CARI On: A Model To Aid Analytical Observations of Sessions

[NOTE: at time of writing, this was a concept in it’s infancy. This model arrived in my head during a dog walk and is currently belief-based and not evidence-based. It is provided here as food for thought rather than as a robust model to follow]

Shadowing – attending another coach/instructors course and watching how they teach – is a well established method of improving our professional skills. Sometimes in the absence of formalised education or more often in addition to formal training courses, shadowing (when done well) can be incredibly enlightening and offer much to one’s own ability to teach.

However there’s a caveat in there: “when done well”. Often, people simply come in to “shadow a session” and merely sit out of earshot, not really engaging with the process, asking any questions or really having any structure as to what they’re watching. It’s a bit like learning by osmosis: if we watch enough, eventually we’ll pick up all the good habits somehow along the way.

Shadowing needn’t be so. Think being a bit more Peter Pan’s shadow, rather than a normal one (but without the mischief). I’m not suggesting we need to be involved in the running of the session and often that’s not possible, with the organisation running the session not allowing unqualified instructors to do so. But what we do need to do is be critical in the way we’re observing. Let’s start making the most of this opportunity.

What Do I Look For?

This is where we come unstuck and the biggest issue with shadowing. For my Master’s degree, I shadowed/observed six top-level coaches across the UK on a single session. In many ways, that one was easier, as the degree already had specific things I was looking for i.e. the breadth of teaching styles they applied during the session.

Shadowing other coaches as part of my Performance Coach Training several years later became a bit trickier. Suddenly, I didn’t have a focus to look for, needing a much broader outlook when watching the sessions. On the first, I tried applying the old faithful but it didn’t work that well and while simply having a little bit of structure was better than watching it totally openly, I felt I needed something better.

Then, on the morning of the second shadowing session, on a dog walk, I suddenly had an epiphany. I had an idea of what to look for and thankfully, managed to get it into a handy model: CARI.

We’ll come to the model in a few minutes but first, let’s get ready for shadowing our session.

Start with You

The fact is that we don’t tend to shadow sessions that are miles away from our own standards. If we watch sessions far below our current standards (below being a bad word to use but to elaborate, it would be like shadowing a taster session when we’re regularly teaching lead climbing indoors for example) then we’re more likely to be assessing rather than shadowing. Likewise, if the standard is way in advance of our own (flip the above example) then this becomes more training than shadowing.

By definition, shadowing tends to occur and be most productive when we watch sessions similar to our own and crucially, that means we are already building on our own experience. We’re bringing our own skills to the table too, not starting from scratch. In essence, we’ve already built a frame of reference that we’re measuring the shadowed session against.

Think of Your Own Specialisms

As we noticed with the above example, we may want to have something specific we’re looking for. Again, that means – somewhat counter intuitively – we need to think about ourselves before we think about the person we’re shadowing.

Any top level coach will tell you about their specialisms; I don’t think you get to be a top-level coach without knowing your own specialist strengths and weaknesses. Yes, they’ll all be able to apply themselves across the board but they’ll have areas in which they feel stronger. So, movement and technical skills rather than physical training, for example.

Likewise, we can watch the same session through “different lenses” looking at teaching style, movement skills, physical training, whatever really.

If you want to get the most from your shadowing, think about why you’re watching and which areas you can improve in your own work.

The CARI Model

With all that in mind, let’s come back to the model. It’s an acronym with each letter referring to something different:

  • Confirmation. Does the coach do something that confirms an idea you’ve had already? This may be that they do something that you disagree with and confirms the way you want to do something
  • Affirmation. Does the coach do the same that you do on your sessions? They may be subtly different but the principles remain the same, affirming your own methods
  • Refutation. Does the coach do something different to you but in a way you prefer and will now adopt? Do they challenge your own beliefs such that you want to change your approach?
  • Inspiration. Does the coach do something new that you’re going to take to your own sessions? This can be across various time scales, from the whole session structure to a thirty-second exercise you’re planning to replicate

Now, I’ve not checked (at time of writing) to see if this model is replicated elsewhere and wouldn’t be surprised if it is. In fact, if I do find something, that would be confirmation for my model.

And yes, I am aware the difference between confirmation and affirmation is thin and many would say they’re synonyms. But there is a subtle difference in these definitions. And it makes the acronym work… We’ve said confirmation (in this context/model) refers to an idea you’ve had that you’re happy to stick with. One example was an idea I’d had linking strengths/weaknesses with style preferences. Shortly after arriving at this idea but not entirely sure if I was right, I observed another top level coach drawing exactly the same conclusions. It confirmed what I had suspected and is now part of my practice.

Meanwhile, affirmation is when you see someone doing exactly the same as you. On a training course, they presented us with a goal setting model that was almost identical in structure to the one I had developed and been using for some time. It affirmed my own practice as I was already sure in my methodology.

The big one is probably inspiration but you’d be surprised how much confirmation and affirmation you’re likely to see. These will build your confidence in your own delivery as much as adding in things that are new.

But inspriation is probably key. I pick up new ideas and concepts not only from watching my peers but from many sources. The best coaches aren’t the ones that have everything nailed down perfectly, they’re the ones always looking to add to what they can already do and looking for new information they weren’t expecting. I’d give examples but there are simply too many. The joy of looking for inspiration when shadowing is that you get to see it in action.

Finally, the refutation. We all have our ideas and principles that we follow, picked up from a variety of sources. Sometimes these sources can be great, sometimes they’re outdated and have been “debunked” and sometimes it was complete rubbish that we got from an unwittingly spurious source in the first place. Be open to the idea of being challenged as, if your own idea is sound, it will stand up to scrutiny. For example, I often suggest to people to add in some antagonist training at the end of their session but on recently speaking to a physio/S&C coach, was convinced to change tact and keep it to either warm up or main parts of the session.


Let’s round this all of with some simple steps to follow:

  • Start off by checking in with your own skills. What sort of sessions do you run and what can this shadowing session add to that?
  • Think about your own specialisms. Are you shadowing to add to your existing skill set or improve a weakness of your own? Or are you looking to enhance your skills in the same area by seeing someone else run something similar to yourself?
  • During the session, remember to go through the CARI Model: look for Confirmation of your own ideas, Affirmation of your current practice, Refutation of things you already do to change in future and Inspiration for new things for you to adopt
  • Reflect afterwards on what and how you’re going to adjust and adapt your own practice to accomodate these new thoughts

Afterthought: I liked this model so much, I ended up creating a version of it for participants on my BMC FUNdamentals workshops. A copy of the form is available as a free dowload below