tell the team it was mandatory; otherwise, Coach would get mad.” – Jaileen Goncalves, Soccer 

“The general feeling of “optional practices” is that they are not actually optional and that coaches take note of who attends and who does not. We call our optional practices “optional”. It means “mandatory optional.” On the other hand, they are an excellent opportunity to get some extra practice in, and I appreciate smaller technical sessions.” – Brooke Osmanski, Soccer 

“Optional practice means it’s mandatory. If you don’t show up, you’re not getting punished, but the coaches don’t forget about it”. – Caileigh Holland, Softball

“In most cases, I feel that as a division 1 athlete, the term “optional” does not apply to us. If something is optional, that means it’s mandatory. I thought an optional team run was truly an option from personal experience, so I did not attend due to personal reasons. The whole team ended up getting punished. That’s when I realized I’d never miss anything again, optional or not.” – Rachel Smilansky, Tennis

“Our coaches would have extra reps, essentially an optional extra 30 minutes, before practice a few times a week. If your schedule allowed you to attend, these were strongly encouraged and almost frowned upon for not attending, especially if there was something you needed to work on. If you did not see as much court time, it was an opportunity to show you worked hard to get better and earn an opportunity. I know teammates who felt pressured to go because they figured it would look bad in the eyes of the coaches if they didn’t.” – Hazel Brown, Volleyball 

Quote from a college coach

“I think optional practices are very important outside of the 20 hours in the season. It shows the character of the team and who wants to work to get better. Taking the initiative to get in the gym for bonus work alone or with teammates is crucial.” – Iain McCoy, Division 1 Volleyball Coach

Do all coaches hold optional practices?

No, all coaches are different in their coaching styles, approaches, and tactics. Some coaches are completely against optional practices, whereas some coaches love it. It also varies by sport and the ability to hold an optional practice. In some instances, players are very self-motivated and take the initiative themselves to ask for extra reps instead of the coaches having to suggest an optional practice. 

Coach Gareth Elliot, 2 time Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year and Champion, says, “I don’t really have optional practices…student-athletes are encouraged to come to our staff if they would like to do some extra work. I’m not sure if saying “optional” as a workout is a good idea in today’s climate as it could be construed as “you better do it” or “if you don’t do this it may be held against you’, etc. It’s a very grey area, and that’s where recruiting self-motivated student-athletes comes in because they always seem to want more”. 

All in all, if your coach is big on optional practice, use it to your advantage. Ultimately it is an extra opportunity to improve. Although some coaches use these for ulterior motives, putting that aside, if you can capitalize on these practices, you should do so as a college athlete. 

* Originally published on September 10, 2020, by Hazel Brown

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