Using your learning edge
Part 6 – Watch and learn
Jeff Mitchell – Community Sport Advisor – Sport Auckland
You need a range of tools if you are to be continuously learning. Observation, where you watch and analyse another coach delivering, is another tool that you can use to learn about your craft and about yourself. In our Taking charge of your coach development series we looked at the role of observation. We did this by looking at how video observation and the observation of other coaches can help you to develop your coaching ability. In this article we will look deeper at the process of learning when using observation and how it can fit into your learning plan.
Observational learning has the same purpose as learning in general: to produce a change in behaviour. For coaching this means that you are able to coach more effectively. This learning could come through being exposed to new ideas, different coaching methods or techniques, alternative strategies for dealing with players or situations, or a better understanding of either your sport or yourself. When it comes to deciding who to observe, and how, you have three main options:
- Viewing another coach at their session
- Viewing video footage of another coach delivering, and
- Viewing video footage of yourself coaching.
The method you choose to use for your observation will depend on what you want to achieve. If you want to raise your awareness of your own coaching, or to find areas of your coaching to improve, then watching footage of yourself delivering will be the best option. Whether you watch another coach in action or on video will come down to convenience and what will allow you to learn what you are looking for. Video footage has the benefit of allowing you to pause and replay, and you could have the coach talk over the top of it or talk through it with you. You need to be able to get good quality footage (and audio) of the coach though, which may be a limiting factor. Viewing the session in person allows you to scan the whole coaching environment for areas of interest, whereas with video footage you are limited to where the camera is directed.
For this article we will focus on the observation of another coach. Many of the same principles apply when watching a video of your own coaching, and our article in the Taking charge of your coach development series has more specific recommendations for watching yourself on video. To get the greatest benefit you could watch the session in person and then view the video footage of the session later.
Throughout this article series we take the approach that it is important to plan for and deliberately act upon opportunities to learn. So, while you could learn by just watching coaches in an informal manner, we are more interested in how you can take a structured approach to your observations. Here we will look at how to effectively observe, and then learn from, other coaches.
Why observe instead of just doing?
Hands-on experience is an important aspect of learning, and often people want to just jump right in and learn as they go. While this can be an effective strategy, there are often situations where this may not be optimal. Certainly, it is important that you practically apply what you are learning, so that it is not just a theoretical exercise. After all, coaching is a practical activity. There are, however, some good reasons that you may choose to observe first to learn before you try and apply.
You are responsible for ensuring that your athletes have a positive, and productive, experience. You will regularly try new approaches and activities when you are coaching, however, you have to balance this with the need to deliver sessions that are effective. Most coaches can only train their team or athletes once or twice per week. With this limited time you do not have much room for sessions that flop when you try something that you are not sure will work. Rather than coaching the session cold and having the athletes experience a poor session, it may be a better idea to observe another coach doing what you want to do. You will then be better prepared and more likely to put on a quality session.
I am a big fan of going out of your comfort zone and trying to learn things by applying them and playing around with problems. After all, this is how you work at your learning edge. I also feel that there are times when it makes more sense to do some research, observe other coaches to learn more about an area, and then try to apply what you have learned. Taking this more deliberate approach will help you to gain a better understanding of the area and to then assess its effectiveness using a higher level of awareness.
A third reason that it can be more effective to observe a coach rather than diving right in yourself is due to the mental focus that coaching requires. While you are coaching you have a number of areas that are competing for your attention. Think about the different things that you need to mentally process at any given time during a session. The list could look something like this:
- The activity you are delivering
- The coaching points you are trying to get across
- Potential questions to ask
- Providing athletes with relevant feedback
- Analysing your players’ performance and looking to correct errors
- Reading your athletes and their response to the activity
- Monitoring the flow of the session and its tempo
- Planning the next activity.
Trying to process just some of these aspects will not leave much room for your brain to also look at learning from what you are doing. This is one reason why a lot of coaches drift along in their development – they are so caught up in the act of coaching that they do not take the time to reflect on what is occurring. They also do not have the ability to pick up on cues and analyse them during the session. By contrast, when you are observing a coach you are able to focus completely on your observation and what you can learn from it; you are not distracted by all of the peripheral issues that are central to the act of coaching. This means you can pick up on the more subtle cues, and actually give some thought to them and what they mean, as the session progresses. It is a lot harder to do this while you are coaching, which is why using video footage is a good way to learn from your own coaching.
Who should you observe?
When deciding who to observe you should consider what you want to achieve. If you want to look at a specific coaching skill or training activity, you will want to observe a coach that will be using this, and doing it well. If you are just after new ideas, then you will want to find a coach that does things differently to how you currently do. While it would be preferable to find someone that coaches similar athletes or teams to you, you could also go outside your sport and look at something completely different. This could be useful for getting new ideas for addressing situations that all coaches have to face. The box below lists some of these situations:
You will be more attentive if you find your subject to be interesting. This means that you should want to improve the area you are looking at (it should form part of your learning plan) and the person that you are observing should be someone that you respect. This doesn’t mean that they have to be a great coach – you can learn from a range of coaches – but that you will be more attentive if you respect the coach you are observing.
