Getting Players to Pay Attention

(My recent outings to training sessions with 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds reminded me how difficult it can be to corral a group of wonderfully rambunctious children -- and prompted me to remind myself of the advice we got in this article that first appeared in March of 2013.)

By Mike Woitalla

It's perfectly reasonable that children who show up to soccer practice might have a difficult time paying attention when the coach has something to say. They have, after all, spent an entire day at school listening to adults. And now it's playtime.

But even those coaches who follow the Three L’s -- “No laps, no lines, no lectures” -- must at times address the entire group.

So how do you get a group of chatty, fidgety youngsters to pay attention for a few seconds?

For young children, there are those methods used by elementary school teachers: “If you can hear me, clap once. … If you can hear me, clap twice, etc;” various clapping patterns for the kids to follow; “1-2-3 Eyes on me” …

“I just talk quieter until they realize they have to quiet down to hear the info,” says Julie Eibensteiner of the NSCAA Coaching Education Staff and longtime youth coach. “But I think how you carry yourself and your approach to practice usually commands attention. The more you say, the less value you have when you talk. If you only speak when you have something valuable to say, they will be waiting for it and tune in when you do talk.”

The coach’s positioning, posture and demeanor are crucial, explains Ian Barker, the NSCAA’s Director of Coaching of Education:

“Take off the sunglasses and baseball cap, so they can see your eyes,” Barker says. “Turn their backs to the sun. … Turn their backs to distractions (parents, other action, etc.)

“Get down to their level … squat or sit. Talk softly, so they have to listen harder. Tell a story or a joke to draw them in. Use first names or nicknames they respond to. … Sometimes I engage the most energetic child and his or her focus on me draws in the others.”

Sam Snow, US Youth Soccer’s Coaching Director, recommends initially making eye contact with all of the players, so that they know it's time to tune in.

Once you do get their attention, there’s the matter of retaining it.

“Older players also tune out during a coach monologue, they are just better at faking rapt attention,” says Snow. “When the players know the coach's talk will be just another long monologue their attention quite naturally wanders. By engaging the players with one or two questions at the halftime or at a natural stoppage during a training session activity, the coach has the players' attention.”

Mike O'Neill is the girls Director Of Coaching of New Jersey’s PDA.

“Keep it simple,” he says. “Quick and concise is the only way!”

To players, he stresses the importance of eye contact and that only one person can talk at a time. For his coaches: “Patience, tone of voice -- and eventually the good habits will take over.”

For sure, a coach's job with a bunch of 6-year-olds is mainly about creating an active environment for them to discover the joys of the game. But just because the players are older doesn’t mean the lecture is effective.

In his book, “The Talent Code,” Daniel Coyle investigated highly successful coaches and teachers. He reported that advice or instructions uttered by the great basketball coach, John Wooden, averaged four seconds: “No lectures, no extended harangues … he rarely spoke longer than 20 seconds.”

What the great coaches and teachers Coyle studied had in common:

“The listened far more than they talked. They seemed allergic to giving pep talks or inspiring speeches; they spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments. They had an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality. … They were talent whisperers.”

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif and is a Grade 8 referee. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

4 comments about "Getting Players to Pay Attention ".
  1. cony konstin, October 31, 2014 at 1:28 p.m.

    If you are going to have kids learn football in a coaching environment with people who most likely never played or even might have played. There are two fundamentals that the kids need to focus on for the first 5 years. Learning to pass the ball with their head up and learn to dribble the ball with their head up. This is the worse bad habit that Usonian kids have in the US. 20 to 30 minutes on those two fundamentals then go and play. After 5 years doing the same thing the kids will be able to pass and dribble with their head up and they will have a good feeling with the ball at their feet. Now they can learn how to do other things with the ball. In baseball the 3 main fundamentals are learning how to swing, catch and throw. Once they got a good hang at those fundamentals then it is a lot easier to learn how to slide into home, bunt, or throw a curve ball. In the US we try to give too much to the kids and most of it goes right over their heads because they don't have any skill. We need to hold back all of this curriculum mambo jumbo and just simplify it for the kids. Now I rather see US Soccer step up and create a playing environment for kids then a coaching enviroment. The way to do that is to build 600,000 futsal courts in our inner cities and suburbs. We do that then we will have magical players and a passion for the game that will last forever. But that is going to take a REVOLUTION!!!

  2. James Madison, October 31, 2014 at 6:20 p.m.

    Getting players to listen even for brief instructions is as much an issue for players at least up to ages 12-13 as it is for younger players. Silence has worked best for me, although calling 5-4-3-2-1 to get them to gather also has worked. And separate the players from the balls. Put the balls behind the coach or off to one side.

  3. stewart hayes, October 31, 2014 at 8:44 p.m.

    I can't disagree with konstin or Madison. My take on it is 6, 7 and 8 year olds don't learn how to play with their ears, they learn by moving and therefore don't really need to pay attention to the coach. I believe they instinctively know this. Even if they all appear to be listening only 30% are actually hear what is said and can act on it. The smart coach learns this and has the players moving from the start and only stops them when they need to rest which is also the best time to get in a question or two.

  4. Kent James, November 1, 2014 at 11:35 p.m.

    It's also significant when you speak to them; I like to talk to them just after they've done something that leaves them breathless (and for young kids, if they're fidgety, you can have them race to something 20-30 yds (or longer) away, and talk to them when they get back...).

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