My Coaching Eye

At a workshop one of the pre-scripted aims was to enhance the ‘coaching eye’ of the participants…a statement made without clarifying what the coaching eye was or did. There was a brief time where I had a chance to speak to a good sized group and I presented them with a challenge: using your coaching eye how might you help this athlete (demonstrator they had all watched) achieve the raw speed required for higher performance levels…what things might you focus on? (Coaching note: I had checked with the athlete and confirmed that speed was an issue and historical source of injury). I was met with blank stares and a few deer-headlight panic looks. A few uncomfortable minutes passed.  I finally noted that my coaching eye picked up on soggy ankles and shoulder tension…yours might pick up something else. Relief was palpable and several started scribbling notes. My immediate gut squirm was that in order to have a response like this there was a system fault (myself included); this was not some shortcoming of the coaches present.

Flashback 1: helping my daughter complete some physics homework. She is frustrated because she does not understand why it needs to be done, and is increasingly annoyed that I can dip into a subject after several decades and grasp the concepts. I want her to think about how to approach and solve problems. She eventually explodes with, ‘Why don’t you just give me the answers?’

Flashback 2: sitting in a darkened PE office with another jumper watching film loops from the 1968 Olympics against the office door. Two of us watched the Fosbury film so much we wore out the sprocket holes on the film. For me it was the start of what I call my ‘coaching eye’, not because I watched the film so many times, but because I watched the same jumps from several different camera angles so many times.

At the time of watching the film loops I was trying to be a high jumper in amongst other events and a curious thing began to happen: with all the running, jumping and various drills I found that I could achieve a mind-set where I could watch myself move from any angle as if in slow motion. I liked the sensation and refined it over time so I could switch it on or off with a bit of mental prodding.

A few years later I wrote a little article that appeared in the Canadian Track and Field Journal (now gone or modified) about using the coaching eye in the High Jump. Essentially I was encouraging coaches to move around (if they could) to view jumps from different angles because we are so prone to making assumptions about what we can see from a given viewpoint. Our mind is great at filling in blanks when information is missing, as any policeman will note about eye witness reports. It was the first time I used the term ‘coaching eye’ as a prompt to learn how to extract the information we need for a given movement phase. By extension, we also learn to retain focus in highly distracting situations. In truth this was not what I now think of as a true coaching eye, and I was really just giving coaches the answers they wanted in regards to looking at technique. It was a start.

A good eye a learned skill that needs to operate at speeds faster than a finger snap. Athletes who need to track a ball or shuttlecock need to do so at even faster rates and then react. What we perceive is ‘thin slice’ information out of the whole sequence. From that we learn to extract key bits and actively forget the remainder. Forgetting is a key aspect of learning. Our brain is actually wired to do this and does it all the time. As an example, if you scan the room for 30 seconds to catalogue everything coloured blue you can do a pretty good job. If you are then instructed to list all those things coloured yellow there may be some difficulties (or annoyance at being tricked). The yellow info went in but was then discarded.

Back to the times when I watched the film loops. What I was able to do was focus on one aspect, say an ankle joint from the whole sequence, and watch that several times. I might then switch to visual steering or something else. Is this the ‘coaching eye’? I would say that it’s step one because you learn to isolate bits from the whole without distraction. Many recently licenced coaches I encounter at workshops lament that they are not sure what they are looking for or at when athletes move so quickly. They do see things but are distracted by the movements, environment, others and their own mental voice.

I believe the real ability of a good eye lies in strategic thinking or even intuitive thinking. Scouring online resources, going to workshops or courses and having the latest in video technology does little beyond provide a bit of information. The coaching development trap is that having massive lists of cues, the language of mechanics and ease of video analysis can instil a false sense of expertise.  Like reliance on a stopwatch or tape the information is limited to results.

The coaching eye is linked to ancient evolutionary skills. Being able to recognise little signs of predator or prey activity amongst the chaos of incoming sensory data would not guarantee survival.  The real skill was in prediction forwards and backwards. This cannot be learned in isolation, nor is it innate in humans. It is acquired, coached and mentored in shared dialogue and stories. So, for me, a paddling hand while running picked up on a thin slice might encourage me to look for a gait imbalance and ultimately a chain imbalance that involves the hip and ankle. The coaching eye then, is a bit like weather forecasting: your percentage of accuracy goes up with experience and hard work at a brain level that gives us those delightful aha! moments. If someone else keeps giving you the answers then true learning never happens and the intuitive sense never develops. Like forecasting the coaching eye is not exact or always accurate. As a coach this has made me more honest with myself and athletes as I run into things that I have no answer for or no accurate prediction in time.

Because the coaching eye relates to high level thinking skills it is quite properly a life skill. Life skills are transferrable across domains, so your ability in one area can be reformatted and refined into another without too much difficulty (after which you need to acquire specific experience). I believe that one of the key tasks in the coach-athlete relationship is to impart knowledge to athletes and other coaches to encourage the development of life skills. The coaching eye is a massive life skill that links to decision making, strategic planning, problem-solving, distraction control and emotional regulation amongst others. There are social skills that join in as athletes learn to help one another and communicate in the shared language of their activity. What evolved as a way to survive by reading weather, plant and animal signs still feeds us today. We simply need to find ways to switch it on and then take the time to polish it, a process which, like all life skills, is for life.

J. Erik Little