Combining Observation with Interpretation

Thursday, July 23, 2015

By Henry Playfair
Assistant Coach, Sydney Swans Football Club

From what I have observed as a player and now an assistant coach, the use of the key skill of ‘observation’ has been a crucial part of a coach’s repertoire.  The ability to critically ‘observe’ an athlete’s performance in order to set expectations, assess performance and provide timely feedback has traditionally been the fundamental information piece for coaches to make their judgements and base their decisions. 

In more recent times the growth in football staff; improvements in technology and advances in performance management have expanded the information pool to the extent that the skill of ‘interpretation’ has become equally as important as the skill of ‘observation’.

Traditionally a head coach would utilise a specific set of information in order to make calls and decisions to attempt to get the most out of their players and their team.
This information was based mainly on their own observation as well as inputs from a relatively limited number of sources, perhaps a single assistant coach, limited side-on vision and some basic statistics of kicks, marks and handballs. In this instance what the coach observed at training or game day would form the base for their decisions and actions.

In today’s game this information pool has expanded significantly to incorporate a range of information inputs from which to base a decision. Advancements in technology, increased staff numbers, increasing football department spending and the growth of the football ‘business’ are all factors contributing to this expansion in information. Today GPS data is used by all clubs to give an accurate, objective view of how far players are running, at what speed, how many times they start and stop as well as where on the ground they are positioning. Couple this information with up to four camera views on game day and at least two on the training field, you start to get a sense of the increase in the information pouring into the heads of coaches.

The statistics on the game have expanded astronomically. The arrival of Champion Data has given coaches access to thousands of stats on the game every week and the number is growing year on year. To review all of these stats on a single game would take the bulk of the working week!

For the head coach this information expands further in terms of staff interactions to now include a minimum of four assistant coaches, development coaches, a psychologist – complete with personality profiling on players, a dietitian and a full medical team made up of multiple physiotherapists and doctors.

Therefore, sifting through this jungle of information, deciphering what is relevant and what is not has become a major skill in the role of head coaches today. In many ways the traditional ways of going off your “gut feel” alone was simple, streamlined and time effective.  

One would assume an increase in information in order to make a decision is a good thing, (albeit a time consuming one). In making a decision the coach not only assesses what the he/she sees in an interaction, but must now consider what are the advisors seeing, what are the statistics saying, what is the GPS telling us, what are the players seeing?

Without question the power of observation will remain a critical aspect of coaching and making calls based on what the coach observes will remain a cornerstone of any decisions made. However in my view, going off this alone is limited, in the current environment and with access to relevant, timely, objective and precise information is a massive asset when formulating an opinion and making any decision. The skill in identifying what is important and what is not has become one of the keys to successful coaching in my view. 

Henry Playfair is an assistant coach, forward line, at the Sydney Swans.

This article was written as a part of the requirements for AFL High Performance Coaching Accreditation.

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