Part 9 – Observing other coaches
Jeff Mitchell – Community Coach Advisor – Sport Auckland / GACU
This is the ninth article in a series of 13 on developing your coaching skills. For the full list of articles in the series see the articles page.
Watch and learn. One of the best ways of learning to coach is by seeing it in action. Our previous issue looked at how you can use video observations of your coaching to identify areas to work on. Another way to learn is through observing other coaches delivering. In this article we will look at how you can learn through both formal and informal coach observations.
A video observation is used to help raise your awareness of how you coach. Seeing how other people coach could cause you to reflect on your own practice. By comparing how they coach to what you do, you can raise your awareness. Watching other coaches can present you with new ideas and different ways of coaching.
Observing coaches can show you alternative ways of communicating and interacting with your athletes. You can learn new games and activities and pick up on different coaching points. You could also pick up on organisational tips, coaching techniques or content that you can use with your athletes.
There is usually more than one way to solve the various problems we face when we are coaching. By observing how coaches deal with issues you can identify alternative actions or solutions to the problems that you face. If you see an issue within a coaching environment, e.g. players that are off task or unmotivated, you may become more perceptive to the same issues in your own coaching.
You can observe coaches either formally or informally. A formal observation would be made in consultation with the coach and would have some structure placed around it. An informal observation would be more spontaneous and would usually be made when the opportunity arises rather than being predetermined. Both types present opportunities for growth and improvement, and you should look to use both as part of your on-going coach development.
There are many situations where the opportunity to informally observe a coach will arise. If you train at a court or field where there are other groups also training, you will have the opportunity to observe other training sessions. Every competition that you attend will allow you to observe how other coaches communicate and deal with the demands of competition. Once your game or training session is over, and you are no longer coaching your athletes, you have the opportunity to spend some time observing other coaches. Likewise, if you turn up early you can spend some time on your own development by looking at how other coaches operate.
If you see a coach that you are able to pick up a few things from, it is a good idea to introduce yourself and start a conversation. Just make sure it is an appropriate time; no one likes to have their session interrupted. By talking to the coach you will be able to learn more about what you have seen, and you also widen your coaching network.
Informal observations are good, however, a formal observation is better. Formal observations require a bit more structure. Figure 1 shows a suggested structure that the observation could take, followed by a discussion of each part.
1. Plan the observation
Each observation should have a purpose, which should be tied to what you are trying to improve through your Coach Development Plan. Frame up each observation around a topic that you are focusing on. Some questions that you could ask to help focus your observation include:
- How do they deal with athlete behaviour?
- How do they ask open questions?
- How much time do they spend talking?
- What sort of feedback do they provide?
- How do they motivate their athletes?
Once you know what you want to look at, you need to decide how you will record it. A recommended method is the “dual approach”. Here you write down what you see the coach do and what you thought/felt/assumed about this. Later, when you reflect on your observation, these notes will help to put your ideas into context. As part of your reflection you can look at why you reacted the way that you did and what you think this means. Figure 2 shows what an observation on questioning could look like.
2. Discuss the observation with the coach (prior to the session)
To perform a formal observation you need to approach the coach that you wish to observe and explain what you want to do. It would help if this is a coach that you already have a rapport with. If the coach agrees, you then need to have a talk with them prior to observing them. You should let them know what you are going to look at and how this will help you to improve your coaching. It may be helpful to see their session plan, and you should let them know what you plan to do with the information that you collect.
3. Observe the coach
When you come to observe the coach, it is important to focus on the theme of your observation. Be clear on what you are looking for and keep your focus on it. If you have asked a question to focus your observation, use this to guide what you look at. You want to make sure that you can see and hear what you are planning to observe, without getting in the way of the session.
There are different ways to approach the observation. You could observe the actions of the coach, to see what they do. You might look at the athletes: how do they behave, how do they react to the coach, or when do they appear to be most engaged? Or, you might focus on the interaction between the coach and the athletes.
Use a simple recording template, such as the one shown in Figure 2, to keep you on track. If you notice other points that can help you to improve your coaching, jot these down on your sheet. Use the dual approach described earlier to record your feelings about what you see. Try to note down as much information as you can, to ensure you have plenty of material to work with after the observation.
Following the session you should have a discussion with the coach regarding what you have observed, and try to understand the information that you have recorded. The purpose here is not to be critical of the coach but to understand why they have done what they have done. Your observation will be limited to what you can see and hear; by discussing with the coach you will be able to uncover further information and deepen your understanding of what has occurred.
5. Reflect on the observation
To make use of the information you collect during your observation you need to spend some time reflecting on it. This reflection should involve comparing your own practice to what you have observed from the coach and deciding how you could use the information to improve your coaching. Think about the effect the actions of the coach had on the athletes and on the achievement of the session outcomes. Try to determine what this tells you about how to coach and how to coach better. In Issue 5 we talked more about how to use reflection.
Some questions you could ask yourself when reflecting on your observation include:
- Why did the coach do this? What was the benefit?
- How did the players react?
- How do I respond to the same situation? What impact does this have?
- How could I use this in my coaching? How could I change it to make it more effective?
- What does this tell me about effective coaching?
- What happened the last time I used this in my coaching?
The purpose of this reflection is to help you to understand what you have observed and how it can be used to improve your coaching. This allows you to take what you have observed from the coach’s context and put it into your own. The final step from here is to use what you have learnt.
6. Apply what you have learnt
The purpose of observing another coach is to help you to become a better coach yourself. For this to happen, you need to apply what you have learnt. Do this by incorporating it into your session planning and setting some goals or actions in your Coach Development Plan. Make an effort to apply what you have learnt and reflect on how it works in practice. Is it improving your sessions, or are you being less effective? Using a video observation will help you compare your coaching with how you delivered in the past.
You should decide on some changes you want to make to your coaching following the observation, or some actions you will take based on what you have seen. You may need to do some more research on the area before you are comfortable to use it, or you may want to look at some other coaches to get a broader perspective. The important thing is to make use of what you learn, by applying it to your coaching.
Coach observations work best when you are clear on what you are trying to look at. There are many aspects of a coach’s delivery that you could focus on. We can break these aspects down into three areas: skill, strategy and performance.
Skill refers to any of the coaching methods or techniques used by the coach. This is the ‘how to’ of coaching, where you look at the tools the coach uses and how they use them effectively. If you were looking at the use of questioning, demonstrations or feedback, then you would be looking at a skill aspect.
Strategy covers the areas of match play such as team tactics or principles of play. It can also cover the management of training or matches. Examples could include offensive and defensive tactics or plays, pre-match routines or the use of substitutions.
The third area that could be observed is performance. This looks at the mental state required of the coach for them to perform effectively. This could include areas such as composure, dealing with difficult situations, and where they direct their attention. This is the hardest area to observe during a session; to effectively learn about a performance component you will need to have an in-depth discussion with the coach following the session.
One method of deciding what to look at is to identify the elements of good coaching. From this list of elements you would then decide which you wanted to look at, so that you could improve in it. An example list of elements of good coaching for each of the three areas is provided in Figure 3.
Observing another coach is a great way to expose yourself to new ideas and to encourage you to reflect on your own practice. Take the opportunity to observe coaches that are around you, and approach coaches to perform a more formal observation. Have a clear plan for what you want to observe, reflect on what you see and then apply it to your own coaching.
For our next article we will look at how having another coach observe you can help your development, and how you can get and use feedback from other people to further your development.