The observation process
Having identified who to observe, you want to make sure that you gain the most from the observation. We will discuss the observation process by looking at how it can work when you are at the session. The observation process will generally follow the steps detailed in the Taking charge of your coach development article:
- Plan the observation
- Discuss the observation with the coach (prior)
- Observe the coach
- Discuss the observation with the coach (post)
- Reflect on the observation
- Apply what you have learned.
For guidance on how to implement the process see this Taking charge of your coach development article. Here we will look at how to make your learning more effective following an observation. Effective observational learning involves four aspects:
- Reproduction, and
You need to pay close attention in order to learn effectively. We identified above that it can be hard to learn in the midst of coaching something new due to the competing factors in the environment that use up your focus. To enhance your observation it is important that you are clear on what you want to observe (what aspect) and how you will observe it. This is what you do in your planning phase. Then, when you are performing your observation, you need to make sure that you focus in on the areas that you have identified. To help with this you could modify a match observation form to allow you to record your observations.
What you will look at will depend on what you are trying to achieve and should be taken from your learning plan. You could look at content, delivery or the player responses. It can be useful to observe these from a different perspective, and observing player responses can be especially telling, as it is often hard to pick up on these in the middle of delivering a session. Examples of what you could look at are in the table below:
For real learning to occur you need some way to hold onto and later pull up the information that you gain; your coaching isn’t going to change or improve if you do not keep and then use what you have learned. This means that you need some way of recording the information that you gather. This could be done through an observation tool, such as a simple ticksheet, that allows you to record what you see. It is often useful to find a way to record your observations either with descriptive words or visual images.
Having recorded what you observe, you now need to make sense of it. This means coming to an understanding of what it means so that you can then apply this knowledge to your own coaching. Reflection is an important tool to help you to understand and then retain what you have learned. Your reflection should include considering the implications of what you have seen and how it relates to your own coaching. It may be important to look at the reactions of the athletes to what the coach does – are they positive or negative? Does the coach’s actions achieve their intended outcome? Would or should you coach this way too?
Taking some time following an observation to analyse what you have seen will help you to draw out the appropriate learning. Studies have shown that greater learning occurs following an observation if you evaluate what you saw and elaborate on it (e.g. discuss your observations and their implications). Some questions you could ask yourself following an observation include:
- What did the coach do?
- Why might they have done this?
- How did they do it?
- What was the outcome?
- What action will you now take based on this observation?
This process could be done individually (such as with a reflective journal), with a mentor, or through discussion with the coach that you observed. If the session is videoed then you could sit down with the coach or your mentor and discuss what you have observed, stopping the footage at key points.
Just knowing how to do something isn’t enough when it comes to coaching – you also need to be able to actually do it. You will enhance your understanding of a coaching technique or method by taking what you have observed and then trying to put it into action. You will also be more likely to remember what you have learned once you have physically performed it. Your learning plan should detail some steps for practicing and then implementing your new knowledge.
You need to be capable of actually reproducing what you have seen. If it is something new, or at a more advanced level than what you currently operate at, then you may need to do some development work first. There may be a few steps you need to go through or areas that you need to develop before you are able to perform like the coach that you have observed. You should identify these areas in your learning plan and then set about achieving them, so that you are then able to try and reproduce what you have observed.
The final consideration in learning effectively from an observation is the need for motivation. You need to be motivated to make the changes that you have observed, and to process what you have learned so that you can later recall it. The key to this motivation is understanding how the learning will help you, and therefore why it is important. Setting goals within your learning plan to work on the observed areas can help you to develop this motivation. Performing observations on areas that are of interest to you, or that you have identified that you need to work on, will help you to be more motivated with them. Addressing situations or issues that you are currently facing will make the observations more relevant, and make the learning applicable to your current coaching.
Linking to your learning plan
Observations can be a useful tool to help you to develop an area in your learning plan. The best way to use them is to firstly identify an area in your learning plan that you wish to develop. You should then identify an appropriate coach to approach for an observation. Once you have an idea in mind you should then decide how you will observe the area – what will you focus on?
After you have completed your observation you need to identify what you will do with what you have learned. In your learning plan you should detail what you will do to learn from the observation and how you will use what you will learn. Your learning plan should contain some clear goals and actions that follow on from your observation.
Observing a coach can help you to gain new ideas and novel ways of addressing situations that you face. Observing a coach first – rather than just jumping straight into trying a new technique – can help you to learn more about the area. Being clear on what you want to observe, and then reflecting on what you have observed, will help you to take the most learning from the experience. In our next issue we will look at how you can analyse what you have learned and document your findings.