Say it carefully, quickly and clearly: Getting your players' attention

(Editor's note: It can be a challenge to get a rambunctious group of young players to pay attention for even a brief time. And with the fall season underway, we thought it'd be a good time to revisit advice from teacher and coach trainer Doug Lemov that first appeared in the Youth Soccer Insider in January of 2014.)

By Doug Lemov

1) Start with Discipline
I define discipline as teaching students the right way to do something. Never mind living in a place where attentiveness is the expectation, it’s a huge assumption that someone in kids’ lives has sat them down and showed them how to pay attention.

So start there. Bring your players in and say: “We’re going to have a lot of fun and get better this season. And in order for me to help you get as good as you can be, I need to be able to explain things to you. I need to do it quickly with everyone listening so we can get back to playing as fast as we can.

"So when I say 'bring it in' I want to see you like this: Standing around me in a semi-circle with your eyes on me, your hands at your side and the soccer ball behind you and not at your feet. Let’s practice that right now.”

It’s just like learning a Cruyff Turn. You see what it looks like, then you practice it. Ideally everyday. The only thing I’d add is that you, the coach, must have economy of language. Say it as carefully and quickly and clearly as you can. And then stop talking and get them back to playing. When you’re not sure of what you want to say, throwing more words at the problem doesn’t clarify or explain anything. It just makes it worse.

2) Be Seen Looking
Next reinforce your listening expectations by Being Seen Looking. One of the most common causes of students not paying attention is adults not showing that they are looking to see who’s paying attention. That they care and notice. So if you call your players over like in the example above, don’t say “OK, guys, let’s bring it in” and then look down at your clipboard.

Say “OK, guys, let’s bring it in” and scan the group to show you’re looking to see who’s ready, who’s attentive, who wants to learn. Crane your neck a little as if you really need to see who’s attentive. Do it quickly, in less than a second, but what you’re doing is saying, “I notice and I care whether you pay attention.” You can even narrate your looking back to them very briefly “Good. Camilla’s locked in and ready to get better. Ball behind you please, Sara. OK, let’s go.” I suggest you drop your voice and get quieter and slower as you do this. A little eye contact helps too.

3) Use the Self-Interrupt
In “Teach Like a Champion” I talk about the skill of Strong Voice -- the ability to command a room. Great teachers, who can wander into the valley of the lunchroom on the day before Halloween and bring it to order do something I call “Do Not Talk Over.” If they’re talking and the expectation is that a group of students should be listening, they are very careful not to talk over a student.

If you do, you are saying “Hey, that’s cool. You’re talking while I’m talking to the group and I’m good with that.” So instead of doing that, do a self-interrupt, which is, stop talking very briefly at a very noticeable place if someone starts talking or fooling around while you’re addressing the team.

Ideally you’d break in the middle of a word. This makes the break obvious. If you put your hands behind your back and hold still very briefly and then start again you send the message very quickly and lecture-free that you expect attention. Self-interrupt is a skill we work on (and practice!) in our trainings and it really helps to see it in action (just reading about it is a bit like trying to learn a scissors kick by just reading about it). So here’s a clip from my blog with an example of a teacher doing both Be Seen Looking and a Self-interrupt.

4) Reinforce with Non-Verbal Interventions
If kids are still not getting it, redirect them with a non-verbal reminder while you’re still teaching. That is, use a gesture to tell them they need to put their ball down; their eyes need to be on you, etc. Check out how this amazing teacher makes a 10 or more non-verbal interventions in her classroom while she’s still teaching. This keeps the corrections from breaking and slowing down her teaching, which would only result in more off-task kids.

5) Positive Group Corrections … Early
If you’re still not getting attention make a Positive Group Correction. That means. 1) Describe the solution (“Something like: “I need eyes on me and voices off.” 2) Offer it to the whole group without naming names but 3) Establish eye contact with specific kids who are off task. Do this early (!) -- as soon as you have the sense that kids are perhaps testing you or really inattentive and not picking up your other signals. Hit distracting behavior early before you get angry. If you’re mad, we tell our teachers, it means you waited too long to correct.

Bonus 6th step:
If you’re still not getting a player’s attention, release the group to practice but ask him to stay for a second. Then as privately as you can describe what you need him to do and why: “Jason, my job is to help everyone on this team get better. Including you. And I can’t do that for you and I can’t do it for your teammates unless you do a better job of not talking when I’m talking and giving me your full attention. I’m telling you this now so you can fix it right away.”

(Doug Lemov is the author of "Teach Like a Champion (2.0): 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College" a study of teachers who get exceptional results in high-poverty schools. He’s also co-author with Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi of “Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better,” a study of the art of practicing. His books have been translated into nine languages and he works with the U.S. Soccer Federation to improve coaching through better teaching. He blogs about teaching and coaching here: Follow Lemov on Twitter at @Doug_Lemov)

2 comments about "Say it carefully, quickly and clearly: Getting your players' attention".
  1. stewart hayes, October 6, 2015 at 3:47 p.m.

    Good article and more good advice on 'teach like a champion' website. I imagine an athletic field, ie. coaching vs teaching, is different for a host of reasons. As coaches we see the athletes seasonally and deal with no more than 18 at the youth level. I would be interested in what the author has to say about the differences between coaching field management vs classroom management techniques.

  2. Brian Something, October 6, 2015 at 8:44 p.m.

    Great advice. I hate yelling or even raising my voice. I train my players to listen to me in a normal tone of voice. It's to the point where I don't use a whistle in practice if I can get away with it. It takes effort but it's worth it. On those rare instances when I do have to raise my voice, it gets their attention because it's so rare. I guess I figured out my style intuitively but it's cool to see it written down.

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