Jeremy Côté

On Noticing

“Wait, stop! Freeze!” Shane shouts. I’m thinking the same thing.

Shane’s older than me by decades, but you wouldn’t know it from the enthusiasm he has for basketball. Despite being a little sick and there only being four girls who showed up for our off-season basketball clinic, Shane’s love of basketball shines through. It shows up in how he doesn’t miss an opportunity to shoot the basketball even though he’s the coach, it shows up in how he volunteers to coach year after year, and it shows up his deep knowledge of the sport.

“Did you see it?” he asks me, his eyes alight at what materialized in front of us. I nodded. We had shown the players some dribbling skills, but when a chance for one of the players to practice the exact skills appeared organically, she hadn’t taken it.

Shane jumps onto the court, gesturing to the players to go back to where they were when he told them to freeze. Ball in hand, he shows what happened in slow motion for all the players to see. “You got the ball here, but you didn’t attack the basket like this.” He says it without anger or frustration, only a desire for the players to see the game like he does.

He demonstrates how the player could have attacked the net faster. The players nod. I do too, though while I saw the moment, I had come to a different solution than him. After seeing his proposal, I have to admit that his is simpler. Clearly I still have work to do.

Great coaches are great noticers.

They notice when an athlete is dribbling the basketball versus hitting it. They notice when athletes aren’t using their bodies to their full potential. They notice when there are communication inefficiencies between the athletes on a team. And they notice when an athlete is struggling because of issues unrelated to the sport1.

You don’t have to always understand what you’re noticing, either. If you have a well-honed sense of noticing, that can often be enough to tell you something is off, prompting you to dig deeper on that feeling until you realize what’s happening. In that way, noticing is like an early-detection system which gives you extra time to adjust.

I believe there are two main ways to become a better noticer: gaining experience in the sport and becoming curious about everything.

Many coaches already possess experience. Maybe you played squash for a decade and want to help athletes at the beginning of their journey. Maybe you played competitively on a university XC team. Maybe you didn’t play much of this particular sport, but you’ve been an athlete all your life and figure you can leverage that experience to coach a new sport (this will be my case).

Becoming curious is more difficult. To be a good noticer, I can’t shut my mind off. I need to pay attention, to focus. This requires effort and concentration. But if I can cultivate curiosity, it feels less difficult. I can view each coaching session as an opportunity to see how each athlete uniquely solves movement puzzles. I can build a mental repertoire of examples that I can reference when I see my athletes attempt a new movement. I can drill into specific movements or zoom out to general strategies.

What I’m not doing is zoning out while my athletes practice. Sure, I sometimes catch myself not paying attention. I give myself grace, and then I return back to the task at hand.

At a more general level, I suspect becoming curious about a wide range of topics can also cultivate curiosity in the minute details I see as a coach.

What I know is that I’m excited to improve my ability to notice. Coaching is much more than instructing players on workouts. When I think of Shane instantly shouting for the players to freeze or frowning at a near-invisible detail that doesn’t seem right, I want to develop the same sort of ability.

To notice and pay attention at multiple scales, all with a curiosity towards sport and movement.

  1. I hope to write about this in more detail in a future essay.