The art of observation. What details should coaches be looking for? Todd Beane explains why it is important for a coach to ‘observe’ their players rather than just ‘watch’ them.

Are you watching or observing your players?

Many consider these two words synonymous. To watch is to observe and to observe is to watch. But, I find a distinction here that may help us become better at our craft. Let’s take a look at the definitions.

Watch: to see what is done or happens.

Observe: to regard with attention as to learn something.

When I have a chance to evaluate coaches I tend to analyze where they focus their attention while on the sidelines.

Coaches who “watch” tend to follow the ball and are engaged in “what is done or happens”. They tend to respond to the match as would a fan, paying attention to actions on the ball. They will then comment to players on that action. In other words the action taken is the point of departure for their coaching points. They live every moment in real time and follow the game attentively but tend to be reactionary.

There is another type of coach. A coach who “observes” varies their focus in order to “learn something”. To learn something about players on the ball, but also about players off the ball. They live every moment in expanded time and space. These coaches tend to be proactive.

In the international bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explores the systems within the brain as it approaches a myriad of tasks. I was struck by so many sections of this book, but one excerpt details this particular challenge we have as coaches.

“The human mind does not deal well with nonevents.”

I often touch upon this concept with coaches. We focus our attention, make judgments, form opinions and coach what we witness: a pass too soft, a shot too high, a cross driven wayward. We then respond to the error and use it to form evaluations of skill and football prowess. It directs our coaching points. Our brains are wired to respond to what we see. As Nobel Prize winner Kahneman explains, we do not do so well responding to events we do not see occur before our eyes. Nonevents tend not to get our attention and therefore remain lost in the obscurity of what might have been.

“To observe is to take in all that occurs and all that does not.”

I suggest that to “observe” is to learn something. There is a subtle yet important distinction here. To observe is to take in all that occurs and all that does not. Only with events and nonevents can we process the whole story. Difficult, I know: especially when there are so many events that satiate our brain’s desire to “watch”.

So what do we do?

I like to experiment to test my own assumptions. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. But, every time I learn something in the process even if I do not learn anything in the process. I know it sounds contradictory.

Try assigning your assistant coach to watching the ball while you spend 45 or 90 minutes NOT watching the ball. I doubt you have ever done this on the sidelines. In fact, it is quite challenging to accomplish if you are accustomed to “watching” the match unfold.

“Imagine events that did not take place, options not executed.”

Instead, observe everything off the ball. Imagine events that did not take place, options not executed. Observe to learn about your players, to learn about your team’s shape and positioning off the ball. Watch your defense when you are in attack and your attack when you are defending. In other words, focus your attention on the exact opposite of what may come naturally to you.

“You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you and if it is a good story you believe it.” – Kahneman

This is why you listen to a coach’s interview after matches and wonder if they were even watching the same game as you did. We all construct a coherent story from the information we take in. And we take in a limited amount of information – only that which catches our attention.

“Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know very little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” – Kahneman

There is danger in constructing stories from limited information. Especially when we are constructing stories about youth players. Players who are not the biggest or boldest. Players who are not doing step-overs, bicycle kicks, or racing past defenders with pace. There are so many brilliant actions that will never make the highlight film or necessarily capture our attention.

How many times have you seen Sergio Busquets on a highlight film? Not many. Yet, he has been a critical piece to the puzzle of FC Barcelona’s success over recent years. Not coincidentally, it was Pep Guardiola who nurtured him into the first team. Much like Johan Cruyff did with Pep Guardiola years before. Both Guardiola and Busquets are examples of players who create nonevents to the benefit of the their team. A pass not selected, space created, an option not available to the opponents.

In the end, we all make meaning of that which we take in. If we can fashion our capacity to take in more information than just what we “watch”, we will be better for it. If we can “observe” events and imagine nonevents, then we will be better able to evaluate our players as they mature. We will be able to better serve our team as we take on the challenges of completion. And we will be better at our craft of developing the competence, cognition and character of our players.

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” – Werner Heisenburg

Cover Image: Pep Guardiola looks on from the sideline. Photo: © Maxisports

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