Is Coach observation worth pursuing?

The evidence that ‘formal’ coach development isn’t viewed as the most beneficial way for coaches to learn is becoming louder. While formal coach development is probably necessary (I say probably as I’m not convinced the way formal coach development happens now is best), this evidence begs the question, is there a better way to develop coaches? I have been a big advocate of coach observations as a beneficial way for coaches to learn. This is because I believe its;
1. more specific to the coaches needs
2. more relevant to the environment they are coaching in 
3. a better use of their time (especially if they are a volunteer).

However, it’s worth taking a look at coach observations (see observations in general too, as I feel a lot of these points are relevant to coaches observing athletes) to test my beliefs about some of my assumptions I have been making. To challenge these, I have been asking myself the following questions:

1. Should coach observations be based on what the coach wants to improve, or on what the observer sees, or a mixture of both?
2. Do coach observations give an accurate picture of a coaches ‘normal’ behaviour?
3. Should coach observations be based on a coach’s behaviours, or their personal philosophies about coaching and how their behaviours align to them?
4. Do coach observations make a difference?

I will try to answer these, or at least get some of my thoughts down on these questions in the next few blog posts. To get started, this blog attempts to make sense of the first question:

Should coach observations be based on what the coach wants to improve, or based on what the observer sees, or a mixture of both?

I often wrestle with this question, as I believe the answer to be context specific. As a rough rule of thumb, the more ‘novice’ the coach I am observing the more likely I will observe the whole environment to pick up key things that will make a positive impact. The more ‘expert’ the coach, the more I will narrow the focus to an area they have identified. Is this right though?

Coach observation of the whole
As Coe states, “observation produces a strong emotional response”. When we observe a coach, we know inherently what we like and what we don’t. It is hard not to project our own preferences for particular styles or behaviours onto the situation, and compare what we see with what we think we would have done. Doing this starts to negate the wider context of why a coach may be coaching in a particular way, and starts to take the observers attention away from those cues. This is an example of the ‘confirmation bias’ at work and highlights why observing the whole environment has its challenges. I know I have been guilty of this in the past when observing coaches. If I see behaviours that my mental models state are “good coaching behaviours” that coach goes up in my eyes, and vice versa if I see behaviours I associate with poor coaching. I have done this without taking in to account any of the wider context that coach is operating in. For example, where the team/athlete is in their season, the weather during that training session, the relationship between the coach and assistant coaches plus many more factors that influence that particular coach in that particular session.

However, I believe there any pro’s to observing the whole
I mentioned above that when I’m observing more novice coaches, I tend to observe the whole. The reasons I do this are: 
• I believe there may be things I can identify (as the observer) that could make a significant positive impact to the coach with relatively little effort. The truism ‘people don’t know what they don’t know’ comes to mind. 
• I may be able to identify some key behaviours that the coach should prioritise in their long term development that the coach hasn’t considered.
• It will allow me to discuss with the coach some strengths that I identified which will help in building trust and credibility.
When I observe a coach with these three reasons as filters, I also need to keep my confirmation bias in mind to ensure I don’t only pick up on what I resonate with.

Observing the whole can be a more gentle way to ‘initiate’ a coach in to being observed and the benefits of this. A key skill for the observer within this idea is their ability to question first and try to understand the coaches thinking and decision-making before jumping in to ‘giving advice mode’. I believe the observer should approach every observation they conduct with the mindset of learning. That is, that they will learn from the coach as well as the coach learning from them. If this is a strong belief, the ability to ask questions and listen first will come more naturally and frequently.

I acknowledge that what this looks like is variable, as it isn’t always possible to build a relationship with a coach before observing them. But there are ways this can be done when time is limited. The observer can (these are only a few of a large number of options):
• Call the coach before the session to introduce themselves, find out about the session
• Look over the session plan before hand and clarify any with questions with the coach
• Meet for a coffee with the coach before the session

I also acknowledge that, for coach developers who do a lot of observation, some of those ideas may not be possible. If you are ever in a situation of watching the ‘whole environment’ before building a relationship with a coach, focus on the coach’s strengths. Doing this will help break the ice and put the coach potentially at ease. I don’t mean only tell what they did well, rather, highlight what were the best bits of their session and then aim to stretch the coach to consider how they could grow those ‘best bits’ to make them even better. I firmly believe this can be done even within the parameters of observation for assessment (more on this in my next blog). If a coach is being observed to receive accreditation there is no reason why a discussion, based on the best bits as well as bits that could have been improved, cannot occur and follow up agreed on between coach and observer. Just because it’s an assessment doesn’t mean there can’t be a view towards the long term growth of the coach.

