Attentive Coaching: Observing vs Looking

What’s the difference between having a trainer vs a coach?  I argue that it’s whether or not they are paying you attention with intention to give feedback, or if they are just watching you go through an exercise.  For a number of reasons, athletes and common folk are being subjected to simply receiving training and not coaching.  These reasons include money as it costs more to get specific attention, staffing as a budget may not allow for many coaches to maintain proper fiscal management, and lack of (useful) volunteers for community/school teams.

“Attentive” coaching is one of the defining factors on the quality of a coach, whether for football, strength, life, etc.  Quality observance is key in improving the performance of a client or athlete as it allows for useful feedback to be exchanged between coach and athlete.  This was on my mind as I just finished coaching a summer track club in my hometown since moving back and reflected on the performance of 3 hurdlers I worked with since I’ve moved back.  With hurdlers, a coach has to pay particular attention to technique, rhythm, speed, and consistency.  If it could be self-taught and coached, elite athletes wouldn’t have coaches.  Coaching youth hurdlers was one of the best things to start my coaching career as I had to teach 12-15 year olds to hurdle at 20 which quickly made me learn to start paying close attention.  That said, I’ve had to learn over the last 5 years what paying close attention allowed me to do, as well as how to get better at it (what 20 year old is really good at paying attention, to anything).   Remarkably, it was the hurdlers who were new and struggled that taught me the most in my recent reflection.

I’ll cover 3 benefits of having and being an attentive coach.  In a later article I’ll cover how to improve your observational skills.

13 year old lady in the gold, taught me a good bit about coaching this summer

13 year old lady in the gold, taught me a good bit about coaching this summer

  • Finding fundamental flaws

Being attentive helps one find flaws that lead to lacking performance.  It can be as simple as observing that an athlete takes off from the hurdle a few inches too soon to understanding that a client’s ankle mobility and their coordination (kinesthetic awareness for fancy folk) is restricting them from maintaining proper posture in a lunge, causing them to cheat and externally rotate the foot.  Adequate observation allows coaches to know what someone is doing wrong and what is causing it, be it a physical lacking or poor body awareness.  Counting repetitions and just looking encouragingly along don’t contribute to finding ways to improve how the person being coached moves.


  • Helps you create effective cues

As a follow up, good observation helps a coach come up with effective cueing.  Knowing how to cue an athlete or client is another piece of what separates highly effective coaches from trainers.  Being able to give cues that helps the client relate their body to the environment is key to achieving correct movements, knowing as external cues “push the ground away from you” to accelerate harder or when to give internal cues such as “lift your hips” while sprinting is important.  Knowing when to make a cue telling them to pay attention to themselves or to something around them comes from being observant and knowing who you are coaching.  With a 13 year old hurdler who has been struggling with approaching the hurdles aggressively, we spent a couple weeks working on the cueing of “running down the hurdle” as if being pulled down and that “speed keeps you safe” a reminder that fast approaches decrease fatigue and the likelihood of tripping on the hurdle and falling.  Being in physical condition to demonstrate what needs to be done is a crucial point and able bodied coaches should be able to visually demonstrate what want accomplished in training.


  • Allows for proper intensity changes


A coach improving focus on the client allows them to closely monitor an athlete’s progress.  Is she sluggish from 4 weeks of hard strength training and needing an easy week?  Is he hitting sprint times consistently and need to be challenged different to push adaptation?  Keeping a keen eye on the speed of movement, how difficult a task is to the client, the “crispness” of movement, and the athlete’s energy levels creates a coach that can alter a program at the right time to support the body and mind’s current state.  Knowing when an athlete needs an easy day or week to take things easy is important, as people aren’t always aware of when they need to rest vs when they should push out a couple more reps against their mind saying no.  Conversely, when I had a girl from the quidditch team killing it in the weight room, hitting her reps crisply and with good speed, 6 sets of 2 on the squat rack near her max turned into 8 clean sets to take advantage of her body rolling on all cylinders and having improved.  Knowing when to turn it up and turn it down helps put the client in the best position to improve.

Resisted sprinting in Nairobi

Resisted sprinting in Nairobi

Whether you are a coach or someone who receives some level of coaching, it’s always best to have or be an observant coach.  There are instances where you may not, large group fitness classes, community sports teams with few volunteers and a huge amount of athletes.  Often times though the fee for either of those is low so there is a trade-off.  However, quality coaches in such scenarios will still be able to offer some specific feedback at some point throughout the session, at least in relation to something being wrong or really good.


Key attributes of quality, observant coaching include being able to find fundamental flaws, offering appropriate and effective cues, and knowing when to adjust the intensity based on how the athlete or client is feeling.  Do you have other key things you look for in an observant coach?  Leave feedback below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *