Welcome back to the both-and baggage check. This series of posts is meant to help coaches (and sport leaders) check the baggage we carry: bias. If you read part one and are coming back for more—fantastic! You’ve picked up what I’ve tried to put down. No matter your life stage, background, or identity, biases are universal. Even if we hold different stereotypes, we ALL use mental shortcuts to navigate the world.
Since we all have biases we should not feel ashamed about having them. We do, however, need to be aware of these blind spots, consider their potentially disempowering effects, and commit to changing them. This work is challenging, uncomfortable, humbling, and never done.
If you haven’t read the previous post, check out part one which provides a starting point for understanding what biases are, where they come from, why we have them, and what they mean for our ability to connect with players. If you’ve only got 2 minutes to spare, screw it and skip it! Read this while you brush your teeth.
But be honest with yourself. We are in baggage-checking mode. How long are you really brushing for?
Biases are like teeth brushing.
A habit we often perform on autopilot—without realizing how long we’ve brushed or that we’ve missed a spot.
While individuals tend to form biases about people/groups related to aspects of their social identity (e.g., race, gender, and ethnicity) or personal identity characteristics (e.g., personality or interests), other cognitive biases impact our beliefs and behaviors.
Another relevant bias that shows up in coaching — as a practice and profession— is similarity bias. In this post I define similarity bias, explain when/how this mental shortcut plays out in our individual practice specifically and the coaching profession generally, and offer a few practical tips to improve our ability to connect with all our players.
What is similarity bias?
Similarity bias regards our tendency to favor people that are like us.
Have you ever coached a player who you see a lot of younger self in? How do you interact with that player? How about relative to other athletes on your team?
Let me own my biases here and give you a specific example:
I was a central defender in soccer and had about as many fast-twitch muscle fibers as a three-toed sloth.
I made the game work for me (hence the awkward smiling face in this photo –>) by thinking two steps ahead of the play. When I meet/work with younger players with similar strengths (and limitations) I can’t help but make an immediate connection with those athletes because I see myself in them. I’m automatically inclined to offer my attention, guidance, and support.
Wait —why is this bad? Isn’t coaching all about connection?
Remember biases don’t inherently undermine our coaching.
Similarities between coaches and athletes can serve to strengthen the bond between them, and coaches should leverage opportunities to do so. Moreover, from a performance and skill development standpoint, positional coaches (with specialized knowledge and experience) can be a huge asset because they’ve been there. Not only do their lived experiences earn them credibility and make younger players likely more receptive to corrective instruction, but their practical expertise can help athletes learn the complexities of competitive play.
Similarity bias gone bad
Similarity bias can go bad when coaches attend to athletes that are like them at the expense of equitably attending to and caring for all players on their team.
As youth coaches, we may be the sole coach of our teams. When we don’t have support from assistant coaches, similarity bias can detract from our ability to help all our athletes develop. The quantity and quality of attention that coaches give to their athletes can have significant effects on their perceived and actual competence (ability).
While more attention (e.g., feedback given, time spent interacting, or learning opportunities offered) does not necessarily enhance an athlete’s ability beliefs and skill development, coaching research suggests that more genuine, performance-contingent feedback; non-controlling communication; and, non-sport specific interactions from coaches support player development and well-being.
As coaches, if we have an athlete (or athletes) on our team with whom we naturally connect because of personal similarities, let’s embrace this connection while also being mindful of potential differential treatment patterns that may result if we shift our attention to that athlete at the expense of others who are likewise motivated to improve and develop as players and people.
Even if we don’t mean to “playing favorites”, the lack of care we show to other players can come off as a lack of belief in their ability or value as a person/player on the team.
Similarity bias can not only impact our interactions with current players, but also affect athlete recruitment. If we largely recruit from player development networks that we come from or are most connected to, coaches narrow their recruitment pool — and more often than not — discount minoritized players from different backgrounds with less access to the recruitment process. The responsibility to “get looks” should not just fall on players.
University of Michigan’s Baseball Head Coach, Erik Bakich, speaks to his recruitment philosophy, and ways he actively challenges similarity bias in this statement:
“I just feel that at this school, especially given its legacy, our roster should look like the United States of America.”
While college programs may have, to varying degrees, limited resources (e.g., time and finances), coaches need to take seriously Bakich’s call to make all of our sports better. Coaches can serve as gatekeepers to sport participation through the recruitment process (at but not exclusive to the college level). When we make intentional efforts to open our “recruiter’s gaze” to look at players from other areas and backgrounds—especially minority athletes who may be disadvantaged by the politics (and price) of the recruitment process — we can make sport a more competitive and equitable space.
Similarity bias in the coaching profession
Similarity bias shows up not only in our individual practice but also the coaching profession. Similarity bias can influence hiring practices within coaching— a blind spot that currently contributes to the underrepresentation of women (and other minorities) in sport leadership positions. Despite the rise in sport participation among girls since Title IX, the number of women coaches has declined.
The Tucker Center for Researcher on Women and Girl’s in Sport has done fantastic work to shed light on this paradox and gender inequity. Their research has debunked harmful myths that underline and perpetuate the lack of women in coaching such as…
“She didn’t apply”
“I didn’t know if she is interested”
“She has a strong leadership style but it comes off a little abrasive”
Notre Dame Women’s Basketball Head Coach Muffet McGraw breaks down the data and biases at play in this press conference. Bound up in the gender stereotypes about women leaders that underpin the lack of women in coaching is similarity bias: people hire people that are like them.
From a big-picture perspective, this blind spot can function to discourage girls and young women athletes from turning their passion into a career and pursuing a profession in coaching.
How can sport coaches (and leaders) keep similarity bias in check?
In part one of this series, I outlined B-E-S-T as a tool to help coaches become more aware of their biases and work to change them. B-E-S-T is applicable for challenging biases we hold regarding our social/personal identities and similarity bias.
Along with B-E-S-T, here are two practical tips to make similarity bias enhance— rather than hurt— your ability to meaningfully connect with all players and effectively lead as a coach or administrator.
- Embrace the bias!
Similarity bias can help coaches build strong connections with their athletes. If you have a player on your team who you see your younger self in, support them. Be careful, however, as you foster that natural connection that your bias does not detract from your ability to give them honest, performance-contingent feedback and equitably attend to other players—especially if you are the only coach on your team.
- Seek input from others who challenge your thinking.
This practical tip builds off of the “E” in B-E-S-T. Great leaders grow by surrounding themselves with people (players and coaches) that challenge them to think differently. Working with people who are “on the same page” feels good. Agreeable people can boost our confidence, make us feel comfortable, and are easy to work with. While we may want to surround ourselves with people who share our values and ambitions, as sport leaders we should be cautious to take up the adage, “surround ourselves with like-minded people” as absolute. Leaders (and teams) grow when they strike a balance between similarity and difference. Great leaders put themselves on their “learning edge” rather than stay in their “comfort zone”. They don’t just stick with what is familiar/similar but work with others who bring different perspectives and are willing to disagree. Disagreement, or conflict, is not inherently detrimental to a team’s development and success. Conflict can be facilitative. When we are brave and engage in difficult conversations — that promote dialogue and perspective taking — these moments can spark creativity and strengthen connection to help us be successful.