Imagine this scenario: you coach two players who compete for a starting spot at right fullback.

In the past four pre-season matches, both players have had equal playing time, and each has started two out of the four matches.

One of the players – let’s call him player “A” – has played well overall in the first four matches, but in two of those matches, he has made one critical mistake which has led to the opposition scoring a goal.

The other player – player “B” – has been less consistent overall in match play – making more errors than player “A” – but has made no errors which have led directly to goals scored by opponents.

When examining the total number of mistakes – including technical and tactical/decision-making errors – player “A” has made in the past four matches and comparing this to the average number of mistakes made by the team, you see that he has consistently made fewer total mistakes than his teammates, including player “B”.

Your next match – the first of the regular season – is in two days, and you are trying to decide who should start at right fullback.

Based on the above information, you should be able to see past the few mistakes made by player “A” – anomalies occurring within his normal, consistent performances – and choose him as your starting right fullback.

But, somehow, you just can’t shake the feeling that this player will make another crucial mistake and cost you points, so you go with player “B” even though he has been less consistent and is clearly more mistake-prone than player “A”.

You can be forgiven if this scenario sounds familiar.

In Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project, the author tracks the friendship and research partnership of two of the 21st century’s greatest psychological and mathematical minds, Israeli scientists Danny Khaneman and Amos Tvesrky.

Their pioneering work on what they termed Decision Theory helped to dispel a lot of commonly held beliefs about the ways in which people make decisions, and has been used in many different fields, including economics, the military, and sports.

Among the key concepts of Decision Theory was the determination that people often leap from little information to big conclusions.

That is, we come to conclusions about things – including people – based on small, insignificant things we  observe about them.  We typically assign “weight” – or, meaning – to things in a way that is disproportionate to their actual weight or meaning.

This isn’t even really our “fault” – we evolved to be almost completely reliant on the irrational part of our brains, and we had to be this way in order for us to survive as a species.

In modern society, however, things have changed.

Reliance on our instincts – although it may have served us well for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers – leads us to consistently make decision-making errors in our every day lives, and this includes the decisions we make when coaching soccer.

Even the top soccer executives and coaches – who really should know better – are prone to the same types of decision-making errors.

In a recent article in the Economist (Football talent scouts become more rational, July 19th, 2018) researchers analysed the amount of money top European clubs have spent in recent years on players who performed extraordinarily well in the FIFA World Cup.

The most recent example in their analysis was James Rodriguez of Colombia, whose contract with Real Madrid – following an excellent performance in the 2014 World Cup – was worth a 80 million, but whose estimated worth according to consultancy company 21st Club, was les than ½ of that value.

Their findings indicated that clubs have consistently and significantly overpaid for players who overperformed in the World Cup – that is, played better and scored more goals in that tournament than they had with their clubs in the years leading up to it – and that, despite well-documented history of the unreliability of the tournament to predict the long-term performance or success of its star players, some clubs continue to make the same mistakes, over and over again.

In short, even at the top level of the sport, clubs over-pay for players who aren’t valuable and under-pay – or don’t pay altogether – for  players who are.

Armed with this evidence about our potential predisposition to come to the wrong conclusion(s) about players when coaching, what can coaches and fitness coaches do to change it?

The first step must be to become aware of this predisposition in the first place.

A great second step would be to start to use a more analytical approach in the assessment of players’ performances.

To avoid becoming unnecessarily swayed by a few mistakes made a by a particular player (like player “A” from our example) take note of all of the actions players make, and categorize or group them according to certain metrics.

For example, start by separating all of the attacking, defending, and transitional actions of each player.  Next, categorize these actions based on whether they were “successful” (did the player retain possession of the ball, or make an accurate pass, for example); “unsuccessful” (did the player lose possession of the ball or make an inaccurate pass, for example); or “neutral” (was there no benefit to either team resulting from the action).

When the process of evaluating players’ performances becomes more analytical and objective, there will be less room for subjective bias to creep in.  Ultimately, coaches who are driven by data, rather than emotion, will have a greater chance of achieving long term success, regardless of the level at which they compete.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.