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Coach points while talking to players

Observation is the ability to watch the game, the players and the team in action. It’s about taking time to really notice what’s going on around you. The information you gain here then informs what you do next. 

However, it’s important to guide your observations by intended outcomes. If you have no clear focus, you risk watching everything and seeing nothing. The art of observation is really noticing what’s happening – not just following the ball.  

Having good observational skills and being able to observe effectively is so important. It allows you to:  

  • judge progress against your focus  
  • spot skilful play  
  • discover areas to work on  
  • notice player behaviour, engagement and enjoyment   
  • plan interventions  
  • adapt sessions  
  • react to the game on matchday  
  • guide your decision-making, actions and behaviours.  

Interactive video

Want to dive deeper into this topic? Then, work your way through this video.

Here are a few ways you can use observation effectively at training:  

  • To create an environment which helps players fall in love with the game, observe how your players react in your sessions. Are they laughing? Are they smiling? If you’re working with young kids, are they excited, rushing to the pitch and can’t wait to play? If so, they’re great signs that you’ve got the environment right.  
  • Keep a clear focus in mind. What you’re coaching informs you of what to observe. So, when planning your session, think about what you’re working on. If you want the team to practise turning, then you need to observe how they get on with that.  
  • When observing, look for who’s struggling with the task and who needs stretching further. Think of ways to adapt the practice for them using the STEP framework (Youth Sports Trust, 2002).  
  • Observation can be about what you hear as well. During your session take the time to listen. What are they talking about? What are they saying about the session? What’s their tone of voice like? Are they speaking their thoughts out loud while playing? Use this information to judge their enjoyment, adapt the session or plan interventions.  

Here are a few ways you can use observation effectively on matchday:  

  • Observe what your players are like when they arrive. How did they get there? What’s their body language like? What’s their behaviour like? Noticing this helps you understand how you need to interact with them. For instance, a player may have a long way to travel on public transport. They may arrive a bit later than ideal and be tired. So, show empathy rather than being frustrated.  
  • A lot is going on during a game. So, try to delegate observation tasks. Give a fellow coach, a parent or even your substitutes something to focus on and ask them to feedback on it. This can inform what you say during your team talks.  
  • Keep your training focus in mind to link what they’ve learnt in midweek to matchday. So, if you’ve worked on turning in training, observe how they use the skill in the game. Then, let players know you’ve noticed their turns. Give them praise, encouragement and feedback during your team talks.

The examples above are a good starting point for coaches. But here’s how to take your observation skills to the next level.  

Don’t just look at the ball. It might be hard at first. We’re used to just focusing on where the ball is whenever we watch football on TV. That's what the cameras tend to show. But as coaches, we need to see a wider angle. Try looking on, around and away from the ball. This helps you get a bigger picture of what’s going on. You can see how what’s happening elsewhere impacts the decision a player takes – or could take.   

Try adopting different coaching positions. Moving into other areas of the pitch gives you different viewpoints. For instance, if you’re focusing on your goalkeeper, go and stand near them or behind the goal. Place yourself where you can hear what they’re saying and see what they’re seeing. Then, you get a more informed observation of that player.  

Use The FA’s six core capabilities when observing. They’re a great tool to use. They sharpen your lens and give you a starting point of what to look for when observing skilful play.  

Avoid getting stuck in a moment of the game. You might work on building out from the back, but one player makes a small mistake, and you concede. Don’t let that cloud your overall judgement. Appreciate they were trying what you want them to do. Then, with your observations, help them improve.  

Use equipment to help you record your thoughts and review your findings. Try using a notepad or your phone’s voice recorder to help you document your key observations. That way, you have something to refer back to when you reflect on the game.

What to do with your observations after matchday

So, you’ve observed the match and recorded your thoughts. What’s next?

Try giving the parents or carers some questions to ask their kids on the way home. Link the questions to your learning objectives – the observational focus you had. This prevents them from asking stereotypical questions based on the result and if their child scored. And it helps their learning.

Then, go away and consolidate what you observed and recorded. Don’t let the result cloud your review. Think about what you worked on in training. Did you see it in the game? If you did, when did you see it? What happened? What were those scenarios? If you didn’t see it, were there any reasons why you didn’t see it?

Once you’ve done your observations and reviewed them, you can then shape the intended outcomes for your next session.

What to consider when working with different age groups

Observation is similar no matter who you coach. You can still use the same techniques and tips mentioned here. But it’s important to understand the age and stage of your players. Think about what good looks like for them and what detail they need from you. Then, tailor your approach to suit.

Observation checklist: things to remember when trying to observe effectively

Top tips for using observation. If you look for everything, you'll see nothing, so be really clear on what you're going after. Don't just look at the ball, remember to look on, around and away from it to get a bigger picture. Watch, listen and refrain from intervening too early – give players a chance to get it right. Try moving into different coaching positions to get other viewpoints rather than staying in one spot all the time. Use The FA's six core capabilities to help spot and observe skilful play.

Further learning  

If you’re interested in this topic, check out these resources to learn more:  

You can also take the key information from this article away with you by downloading this PDF.