Increase Emotional Intelligence with Intentional Interruptions / by James Leath

“…after that, we’ll break up into defensive groups and work on technique.”An athlete walks into the room—three minutes late—while I go over the day's practice plan.

I pause, we make eye contact. He nods, I nod back, and then he quietly sits down with his team.

A few minutes later, everyone knows what is going to happen today at practice except one person.

“Are there any questions?” I ask. “What time does the bus leave on Saturday?” “9am, but be here no later than 8:30am or you will not get on the bus.” “Got it, thanks coach.” “Anything else?” Blank stares from a room full of athletes are eager to start practice. “Alright, get a break and let’s have a great practice.”

The athletes huddle up, do their pre-practice chant, then sprint to their stations.

Mr. Late hustles to over to me.

“Sorry I was late, coach.” “Everything okay?” I ask. “Yes, my mom got off work late and we got here as fast as we could.” “How often will that happen, you think?” “She said only on Tuesdays, but not every week.” “Okay, thank you for not interrupting when you joined the group. Will you text me next week on Tuesday before practice to remind me you will be late?” “No problem, coach.” “And if you forget?” “Bear crawls after practice?” “Deal. Get with a teammate to see what you missed.” “Thanks, Coach.”

When I was late to practice as a kid I was usually sent on a lap. Rarely was it my fault, since I couldn’t drive and was at the mercy of my dad to get home from work and drive me the 9 miles to practice.

As a coach, now I realize how dumb that was. Not only am I late, but I am punished for something that is out of my control. I won’t pass on that confusing message.

There are a few things to note in this conversation from a few months ago.

The athlete did not hijack the meeting. The young man came late and quietly joined the team. He knew I would ask him about the situation once I was done speaking. At the beginning of the season, I take the time to teach the athletes how to interrupt, whether they show up late or need to interrupt a conversation because they need something. This is not a skill that most kids know and it takes a few minutes to teach. For example, if I am speaking to an adult, they are to wait for a pause in the conversation, politely touch my elbow, and say, “Excuse me, coach, can I speak with you, please?” I gave them that line. We practice it. The athletes don’t know this, but I set them up for opportunities to interrupt. I’ll tell an athlete to come see me before practice, and when I see him coming towards me I’ll grab an adult and start a conversation. If they do it wrong, we practice. I do it with love and am careful not to embarrass the athlete, but they get the lesson.

The athlete had answers. He had already asked the questions he know I would ask. He took ownership of the situation. This was not the first time someone was late. I don’t know this for sure, but I think he spoke with one of the other athletes who were late the week before. I think is safe to say he trusted I would not get mad, just like I did not get mad at the athlete the week before.

The athlete now has accountability. No laps for being late. No extra running. He is rewarded for taking ownership of the situation about something out of his control. By asking him to text me, now I have something to hold him accountable for that he can control. If he doesn’t text me, he has bear crawls—a consequence he came up with.

The athlete was late the next Tuesday and did not text me. He knew right away when he got there what his consequence would be. After practice, he did bear crawls with the captain. There were no complaints, no justifications. Just some bear crawls facilitated by the captain. Both came and shook my hand afterward and that was that. No big deal.

The following Tuesday, I got a text.

Start on time, every day. End on time, every day. Teach the athletes what to do if they are late. Don’t make them run when they are late, that just makes them more late. Assign a team captain to facilitate consequences after practice for those who are late. If no one is late, the captain doesn't have to stay. It only takes once for a captain to have to stay after because of his or her teammates. Peer pressure is WAY more powerful than whatever you have to say about the subject.