Coach observation with a narrow focus
The flip side, having a checklist or observing with a narrow focus has its challenges too. Regarding observation with a narrow focus, as David Didau asks:

“if we are basing our observation on some checklist of what constitutes good teaching (coaching), we have two problems: (1) how will we know if we’ve seen it if we can’t tell just from looking? And (2) how sure are we that our checklist is right?”

I was recently at a coach development day where I was asked to observe a coach and give feedback based on a check list of ‘ideal coaching behaviours’ created by an organisation. The 15 minute session I observed (so not very realistic granted) was fantastic in terms of athlete engagement, time on task, flow, and numerous other things. It was very hard to find fault. In fact, it was so effective that the coach had very little interaction with the athletes. They understood the activity AND were engaged throughout the session. However, the ‘ideal coaching behaviours’ checklist I was given highlighted different behaviours based on interaction with athletes (e.g. questioning, two-way conversations, listening). Because I had seen very little of these ‘checklist’ behaviours, did that mean the coach was ‘poor’ in that session? I would say definitively no, however if it was based solely on the checklist, the answer could be argued ‘yes’ (for what it’s worth I agreed with all the behaviours on the list as quality coaching behaviours every coach should strive to develop). Herein lies a dilemma around coach observation based on a checklist.

The other dilemma around narrowing your focus during observations is that it may lead to inattention blindness. Inattention blindness can be defined as:

an event in which an individual fails to recognise an unexpected stimulus that is in plain sight.

It’s almost guaranteed that we will miss other things (see the video below for confirmation of this).

If all we are looking for is the questions the coach is asking (i.e. the passes), are we missing the feedback they are (or aren’t) giving, the engagement of the athletes, the time on task of the athletes etc (the gorilla).

However, the benefits of narrowing focus during an observation, particularly if that narrowing of focus is based on what the coach wants feedback on, can be hugely beneficial. The connection an observer has with a coach (in person or otherwise) prior to the observation is critical in making the observation as meaningful as possible. That is where the observer can find out what the coach is wanting to improve, where their team or athlete is in the season, the overall vision of the coach plus all the other important contextual factors that will go in to shaping that particular session.

So, with all this in mind, my current position on the question:

What should observations be based on, what the coach wants to improve in, what the observer sees or a mixture of both?

is observation, wherever possible, should be used as a tool once the observer has built some credibility with the coach. The focus of the observer can start narrow (on one or two things the coach may want to improve) but over time and as the relationship grows, the observer can start to notice and give feedback based on things outside that narrow focus that they believe may make a positive impact on the coaches behaviour. This I believe moves the observer away from, as Didau put it “judging based solely on a snapshot” and starts to provide the observer with insights in to what are patterns (based on systems and structures created by the coach) vs isolated events. It can also prevent the observer from ‘confirmation bias’, in the fact that there is a specific behaviour being observed.

In more formal settings where observation is being undertaken for assessment purposes, while there may be less flexibility around what the observer can observe they still need to understand context. As Carson & Collins indicate every coach will “be considering both individual performer needs and contextual trade-offs in providing optimum solutions” in every coaching session they operate in. Therefore the onus is on the observer to try to understand as much of that context as possible.

My thoughts on the whole area of observation are not a finished product (as you can probably tell from this post) so if you have any thoughts or experiences I would love to hear them, as they will continue to shape my thinking about this topic I’m sure. I will aim to get my next blog on my next question around observation, Does observation give an accurate picture of a coaches ‘normal’ behaviour? out in the next week or so.

References

Cushion, C. et al (2010). Coach learning and development: A review of the literature. SportsCoachUK report.

Stodter, A (2014). Understanding coaches’ learning: process, practice and impact. Loughborough University’s Institutional Repository.

Nelson, L et al (2006). Formal, Nonformal and Informal Coach Learning: A Holistic Conceptualisation. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 1, 3, pg 247–259.

Coe, R (2014). Classroom observation: It’s harder than you think. Available from http://cem.org/blog/414/

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

Collins, L., Carson, H., & Collins, D. (2016). Metacognition and Professional Judgement and Decision Making in Coaching: Importance, Application and Evaluation. International Sports Coaching Journal, 3, p355–361.