You want to know who I admire in the coaching world?
No, it is not the latest Champions League Winning Coach. Not a World Cup veteran. Not someone in the collegiate ranks. I have many coaches I consider mentors and pioneers from the above mentioned ranks, but the ones I admire are not among those groups of coaches.
The coaches I admire are the ones who can engage, and keep engaged, the very young players. Those coaches are my heroes because they choose to coach where it matters most. They never get the credit later in life for all the players they set up for success. They don’t coach for the glory or the trophies. They coach because they love it and want others to love the game as well.
They are heroes because of their uncanny ability to get the attention of a group of young children and keep it. Their results are not measured in skills taught, but in players captivated. It takes a special set of skills to get the young ones.
I am talking about the very young. The ones with very short attention spans. The ones who still have yet to come to trust anyone other than mom or dad. The ones who cannot even communicate with us, but want us to teach them. These little players can be taught if you know how to engage them, hold that attention, and communicate within their frame of reference.
Being able to teach this age is so valuable because you have a chance to set the proper foundations of fun, play, values, social development, and follow Long Term Athletic Development Standards to ensure they play happy, healthy, and developmentally in line for a long time. Teach them young and you can set them to succeed in and beyond the game.
Here are some tips for engaging our youngest players:
Understand it is about child development and not soccer. This is number one with a bullet. At the very young ages, between 2-9, this is more about child development. If you understand that you are developing psychosocial and physical skills first, and helping set children on the correct paths, you belong with this group. They need just as much help learning to be social, to follow rules, to run and jump properly, to express themselves positively, and to embed positive character values as they need for learning the game. So focus on developmentally appropriate teaching and remember it is a marathon of marginal gains at this age.
Sit down, criss-cross apple-sauce. Get down on their level for multiple reasons. Firstly, so they are looking you in the eyes and not the knees. They will focus better if they can see your eyes and the eyes are the windows for trust. They want to look you in the eyes to build that bond in order to trust this big loud, “not the parent” trying to teach them.
Secondly, sitting down like they would bring you into their world. It is not about bringing little ones into your world. The truly exceptional coaches enter the world of the players they coach so they can teach them in the right context and in the right frame.
Thirdly, you become vulnerable. Sounds weird, but when you choose to sit down with them, you become one of them. They may try to climb on you, poke you, or get right up to your face to talk. This is good. Of course, be aware of boundaries, but this means you have become tangible and accessible to them and this sign of vulnerability will build trust and engage them. I call this the “Santa Claus Effect”. When you see a coach who can bond with and engage the young players, the moment she sits down the children draw near and around like the scene from the movie “The Santa Claus” when he sits on a bench. They know you are safe to learn from and trust.
No Sun on their faces. This is repeated often in coaching circles, so it is a no brainer, but with the very young it is especially needed. Keep the sun off their faces and on yours. Not only will it help them focus and stay engaged, but it is protecting them too.
Lean in. If you want them to be more a part of what you are teaching, lean in to speak. Humans are naturally drawn to contact. If you lean in, they will instinctively lean in as well and now you have their full attention.
Talk Softly. Remember you are much larger than them and potentially scary. You want so badly to be excited and yell, but that is like blowing an airhorn in their faces. Lower your volume to match their little ears. This also draws them in, because curiosity takes over and they want to hear what you say.
Be animated. Although you are speaking softly, you do not have to be monotone. Use pitch and tone differences in your voice to become more animated. Widen your eyes to show excitement, narrow them to show focus, wave your arms softly so as not to scare them, but animatedly. If you are energetic and animated, they will be engaged. It is why they like the Wiggles, Blues Clues, and other stage performances. The animation, the energy, the excitement is awesome to them.
Ask questions. Children love questions. They love to show how much they know and they love a good puzzle. Ask them questions to get them thinking and interacting. Be warned, some may not be able to verbalize yet, but any movement, eye contact, or hand gestures means they heard and understood. At Soccer Shots we have Three Rules we review before every session. We always ask the kids to help us by raising the number of fingers and saying it with us. We do not wait until they all get the right number of fingers in the air (trust me, 5 fingers in the air for rule number 1 is a victory at age 2). We do it to engage them.
Use voices. I have this voice. I cannot explain it. It even makes adults laugh. I used it on my podcast 100% Athlete and my cohosts, who are in a different state, broke out into laughter. At first they thought someone else was in the room with me. This voice is pure gold for children. I use it to make them laugh, to get them engaged, to change things up so they pay attention. Do not be afraid to be a “character” to get their attention.
Be willing to hand out Kabooms. Kabooms are fist bumps, but for little ones. If you want them excited to be there, engaged, and actively listening toss a few kabooms around. Ask for a kaboom, and when they give you one fall back or blow up your hand in a big gesture. Then look surprised at how powerful they are at Kabooms. They LOVE this. It is an especially good method for the reluctant participant. My colleague at Soccer Shots, Camilo Quevedo, uses kabooms with shy kids and by the end of a session they are jumping around wanting more and more kabooms.
There are plenty more ways to engage littles ones, and since I work almost exclusively with ages 2-10 these days, and around an amazing group of child development experts, I have a library full of them for you. We will delve into this topic again, but for now you should have plenty of ammo for getting and keeping the attention of your youngest players.
Also, don’t kid yourself into thinking the big kids don’t like this either. They may not show it, but they love some of these tips too…especially the voice and kaboooms.