By Brian Marshall
On the way to becoming experts or specialists in our professional fields, we learn and create practical and theoretical models of how to do things. We have systems in place that allow us to create results and successes again and again. We don’t want to go to our coaching environment and think: “what are my beliefs about improving basic endurance?” or “what are the key technical aspects that are important for this event?”. Rather, these are questions we have considered previously and now have a model or system in place so that we can focus on what is happening in the training environment.
Equally, in our daily work, we will make use of our automatic judgment processes to quickly evaluate and decide on action when we are coaching. For example: “John’s arm position looks incorrect… I will tell him to raise his elbow higher”. This kind of automatic or intuitive thinking can be described as “System 1” thinking, that can be vital if we need to make fast decisions (there is smoke in the bedroom – get everyone out of the house). However, System 1 thinking can lead to poor decision making if we allow automatic thinking to happen during our coaching. There is also a System 2 thinking, whereby we do not seek out the relevant information to make the most effective decisions. This might be because the coach has lost the drive to find out what is happening in their sport, but it can also be the part-time coach who has limited time and thus relies on how they always do things.
System 1 and System 2 thinking can both result in biases in the way we coach and thus we make less than effective decisions. The challenge then is to find a balance, where we have beliefs and models about how to coach effectively, but also create space in our thoughts and actions, so that we don’t become biased into thinking that what we do is the “best” or “only” way.
How can we challenge our own coaching biases and beliefs?
Soll et al., 2015 write that our natural desire is to avoid expending cognitive energy on uncertainties. We try to narrow our thinking to singular possibilities:
One possible future, one objective, one option in isolation.
Thus, we need to provide opportunities to enter the realm of uncertainty, even though it might feel uncomfortable or unnatural. Here are some possible exercises inspired from the Harvard Business Review article (her).
Find Two Solutions
Maybe you have your “go to” solution already in mind when you are coaching. But then ask yourself, what would be an alternative way of solving this challenge or situation? This might be related to working with an athlete (how could you explain a tactical move differently), but it could equally be related to writing a training (write two different programs with the same goal, to challenge your system 1 and 2 thinking). At the end of the season, you might want to try an exercise, where you plan the season using a different periodization strategy. For example, if your usual approach is 3 weeks overload + 1 week adaptation, then try to plan a season using a different strategy. What insights do you get by finding alternative solutions? Maybe some of the new insights could be applied into your daily work?
The Covid pandemic has required us to think differently. Where access to our normal facilities or usual competitions have been limited or non-existent. But even in a normal world, we can challenge ourselves by removing some options and then having to figure out a new solution that would still be successful. For example, try to plan a season where you are not allowed to attend any of the normal competitions in the build up to the national championships (or main competition). What other meets would you go to? What different advantages might you find? After completing such an exercise, you may find that you want to shake up the normal competition calendar. This exercise can be used for any scenario related to coaching.
Imagine a New Value
All training environments are guided by values that we consider to be important (even if we are not acutely aware of what those values are). As an exercise you could ask your coaching team to imagine what the environment might be like, if all the coaches prioritised for example, “the athlete as a person” during the following month. That could mean, talking to the athletes more, learning more about their families, school, interests away from their sport, and so on. Would anything change? An even simpler value to consider would be “kindness”. What would change? There is no suggestion here, that you are not being kind, rather that we push the value of kindness to the forefront. One could even try to change one value for one month in the training environment and see what happens.
Find More Facts
When evaluating situations, it is important to get as much information as possible to provide the correct context for the evaluation. In the book Good to Great, Jim Colins writes that we must look at the “brutal facts” to understand what is really going on, rather than relying on our feelings or beliefs. How often do we make coaching decisions based on “I feel”, and “I think”? For example – “I feel that this athlete is…” or “I think that the coach on the second team is not…”. Here we can challenge ourselves to find data, facts and information that can move us from intuition and over to reality.
As Soll et al., 2015 write:
Our misguided faith in our own judgment makes matters worse. We’re overconfident for two reasons: We give the information we do have too much weight. And because we don’t know what we can’t see, we have trouble imagining other ways of framing the problem or working toward a solution.
Look to discuss ideas, situations and challenges with a colleague or a mentor as a way of getting alternative perspectives on those things you are working on. This exercise requires that you firstly ask open ended questions or make non-judgemental comments. If you start a sentence by saying, “I think that John needs to improve his sprint and turning skills – what do you think?” then you have already limited the conversation. Try instead, “what areas do you think John could be better at?”. A second aspect of seeking advice is to listen and consider the responses you get. A mentor appreciates those silent moments where they can see that you are considering what has been said.
The exercises described above are designed to keep your thinking fresh – to keep nudging yourself into uncertainty, so that you do not just run-on autopilot when you coach. You do not need to employ them all every day or even every week. However, the regular use of selecting one of the exercises as a way of challenge your thinking, will help keep you sharper and more alert to why you are doing the things you normally do. These exercises are also useful tools for your coaching team – when you are talking together at practice or in a coaches meeting, throw in a challenge! Ask them, to think of (for example), another way of improving their athletes sleep behaviours or how they could teach a certain movement if their favourite equipment was not available.
Even the smartest people exhibit biases in their judgments and choices. It’s foolhardy to think we can overcome them through sheer will. But we can anticipate and outsmart them by nudging ourselves in the right direction when it’s time to make a call.Soll et al., 2015
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (1st ed.). HarperBusiness.
Soll, J. B., Milkman, K. L., & Payne, J. W. (2015, November 16). Outsmart Your Own Biases. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/05/outsmart-your-own-biases