What to Watch

Watching your players in action can reveal what is working--and what is not--in your strength and conditioning program. But you must first learn how to see the game within the game.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at" www.gambetta.com.

"You can see a lot by watching."

That famous quote by Yogi Berra speaks volumes. But is everyone involved in a sports event really watching the same game? Probably not.

Several years ago, when I was talking on the sidelines with a sport coach, I was struck by how differently we saw the same game. For both of us, watching the players in action was critical--it allowed us to see the culmination of our work. But the sport coach was much more focused on winning and losing: Was the offense productive? Was the defense working?

As a conditioning coach, I have learned to watch a game through a different lens. I am not a spectator or a fan. In fact, I cannot afford to be, because it would detract from my objectivity. Rather, I am an observer of movement. I watch competitions to gather information to improve the athletes that I am working with, period.

Granted, this is not always easy to do. But I try to think of myself as a scout or a referee--unaware of first downs, baskets made, or who got the assist--but keenly aware of the parts of the game that concern my area of expertise.

The outcome of the game is still important to me. Whether my athletes win or lose is the ultimate measure in their own minds, so it needs to be a measurement for me, too. But to do my job as a conditioning coach, I need to get beyond the score to see the game within the game--the patterns and movements that really make things happen, the strength/power demands, and the effects of fatigue. Every game represents an opportunity to reinforce the positives and find ways to improve the negatives.

Vantage Points

How do you watch a game from a perspective of movement, strength, and conditioning? To start, consider where you are positioned, how to use all your senses, and what to look for.

First: Determine the optimal vantage point to observe the action. As part of the coaching staff, we often position ourselves on the sideline. However, this is a confining view that gives us a distorted picture of the action. Instead, try to observe the game from in front or behind your athletes. The area behind the end zone, goal, or basket is a great vantage point to see the game develop and patterns emerge. In a stadium or arena, having a vantage point above the action can also be quite revealing.

However, do not limit yourself to one vantage point. Try to move around and see the game from different angles.

Second: If it is a ballgame, do not watch the ball. Train yourself to take in the big picture. Focus away from the ball and observe how patterns of movement influence play. Sometimes what players do to get the ball is as important as what they do when they have it.

This is true in both team and individual sports. For example, at a tennis match, the tendency is to watch the server. Instead, on selected points, watch the player receiving the serve. Look at his feet and see how he moves laterally. If you try to watch him after the ball is served, you will miss your chance to see how he gathers his power.

Third: It is important to remain objective. Know what you are looking for, but don't look so hard that you always find it. You may be looking for a particular outcome to a movement that you have been training, but be astute enough to see why it did or did not occur. Do not become a fan--be as dispassionate and critical as you can.

Fourth: Listen as well as look. Listening can give a feel for the rhythm of the action and provide great insights into technical execution and proficiency. This is especially true in the jumping and hurdle events in track and field. During competition in these events try turning away from the action and just listen for a rhythm--it is quite revealing!

The difficulty of watching team sports is that everything takes place in two- to four-second bursts, which is much too fast for the ocular system to process the entire field of play. To overcome this limitation, it is important to know exactly what you're looking for. You can't see everything, so focus on the actions or patterns you're working on in practice that may need correcting.

Kevin McGill, an internationally renowned coach of track and field throwers, draws an analogy to bird watching. In that context, you only have two to four seconds to recognize a pattern of colors that are the key to identifying the particular bird. It is the same for us watching a game. We need to look for patterns that will direct us to relevant points of action.

It is also important to recognize that we all have a bias. I know that I often spend too much time looking at hip position in a multidirectional sport. That bias causes me to miss other things, at times, so I have to be sure to constantly redirect my attention.

What To Look For

With the right vantage point and an objective mind, you can start zeroing in on what you want to discover while watching the game. The main thing to look for is whether your athletes are transferring the movements and strength gains they have been working on in practice. If they are working to gain a more powerful first step, I will study how the players accelerate. I will notice their movements and the power behind their movements. I will watch if fatigue is a factor in the strength and agility of their movement patterns.

