Becoming aware of and working to change our biases requires mental yoga. We have to be aware of our thoughts, consider assumptions underlining these beliefs, and be brave—open to perspectives that might stretch our point of view (like when your yoga instructor “invites” you to do that flying pigeon pose).
If you’re feeling the mental fatigue, that’s normal. Stay with me though. We’ve got one final mental shortcut to check: confirmation bias.
…It’s exactly what you think.
What is confirmation bias?
Confirmation biasis our tendency to seek information that supports, and disregard data that does not confirm, what we already believe. Think: conservatives who only watch Fox News or liberals who exclusively stream MSNBC. Researchers are not immune to this bias either. We replicate studies and submit results for peer review to help us “check” our blind spots—such as whether we selectively attend to evidence that confirms our hypotheses.
In general, people want to have their beliefs confirmed and are less inclined to critically evaluate their own viewpoint. While this tendency is not inherently harmful, a lack of motivation or openness to gather new information from varied sources about a person/situation can be problematic. This is especially the case when our existing beliefs are less, or not at all, accurate. For example, confirmation bias can undermine our coaching when we make initial judgments about an athlete’s ability based on incomplete information and become increasingly more fixed in our beliefs. In doing so, we may fall short of recognizing players’ full potential and overlook potential changes in their actual competence over time.
Let’s consider a scenario to examine how confirmation bias might play out in coaching.
I’m watching a young soccer player for the first time and trying to get a sense for her ability. In the few minutes of play, I see her reach across her body to go in for tackles against an opposing player with the outside of her right foot. Why the outside of her right foot? She’s not comfortable using her left foot. I watch a lot of youth soccer and see this tendency a lot.
Confirmation bias might kick in when, from that first impression, I focus on moments (later in the game or practice) where this player favors her right foot and discount instances where she makes a successful, or attempted, play with her left. I selectively attend to information that confirms my earlier beliefs. Though this information may be an accurate indication that the player is right dominant and hesitant to use her left foot, I want to be careful not to dismiss her abilities entirely. I might miss out on situations when she is, perhaps without even realizing, is more comfortable using her left foot.
And, these moments are important for me to recognize as a coach because I can leverage them to help my player gain confidence and competence to use both feet. First, I can positively reinforce when she uses her left foot to support her beliefs in her abilities rather than communicate fixed attributions (e.g., “you’re a right-footed player” or “you never use your left”). Second, I can scaffold my training sessions to build off my player’s strengths as a means of working on her areas of improvement. I might start a session with what she already does well with her left foot (e.g., a simple volley) to give her confidence before gradually increasing the challenge level by varying the task type (e.g., tackling with her left foot) and intensity (e.g., speed of play).
In doing so, I can help my player gain competence and confidence to be dynamic.
Confirmation bias gone bad
Research on coaching highlights a central pitfall of confirmation bias: this mental shortcut can lead to self-fulfilling prophecy, or expectancy, effects that may undermine player development.
Self-fulfilling prophecies regard when individuals act in accordance with their expectations (e.g., initial beliefs about our athletes’ ability), and when those actions lead to outcomes that affirm our beliefs and reinforce our biases. Horn, Lox, & Labrador (2010) outline a 4-step self-fulfilling prophecy cycle for coach-athlete interactions:
Let’s apply these steps with a more concrete example. Here is another (personal) example, one that I come across in conversations with other coaches. Quick caveat: context matters. I realize that I’m giving you little in the way of context. But this general hypothetical scenario is just meant to get us thinking.
Step 1: I hold initial beliefs about a player’s coachability and work rate. My internal dialogue is: “He’s not doing what I’m telling him to do. He doesn’t listen. He seems to just go through the motions during practice and isn’t working hard.”
Step 2: I provide differential treatment according to these beliefs (i.e., this player does not listen or work hard). I instruct this player to “work harder” and “focus”. When no change in behavior results after several practices, games, and—maybe even weeks— I conclude that I shouldn’t waste my time/energy on this athlete if he isn’t going to listen. I direct my efforts toward players who I view as more “coachable”.
Step 3: Telling this athlete to work harder and listen and giving him less attention and instruction conveys my expectations about his ability. He might perceive my feedback (or lack thereof) as a lack of belief in his ability to be “coachable” and improve, internalize these low expectations, and make fixed attributions about his sport and “coach”- ability. His internal dialogue might be: “coach doesn’t think I can get better because I don’t do what he tells me to do. I must not be coachable.”
Step 4: As a result of these fixed beliefs and sense of inadequacy, this athlete continues to show these behaviors and confirm my initial evaluation: he is “uncoachable”.
We’ve all had players who we think could work harder, listen better, or be more focused. In some cases, our initial read on a player is accurate—whether our expectancy beliefs are about their motivation or sport-specific ability. Especially for my veteran coaches, I know this is not your first rodeo. You’ve watched and worked with hundreds of players. You have years of coaching experience that inform your expectancy beliefs. You likely know what to look for, what sources of information to prioritize to understand your players’ ability level and needs. And I encourage you to draw on that practical knowledge to help you form realistic evaluations of your players’ abilities (physical, cognitive, psychosocial etc).
Regardless of our experience level, however, coaches need to be prudent. We need to identify moments when confirmation bias might creep into our practice. We can do so by thinking critically about how we engage and interact with our athletes as we form evaluations about their motivation and developmental potential. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that an athlete is lazy or unmotivated, we might pause and ask questions rather than fix attributes (“lazy” or “uncoachable”) onto the athlete:
Why is this athlete not listening to me?
What supports, or thwarts, this athlete’s motivation?
What specifically does this athlete need from me as the coach?
How might I contribute to their (lack of) understanding about their role?
Maybe this athlete is struggling with some family or school-related issues and is stressed. He shows up to practice and rather than sport being an outlet for him, he’s exhausted. Sport isn’t an escape. Practice and games add to the pressure.
Maybe he doesn’t understand what you want him to do. He is not simply “uncoachable”, but needs (or better said, you need to give him) more time to process and apply your instruction.
Or, maybe you have not clearly explained the “why”—the importance of his positional role or purpose underlying the structure of training, an activity, or your corrective feedback.
Overcoming confirmation bias
There are lots of questions we can ask ourselves—or even better ask our athletes! (A great way to start the season is to ask your athletes: What can I do as a coach to best support your learning and motivation? And, what is something you think I should know about you that I wouldn’t otherwise?)
Guarding against confirmation bias requires that we gather and consider information (as we work with players over time) from outside our viewpoint that might stretch our expectancy beliefs. That doesn’t mean we change our perspective, we just need to be willing to consider other information.
We need to be proactive in doing so because the power dynamic between coach (teacher) and athlete (learner) naturally inclines coaches—myself included— to focus on what the athlete can do better or is lacking in terms of effort and performance.
But we need to consider the whole situation—ourselves included. Rather than center our focus solely on the athlete, we need to also acknowledge the ways we contribute to the situation. We need to find a balance between being demanding and understanding.
It’s a both-and. Not an either-or.
We can BOTH set, communicate, and hold athletes to high standards AND recognize how we contribute to, for better and worse, our athletes’ efforts to meet those standards. If our aim is to help athletes become the best version of themselves, we need to check our confirmation bias. We need to be as critical and demanding about our coaching practice as we are about our athletes’ performance.