Is Coach Observation worth pursuing #2

I have always been of the belief that coach observations are a fantastic method for coach developers to use to develop coaches. However, the more I learn about learning, the more I need to think critically about my beliefs around coach observation to ensure they are accurate. This has led me to my second question (see my first blog on this topic here) that has been circulating my thoughts regarding coach observations;

‘Does coach observation give an accurate picture of a coaches ‘normal’ behaviour?’

To explore this, I’m am going to pull from my experience of going through a level three coaching certificate from a National Governing Body. I feel this process is common in numerous coach development systems and exploring this will help understand some of the limitations with this process.

To gain my level three Coaching certification, I attended a six-day residential course which had different modules in workshop formats, centered around a week in the life of a professional coach in that code. Once the course was completed, I submitted my season plan that included every session plan from that season. I then had one of my coaching sessions observed. Fortunately for me, my paperwork and coaching practice was deemed good enough to receive my level three certificate.

On reflection of this process I am struck by the imbalance between paperwork (a whole season detailed) vs actual coach observation (one session). The irony of this is worth unpacking in another blog, however, what I want to review is whether there are any flaws in the coach observation approach undertaken, particularly for assessment purposes. I have identified two potential flaws:

  1. Mimicry
  2. Understanding context


One definition for mimicry is “the resemblance of one organism to another or to an object in its surroundings for concealment and protection.” While this definition takes its meaning from a biological perspective, one can draw parallels to coaching. In coaching, certain behaviours are prioritised that can give the impression to a coach that if they model these, they will be safe from ridicule, poor feedback or a failed assessment, i.e. concealment and/or protection. As well, according to Chartrand and Bargh (1999), one of the key mechanisms of mimicry is the desire for affiliation. This is problematic in a coach observation setting, particularly where assessment is involved, as the coach may try to affiliate their style to suit the perceived preference of their observer and move away from becoming the coach they want to be. Yet, I believe anyone working in coach development should want coaches to have a thorough understanding of why they are coaching the way they are. They need to ensure coaches aren’t mimicking the ‘one right way’ or the latest fad as this won’t lead to mastery and it won’t lead to developing a coach who has critically created a coach philosophy and process they believe in. It will, at times, be enough to get by on, but ultimately it will fall down as what underpins that mimicry is a weaker foundation. Conversely, if coaches have this understanding of why they are coaching, the desire for affiliation to the observer or the ideals of the observer diminishes.

The purpose of coach development is to develop quality coaches who can provide the coaching their athletes need. Therefore, coach development needs to ensure it is setting up coaches to be able to be flexible, to draw on different ideas at different times, and connect these ideas in to new contexts that may (or may not) work. I also believe coach development has a duty to kickstart a coach’s reflective journey and constantly challenge a coach’s ‘why’.

Understanding context

What would be the difference if you observed a coach in the:

1. First training of their season vs the last training of the season?

2. Training after a significant loss vs a training in the middle of a 10 match unbeaten run?

3. The last training before a big match/event vs the first training after a big match/event?

Different approaches have different affects depending a wide variety of things, such as the contexts listed above but also;

• The weather

• How the coach’s day was

• How the athlete’s day was

• What the athletes have eaten that day

• How traffic was getting to training

plus many, many more that are both trivial and important. The point of this is context matters. No decision is made in isolation. There are factors weighed up in a coaches mind whenever they decide to intervene or not, decide to change an activity or not, decide to give an instruction or ask a question. As Mark Upton quotes in his thought provoking blog,

“What do the people bring into the situation? What does the situation bring out of them? And what is the system that creates and maintains that situation?”

Observing a coach without knowledge of the answers to these questions is like watching a television show on mute, you can probably follow along but there will be key pieces of information you miss. I believe very few observation processes try to take this in to account. I mentioned in my previous blog (here) that one of the best ways to approach a coach observation is try to get to know the coach, to build up a relationship with them and build some credibility with them. Taking the time to understand their context will go a long way towards doing that.

Both mimicry and not understanding context can lead to, as David Didau states ‘coaching for performance’ rather than ‘coaching for learning’. He defines this as:

“Performance is inflexible, short-term and easy to spot, whereas learning is flexible, durable and invisible.”

Coaching for performance focuses on the short term (pass this observation) rather than real long -term learning for that coach. The question needs to be asked, when the observer leaves the coach, will the coach continue with those behaviours that helped them ‘pass’, or will they go back to what they know or have always done before?

Creating more long-term support

Graham Nuttall, an education researcher stated “Learning takes time and is not encapsulated in the visible hear and now of classroom activities”. The same is true of sports fields and courts. Going back to my experience of observation for assessment:

The person who observed me during my level three assessment saw some areas in my coaching process that could be improved, which I found insightful. We had a good chat after the session he observed, discussing possible tweaks to improve how I coached in the future.

Yet, after the chat he got in his car, I got in mine, and we went our separate ways. I know this could be a resource issue, but I can’t help but think how much value was missed from that discussion if there was an action point attached to it, e.g.

  1. video your next two sessions and send them to me to have a look, or,
  2. I’ll back in two weeks time and I’ll be looking at how you have put those tweaks in to action, or even better still,
  3. I am doing a coach observation next week. Why don’t you come with me and we can look at how that coach handles those situations.

There are many other ways that long-term support can be provided to coaches who are observed, and doing this I believe will result in better learning and also in the coach developer being able to measure and/or feedback on learning, not performance. This could be a way to help coaches to change their behaviours over time, so they don’t fall back in to ‘what they always do’ as soon as the observer departs. Long-term support could be a way of helping them stay with those behaviours that they are grappling with. Scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move learners progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. Having more long-term support around a coach is an example of this, and can move the coach towards greater independence in the learning process.

I believe coach observation can be a powerful learning and assessment tool for coach developers, and if some of these ideas are implemented in NGBs, RBGs, schools and clubs, the system that has created sub-standard coach observation and assessment will become more effective.


Nuttal, G. (2005). The Cultural Myths and Realities of Classroom Teaching and Learning: A Personal Journey. Teachers College Record, 7, 5, 895–934.

Chartrand, T.L., & Bargh, J.A. (1999). The Chameleon Effect: The Preception-Behaviour link and Social Interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 6, 893–910.

Didau, D. (2016). What if everything you knew about education was wrong? Crown House Publishing.