Here are some other suggestions on what to watch:

Breakdowns: Gary Winckler, Head Coach of Women's Track and Field at the University of Illinois, videotapes his team's competitions. When one of his athletes is performing under par, he uses the video to understand why. He observes the action to compare what they have been doing in a closed-skill practice environment with their performance in an open-skill competitive environment.

From this observation, he then seeks to determine whether a psychological or a physical breakdown has caused the difference between training and competition. If he notices his athletes overstriding, for example, he knows they'll need to focus on that in future practices. But if the athletes' movement and timing look great, he knows he needs to concentrate on the psychological aspects of competition.

Hip Position: Jim Radcliffe, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Oregon, always watches his athletes' hip position. He tries to determine if their hips are going where they need to go and whether his athletes can transfer the agility work done in a training drill environment to the reactive game environment.

Speed: Perhaps it relates to my infatuation with speed, but when I watch multidirectional sports I am always carefully observing "game speed"--how quick an athlete is to get open, position herself for defense, and react to the ball and other athletes' movements. As a conditioning coach I see reconciling the difference between training drills and game speed as my most difficult task.

Individual Assessments: As a coach, you know your athletes, so keep an eye out for key people. Some typical situations I look for include:

o The hard driver who does everything in training with reckless abandon, but doesn't excel in games. This athlete may be your star in training, but the hard-driving mindset can lead to playing out of control in game situations.

o The worker bee is the athlete who works so hard in training that there is nothing left for the game. This type of athlete will often play well for the first half of the season or even for half a game, but begins to fall apart because they have overworked themselves in training.

o The coaster, who saves it for the game. These athletes' practice efforts never come close to their game performance.

Watching a game will give you feedback that can help make each of these athletes better. The hard driver may need to work on more body control, the worker bee may need to be watched carefully and reigned in, and the coaster may need to be challenged differently in practice.

Warmup: The game is important, but watch the warmup also. If the team or athlete always starts slowly, the problem may be with the warmup. Pregame can give tremendous insights into how a team will play.

For example, in observing the University of North Carolina women's soccer warmup several years ago, I noticed that static stretching was placed very late in the routine, which resulted in the first minutes of play being very lethargic. I pointed this out to the coaches, who moved the stretching earlier and added a brisk nervous system activation exercise immediately preceding kick-off. This may seem like a small suggestion, but the results were a better start for the team.

In addition, watch to see if the team warms up again at half-time or during breaks in action. How do your substitutes perform? How do they get ready to go into the game?

Fatigue: Closely follow the tempo of the game. I always preach owning the second half and being the best at crunch time, so watch who can step up. Don't just look at who seems to have the most energy, but take note if the movement was acceptable at the early stages of the game but then declined as fatigue set in.


In doing game analysis, remember that the information is not just for yourself. If you see something of note, be sure to pass it along to your athletes. I've found that this type of feedback allows me to better communicate with my athletes. It helps them know I care about their performance, and it works well as a motivational tool.

For example, game speed is hard to measure but easy to observe, so I always try to find a way to give feedback to my athletes about their game speed: "Hey, John, your footwork was fabulous--when you sped past your defender to make that first-half goal, it was because your feet had no wasted movement."

Don't miss out. Use each game as an opportunity to gather more information to make you and your athletes better. Look for the game within the game. Let the sport coaches worry about the score.


Camera Help

I used to laugh when I heard a coach say that he had to watch the film to see what had happened in the game. Now I understand what he meant. In reviewing game videos, I am occasionally amazed at the discrepancy between what I thought happened and what actually happened. Observation in "real time" can be very misleading.

I now believe in the importance of using video to complement live observation whenever possible. Watching the game again, and being able to stop and start the action, helps me pick up more nuances. I've found it especially helpful to film from a different angle than from where I am watching the game.

I have also discovered isolated video to be particularly helpful. At times, I have a camera focus on one player for the entire game. I then use the video to analyze, correct, and reinforce particular movements that we have been working on in training.

Make the most of the video technology that's available. For example, I use a Dartfish video analysis program to overlay practice efforts with competition efforts to assess the quality of movement. This analysis program allows me to video training footage and then video the same action in a game and superimpose one upon the other to detect any differences. I find this a great tool for comparing training efforts with game performance.