Six things coaching Pre-K soccer taught me about public speaking

With the end of winter comes the arrival of spring soccer. Last fall, I coached 25 Pre-K soccer players and it was a challenging and yet rewarding experience. Surprisingly, there are multiple parallels between the lessons I learned in coaching and the strategies I use in public speaking. In this post, I will summarize six key learnings that apply equally to both activities. Hopefully you will appreciate these real world learnings and get a chuckle along the way.

1. Be prepared
It is hard not to be a little flustered when there are flocks of 4-year-olds swirling around you in concentric circles with soccer balls. It is barely organized chaos, but having a formal plan can significantly help. When things go downhill, as they inevitably do, having a practice outline can make the difference between success and failure and will help you stay on track and focus on achieving your objectives whether playing Sharks and Minnows or speaking to a CIO. From a presentation standpoint this means you should have a clear vision of what you are presenting and the key audience takeaways.

2. Know your audience
As you can imagine, Pre-K soccer players are usually interested in immediate gratification and fun activities. Thus, trying to lecture them on complex subjects like the relative merits of the 4-3-3 vs 4-5-2 soccer formation is entirely pointless and will result in extreme chaos, boredom and in some cases, even tears. Remember, many of these kids do not even know the basics and so why bother with anything other than simple games that teach them how to shoot, dribble and have fun? The same challenges apply to public speaking. You must know who you are speaking to and what their interest and knowledge is. There is no faster way to lose an audience then by delivering content that is not appropriate for their interest or knowledge level. While a misaligned presentation won’t result in tears (although there have been presentations where I felt like crying out of boredom!), the analogue for public speaking is mobile phones. If you see the majority of your audience fiddling with their phones, you have lost them.

3. Be yourself
4-year olds can sense when people are uncomfortable or acting unnaturally and they will respond in unusual and typically challenging ways. As a coach, it is critical to be yourself. Your players will recognize the honesty and it will provide a better experience both for you and your team. The parallel to public speaking is obvious. A critical part of presenting is building a rapport with the audience. If you present in a way that is unnatural or exudes discomfort, your listeners will sense this and the impact of your presentation will be significantly diminished.

4. Keep it moving
Let’s face it, 4-year olds have short attention spans. They start enjoying an activity and then rapidly get bored and want to do something else. This is natural and explains why practice plans must include multiple different game options. Thus as your players get bored, you can instantly switch to an alternative activity. The same strategy works for public speaking. Audiences are often stuck in their seats for extended periods of time and can rapidly get bored with similar content and presentations. A presenter must be prepared and create presentations that move rapidly and include a range of different content to keep the audience interested and involved. This rule is familiar to anyone who has sat through long text heavy presentations that were boring and uninteresting. Also keep in mind that incorporating a range of content including images, animations and videos can really help here as well.

5. Don’t be afraid to change strategies
4 year olds are extremely active and enthusiastic about things they like. Unfortunately, they are often even more vocal about things that they don’t. As a coach your job is to ensure that practice centers around your team’s likes. The challenge is that you never know what activities are liked or disliked because the cateogization can change by the week, hour or even the minute! You need to watch your players and know when it is time to change the strategy based off of their level of enthusiasm and engagement. The problem is similar when speaking in front of audiences. You will have specific content to cover, but as you progress you must gauge your audience’s involvement. Simple things like looking at cellphones, reading documents or even sleeping are signs that you need to change your strategy! If this occurs you need to be flexible and willing to modify your presentation and/or delivery to recapture the audience’s attention and interest.

6. When all else fails call a water break
Sometimes things can just go downhill during practice. I never know why, but if you ask any Pre-K coach they will concur. Typical symptoms include tears, distracted players and sometimes team wide rebellion. When faced with toddler mutiny, there is one sure solution. I call it the “nuclear option” otherwise known as the water break. Obviously, your ability to call the break is limited, but it always provides a respite as the kids run off briefly to see their parents and drink water. It also provides an opportunity for you as the coach to assess where you went wrong and to strategize how to engage the team when practice resumes. The brief break also helps the team re-focus and often the practice improves significantly afterwards.

I hope that you never get to the “water break” stage in presenting, but it can happen. If you are significantly frazzled and struggling to get on track, you may want to consider this option. You have two potential strategies. The first is a simple pause to drink some water and regain your focus. The second and more extreme one is to call a brief break in the presentation. This is most applicable to long presentations that already include a break and thus you have the opportunity to call it earlier, if needed. However, be warned that if you choose the second strategy and things are really bad, you run the risk that your audience will not return! (However, if your presentation is really that bad then you may be doing everyone a favor.)

These six tips will provide immediate benefits to both coaches and speakers. I encourage you to consider each of these and think about how you could these points to improve your prowess in both activities.

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