Giant on the Field

When it comes to supervision, the coach should be a looming giant, observing each athlete and every drill. And, yes, you can teach your coaches to do this.

By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled The School Sports Safety Handbook, published by LRP Publications, in Horsham, Pa.

Athletic Management, 13.2, February/March 2001,

Several years ago, I wrote two articles for Athletic Management dealing with supervision in athletics. My purpose was to show how supervision can lower an athlete’s chance of injury and also prevent lawsuits against coaches and institutions.

But the lack of proper supervision by coaches and teachers continues to top the list of complaints against people in our profession. Supervision is a major duty of every coach, yet it is not often thought about until after an accident, complaint, or lawsuit occurs.

Recently, I spoke with a defendant in one of these lawsuits—a soccer coach who was grading papers during a practice when an injury occurred. I asked her if she felt her supervision was reasonable. “Of course,” she quickly replied, “I was there, wasn’t I?” The case settled out of court.

This remark reinforced my belief that we talk a lot about supervision, but we don’t actually teach our coaches the skills needed to supervise responsibly. For this reason, this article explains the “how to” of supervision.

What Is Supervision?
Supervision is management. Yes, it is being there—but that is only the first step. It is also directing, overseeing, controlling, being vigilant, and caring.

Many separate supervision into two categories: general and specific. General supervision refers to when you are overseeing a group activity such as a tennis or lacrosse scrimmage. Specific supervision takes place through a teaching or close-monitoring situation such as working with one or two individuals.

But applying these approaches is not an either/or proposition. A coach should actually move back and forth from general to specific, continually and rapidly throughout practice. In fact, a coach must often do both at the same time. Coaches must understand this and learn techniques to conduct this type of supervision—which I call “rotational” supervision.

Rotational Strategies
Rotational supervision requires that the coach always be conscious of where the athletes are and what they are doing. The coach must be able to see every individual in a glance and consistently monitor their actions. The following are strategies you should teach your coaches for effective rotational supervision:

• Be there. Be there before the players. Stay there. Be there until the last player leaves.

• Observe people with your “back to the wall.” This means you generally position yourself so you can see all the participants. And make sure the players can see you, too. This is impossible to do all the time, but make the effort to reach this optimum.

• Move to and/or give more attention to the area that has the highest potential risk. A lifeguard usually gives more time to the deep end than he or she gives to the shallow end. Both areas, however, require supervision.

• When you talk to one player, still keep the field in view. When someone taps you from behind as you are observing a drill, ask that person to come around to your front. That way you can react to the individual and still observe the drill.

• Supervise only those activities you know. A key ingredient to risk management is foreseeability, which can only happen if you are knowledgeable about the sport. You must be like a wrestling official who looks for potentially dangerous holds before they become dangerous holds. Your knowledge of the activity will recognize a problem when it is still a potential problem.

• Do not leave the practice area, even for a short period of time. A junior varsity basketball coach was asked to watch the freshman team practicing on the other half of the court. A folding partition divided the gym. The coach moved from one side to the other through the small door in the partition. One team was always out of sight. No one was hurt, but it was still poor supervision. The coach should have opened the partition.

• Wear and use a whistle. Look and act like a coach. Know your players. Have an unscheduled routine of moving around the practice area.

In addition to teaching your coaches sound supervision strategies, they need to know good techniques to enhance those strategies. One such technique is scanning.

Lifeguards have been taught this skill for years. It is the practice of constantly conducting a visual sweep of the activity area over 10-second periods—although the actual time of the scan will depend on the size of the area and number of people the coaches are supervising. The key is that scanning permits coaches to observe the total area, and it makes them sensitive to observing.

Scanning is something some coaches do automatically. Most coaches, however, have to be taught and reminded of this technique. Once they start getting into the scanning habit, though, it does become automatic. The only problem with scanning is that it is so simple, we administrators don’t teach it or we don’t emphasize it.

Here are two strategies for scanning to explain to your coaches:

• Look over the field and at the players from right to left and then left to right. If you were watching a dribbling drill that involves several lines of players, you would, for example, look at the far-left line and scan to the opposite side and back again.

• Change the pattern of scanning (to increase your concentration). Try the circular method. Start at an outside point of the area and scan in a circular motion moving into the middle of the circle. Reverse the scanning pattern. You could also use a zigzag or grid pattern.

There is a lot an athletic director can and should do to improve supervision skills among coaches. Along with workshops, staff meetings could include a discussion about supervision. A good case scenario would be the previously mentioned partitioned basketball practice situation. Supervision is not rocket science, but it does take planning and vigilance.

For a look at Dr. Borkowski’s past articles on supervision and risk management, please visit our Web site at and type “Borkowski” into the search engine.