By Doug Abrams
At any age level, the players’ attention span is usually much longer than it appears. This two-part column discusses seven techniques that can help coaches hold their players’ attention in a group during practice sessions. Part I presented four techniques last week; Part II now concludes with the final three.
5) Use voice control
I have watched too many youth-league and high school coaches spend entire practice sessions shouting and barking like General George S. Patton did when he addressed his troops in World War II. No young athlete likes to be shouted at or barked at incessantly. Players in the youngest age groups may feel especially intimidated, but most youngsters at any age learn much more from adults they respect than from ones they fear.
Experienced coaches who feel secure about their leadership position can win respect with the same measured, yet firm tone of voice that they would use on Main Street. Talented coaches can teach, motivate their teams and maintain discipline without strutting or barking. When raising the voice is the isolated exception rather than the rule, raising the voice has special effect when it might be useful.
Dave Snyder, my hockey coach at Wesleyan University, calls it “voice control.” Rick Wolff even tells of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and other leading coaches who sometimes intentionally spoke softly so that the players would have to lean forward (and thus pay special attention) to hear. One way or the other, coaches who think that teaching, motivation or discipline depend on theatrics are probably not very good at teaching, motivation or discipline.
Kids are smart enough to sense when their coaches are putting on an act by trying to be something they are not. What should a player think about a coach who appears firm but approachable off the field, only to resort to non-stop bluster during practices and games? A coach’s mind games and Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde routine wear thin before too long.
6) Stand still and let a player demonstrate
When the coach instructs, players can learn only from what they actually hear. Too often, the coach begins explaining a technique or drill while standing directly in front of the players who are on their knees, but continues talking while demonstrating the drill himself. While the coach demonstrates, the coach moves further and further away from the players, sometimes turning his back while continuing to talk.
As the coach’s voice tails off in the distance, the players hear less and less, and eventually hear little or nothing, particularly if the coach competes with background noise outdoors, or with poor acoustics in a gym or other building. The explanation and demonstration have both failed because the coach is talking away from the players, not to them.
Demonstrating a technique or drill can be helpful because many children, like many adults, learn better when they see what they also hear. But sometimes the most effective demonstrator is a player selected by the coach. While talking the player through the demonstration, the coach stands still in a position that enables the rest of the team to watch both the coach and the demonstration. By selecting a volunteer who can likely perform the skill correctly, the coach diminishes the need for do-overs or the likelihood of snickering as the demonstrator returns to the group.
7) Consider using the Socratic Method
Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher, had a particularly effective way to reach his students and hold their attention. Centuries later, perceptive educators still use the “Socratic method.”
Rather than lecturing for an hour or more, Socrates would ask the students a series of carefully crafted questions designed to elicit their responses. He would call on selected students, or students would volunteer their answers. The teacher would summarize the players’ answers or fill in the gaps where necessary, but the students remained engaged and involved.
Socrates’ class sessions became interactive, today’s term for a teaching technique that actually is centuries old. By the end of a class session, the “Socratic dialog” had taught the students as much as the teacher’s monolog would have taught (and sometimes even more, because dialogs stimulate students to participate rather than merely sit back and listen passively).
By creatively using the Socratic method at appropriate times during practice, coaches at all age levels can hold the players’ attention, encourage them to think, and make them feel like active participants in the team. It can work with six-year-olds and high schoolers alike.
Assume, for example, that a baseball coach gathers the team together on their knees for hitting instruction. The coach can get the message across by letting the players do much of the talking (“Where should the batter stand in the batter’s box?”; “What should the batter be watching before the pitcher releases the ball?”; “How should the batter hold his hands?”; “Why does the batter want to eliminate a hitch in the swing?”). The coach’s first question and answer may lead to follow-up questions.
Besides being a great way to teach particular skills, the Q & A technique can also encourage players to talk in a group about the last game. (“What should we have learned from winning Saturday’s game?”; “Now that we’ve had some time think about yesterday’s loss, what do we need to work on today?”) Some players might have reactions that did not occur to the staff, and the players’ reactions are the ones that count.
For coaches and classroom teachers alike, the Socratic method is not as easy as it looks. Players are not mind readers, so ask each question precisely and clearly so they will understand the answers you seek. Make sure the questions will elicit answers that make the desired points. Make sure the questions seek answers that the kids can provide at their age and experience level. Keep the dialog on track because Q & A can eat up time, which may be expensive at many youth sports venues nowadays. Usually seek volunteer responders so no player feels embarrassed; students may have to endure some embarrassment in the classroom, but they do not have to continue playing sports. Try not to let a few players monopolize the dialog. Watch the players’ reactions, and be flexible enough to return to lecture if the Q & A is not working.
Soon after winning an Academy Award in 1952, actress Shirley Booth revealed the secret of her success. The secret is central to any communication between speaker and listener. “The audience,” she said, “is 50 percent of the performance.”
Public speaking is indeed a two-way street, with the speaker on one side and the listeners on the other. As public speakers leading a collaborative effort, coaches teach best when they tailor their messages to the needs and capacities of their young audience.