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L&D Lessons from an NFL Training Camp

To "train like a champion" means you have to be willing to log the hours of prep and practice - whether you're an NFL superstar or a learning and development professional.

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit the Buffalo Bills training camp. In addition to realizing that it’s definitely our year (seriously, who is going to be able to stop Tyrod Taylor?), I found some interesting parallels to the practice strategies that L&D professionals may want to adopt in order to hone their craft.

Bills Training Camp

When the offense took the field, the quarterbacks began by throwing balls to receivers running routes – just the quarterback and the receiver, nobody else was involved in the drill. At about this point my 6-year-old son walked away, declaring this was boring.

Then one defensive back was thrown into the mix and quarterbacks practiced throwing to the receivers who were going up against one defender.

A little later, the offense began to scrimmage in 7-on-7 drills against defensive backs and linebackers.

Toward the end of the practice, they began to play with a full complement of players – 11 on 11.

Transferable Lessons for L&D Professionals

I could definitely see how my son found this progression of passing drills to be boring – it lacked the full range of activity he was used to when he watches football on Sundays. Unfortunately, we can’t get to all that action, strategy and precision that we see on Sundays without all the “boring” work that went into this week’s practice.

The same goes for learning and development professionals. We can’t get to amazing learning experiences unless we practice some fundamentals first. Here are three ways to develop skills even when you don’t have a training session scheduled:

  1. Play around with PowerPoint. Just about everyone uses PowerPoint, but so few people use it well. If you have a little down time (ha!) or perhaps even some time outside of regular work hours, it may pay off to play around with your PowerPoint design. What would it look like if you began to design without the assistance of any templates? What would happen if you chose different font pairings? What impact would it make on your presentation if you used what Melissa Marshall calls the “assertion-evidence” slide design structure. Or you can just challenge a friend to see who can “trick out” a PowerPoint deck better, like Michelle Baker and I did here and here.
  2. Practice with some structure. Different people organize their thoughts in different ways. The most effective way I’ve found is to break up a presentation in small chunks using a lesson plan before I do anything else. This format allows me to see how much time I’d allocate to any given section of my presentation, how to deliver instructions for any given activity, and whether I’m using too much of any particular delivery style. It sounds pretty straight forward, but if this way of organizing your thoughts is new – for example if you’re prone to simply open up PowerPoint or if you tend to write a narrative script for your presentation – using this format and this structure will take some getting used to. Old habits die hard.
  3. Review the tape. The training camp practice we watched lasted two hours. The players’ day however did not end at noon last Monday. They had to hit the weight room. They had players’ meetings. And there was film to be watched. Reviewing film is commonplace in professional sports – what should you do if a defense lines up in a particular formation, what went wrong on a particular play that led to an incomplete pass or interception? The same strategy can (and should) be applied to L&D professionals. It’s amazing what you’ll find (and how much you can improve) by watching yourself on film. Several years ago when I watched myself on film, I saw firsthand several annoying presentation habits that I’d received feedback on in the past but had never really felt the need to change. Seeing it on film helped me change those habits immediately!

These three suggestions may not be very exciting (in fact, my six year old would probably watch you for a few minutes and declare that you’re too boring to watch), but they’re essential if you want to hone your craft as an L&D professional.

What else are you doing to improve, even when you’re not actually presenting in front of an audience?

Your esteemed Train Like a Champion blogger is taking a little vacation next week, so do not be alarmed if you do not see any wit and wisdom from this blog in your mailbox during the week of August 7th. I’ll be back with a new blog post on August 15th. Until then, I hope you’re enjoying the summer (or winter if you’re reading this from Australia)!


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