The Coach’s Eye

ACP Feb 2020-2443


ALTIS is an elite training environment for athletes, and a global leader of education in sport performance.

Coach Pfaff has mentored 1000s of coaches and therapists over the course of his career. He is respected as an elite teacher of biomechanics and training theory, all while consulting with numerous professional sports teams and organizations. In addition to all of this, he is probably most known for his ability to assess movement and identify not only aberrations, but the drivers of these aberrations – seemingly, in the blink of an eye.  

In The Blink Of An Eye – How The Performance Therapist Sees The World

It is important to convey that this was not an innate ability for Coach Pfaff. He readily admits to making the same mistakes as a young coach that all of us do.

Instead, through the ‘school of hard knocks’ (i.e. having a lot of injured athletes), he recognized early on in his career that there is an unceasing association between mechanics, health, and performance. The better an athlete’s mechanics were, the healthier the athlete. The healthier the athlete, the less time away from training, and the better the performance. This seems like an obvious connection – but it is still ignored in a vast majority of performance environments around the world.  

What we call the BLINK – the sometimes seemingly magical ability that Coach Pfaff has to identify a specific driver of a movement aberration – is often the final manifestation of the Performance Therapy Model.  

Through adhering to a Performance Therapy methodology, the coach and therapist can have an immediate impact on the mechanics and health of the athlete – within the natural training environment – and thus positively affecting performance.  

To effectively BLINK, we require two separate skills:

  1. Observation of movement in real-time
  2. Identification of the drivers of any aberrant movement 

To begin, we will discuss the first step above: observation – or what has often been referred to as the development of ‘the coach’s eye’ – how a coach reacts to visual stimuli during a sporting movement.  

More than the simple, intuitive speculation of an experienced practitioner, the observational skills of a master analyzer are often what separates the best from the rest. We all have the same access to objective data, but it is the recognition and application of the subjective senses that determines the ultimate success of a coach or therapist. If you ask Coach Pfaff how he has developed his ‘coach’s eye’, he will answer that it is his ability to recognize and interpret ‘patterns of movement’; the enrichment of the following five key performance indicators (KPIs):

  1. Recognize familiar patterns of movement quickly and accurately
  2. Identify and classify unfamiliar movements
  3. Accurately recognize shapes and patterns of movement from different angles
  4. Identify patterns when they are a part of a more contextually rich environment
  5. Recognize atypical patterns

Following, we will explore the various pathways and models that are relevant to how we understand our world, and how this is relevant to Performance Therapy.

And it begins with recognizing patterns.

Coach Pfaff on pattern recognition

Recognizing Patterns: from object observation to movement observation

There are three primary means to observe movement:

  1. Still photographs
  2. Video playback
  3. Real-time 

Still photographs – or ‘frames’ – as discussed in the ALTIS Kinogram Method within the Foundation and Essentials Courses – provide an excellent background method to help us understand key positions, but they are limited to just that: background information. They give us an excellent understanding of the elements within the system, and with experience, we can extrapolate somewhat as to the interactions between these events, but thy don’t do a great job of speaking to the ultimate purpose of the movement, as we cannot appreciate the frames in context.

The insights we can gain from assessing still photos can provide us with information as to what we believe to be the key positions within these tasks, and via post-hoc analysis, we can compare and contrast them to any historical data we may have. Although this type of observation is beneficial, we also must understand the potential shortcomings of still photos.

Coaches and Performance Therapists should have a working memory of what positions they believe are critical for movement to occur. Although these positions can be assessed through still photos, the very nature of doing so does not give us instantaneous, usable, information to act upon. 

Furthermore, still frames only tell us about the positions an athlete is in within these frames – they do not tell us how the athlete moves in and out of these positions.  The manner in which an athlete solves the movement puzzle – i.e. their unique strategies – and the variability around this, is what gives us a rich, and contextual grid, from which we can use to help base our coaching and therapeutic decisions.  

These still frames are perhaps analogous to learning a language. The frames are the letters, from which we construct words and sentences. Without knowing words, we cannot speak, nonetheless write. 

Without an in-depth understanding of what these key positions are, and the unique intra- and inter-individual variability within them, it is difficult to see how we can appreciate true movement, i.e. moving.

Analyzing movement in real-time, however – especially in sports that are chaotic and dynamic in nature – is a step too far for many coaches and therapists, and we need to devise strategies to bridge our static, still frame analyses with the more contextual analysis required of real-time observation.

Our ability to do this has improved substantially over the last decade; with the advent of movement analysis applications that make such analyses relatively simple for even less-experienced coaches and therapists. Most of us have – in our pockets – access to fairly sophisticated biomechanical tools that were not available to professional biomechanists even a generation ago. We have the ability now to slow down and speed up videos, and to actively improve our observation skills without having to rely on the limited number of repetitions that are available in the real-world sporting environment. In essence, we now have an infinite amount of practice repetitions, where we can develop a skillful ‘coach’s eye’ in no time at all.

This is not real-time analysis, however, and the inherent limitations of video fail to provide us with all the information essential for accurate analysis. For example, the intensity and intention of a movement is difficult to determine through video alone. Also, video only provides us with information in two dimensions; an accurate movement analysis must include three-dimensional observation.

Movement cannot be fully understood through static field-views and videos, but only through real-time dynamic experience. We cannot separate perceptual interpretation from sensory assimilation, since the act of perception is itself an active one (Gibson, 1966).  

Real-world, dynamic assessment of movement does not allow us the liberty of time.” 

Dr. Gerry Ramogida

Once we begin thinking about movement observation as pattern recognition, it becomes easier for us to analyze – in real time – what can often seem like chaotic movements.  

It is important to state that precise analysis of kinematics is extremely challenging in complex, high-speed sporting environments. Indeed, it is for this very reason why a vast majority of the literature on ‘movement analysis’ does not actually study real-world sporting movement, but instead is performed in controlled, context-specific scenarios. The faster the movement, the more difficult it is to accurately perceive the information; but it is important to note that research suggests that expert visual observation is generally reliable.

Whenever we analyze any sporting movement, it is essential we respect that movement emerges from an interaction of the athlete’s body, the task, and the environment. Although we tend to focus primarily on the body, it is important we don’t interpret the movement in isolation. 

No movement exists in a vacuum

Stuart McMillan

Interested in how to improve your movement observation? We wrote a whole Course on it — check out the Performance Therapy Course – a digital Course designed to share the comprehensive background behind the ALTIS Performance Therapy Model.

This unique Course reveals how we have developed this model through the synthesis of cumulative experiences of over 100 years of coaching and therapy, delivered by our lead staff here at ALTIS. This Digital Course is Phase I of our Performance Therapy offering, providing the background and processes necessary to optimize your understanding of the application of Performance Therapy.  

Like all of our Courses, the PTC is a ‘living’ Course that will expand and improve over time – based primarily on the critique of our community.



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