Is it possible to a view a game through fresh eyes? To sit back and let what unfolds take its course without expectation, opinion, or prediction to cloud the experience?
The extent to which we are swayed by previous behaviours, results, and the weight of history makes it very difficult, but it is possible if we work hard against the many biases that fight to feed our opinion.
The groundswell of derision against some GAA teams who are destined for an early summer holiday this year is balanced by the love-in other teams are experiencing based on a couple of good performances at the beginning of the championship.
Last week, this column spoke about the momentum killers a team under the cosh could deploy to take the heat off them for a moment or two to regroup in the middle of a game. It was not meant to suggest managers and their coaching teams should be on the chopping block because of a couple of below-par showings, as some vultures chose to think. It was merely a suggestion to help lift the fog when conditions look to worsen before they improve.
However, it does not escape the fact we appear to be quicker to look for managers and coaches to be moved on than ever before. There is little room for this Premier League-type culture in Gaelic games.
Let us not forget the amateur status that still pervades our national sports, where most inter-county managers are volunteering their services, and in a lot of cases, to their native county.
The players have a large part to play in this also, with their commitment to give a new man every opportunity to build the team in their vision. But previous opinions once again will influence the lens through which they view this change at the top. The greatest bias of them all, confirmation bias, is also the toughest one to fight against.
A confirmation bias, by definition, is the tendency of an individual to look for, perceive and favour information that confirms a pre-existing belief about a person, team, or situation.
In other words, we can choose to see whatever we want to see to feed our opinion; after all, nobody likes to be proven wrong.
For example, all it will take in the Munster final between Cork and Kerry the weekend after next is for one Kerry player to release a team-mate into space with a pin-point kick pass for most people to resign Cork to a loss because “there’s that Kerry class”, “that natural ability”.
The fact there may have been a handful of incomplete kick passes before that or that Cork may have done some equally impressive kick passing themselves already in the game, are quickly forgotten because that one play confirms a belief for many watching about Kerry’s “innate” ability.
Now, if you’re a Kerry player, you should go after that bias with everything you’ve got, to help convince yourself of your authority and potential dominance. But, if you’re a Cork player, you have to work equally hard to see the wood from the trees and not allow such moments of genius to infiltrate your thoughts about how the rest of the game is going to unfold.
Tiger Woods had this effect on players in his prime. Kilkenny also. As well as Liverpool in the 80s and Manchester United under Alex Ferguson. A couple of plays to convince the opposition that their luck was about to run as the inevitable was to happen.
Remember Fergie time?
Teams across all sport have battled with such biases for years. In rugby, the All Blacks and everyone who reports on them, want you to buy into the aura and legend of the jersey.
Yet, their opposition have to resist such intoxicating rhetoric, with teams nowadays choosing to call them New Zealand in all dispatches to help dilute the impact of the confirmation bias associated with the often all-conquering brand.
As coaches we have to be mindful even more of the confirmation bias which can underpin our opinion, but may also lead to other biases raising their unhelpful heads.
The Matthew Effect
for instance is as prevalent in sport as it is in society. By definition, it states that those who are perceived to have ability are given preferential treatment and extra support.
The good get better and the rich get richer, oftentimes not because of anything more than just additional support that creates the divide between the selected few and those deemed not worthy enough. Inevitably, as players improve with the additional support and resources, confirmation bias comes back to pat you on the back for the good decision you made in the first place, ignoring the likely oversights along the way.
Regardless of the fact that scouting has been repeatedly shown to be a fool’s errand, especially with young players, coaches have to stand strong in the face of such decision-making and be sure to develop a strong philosophy before a strong hunch.
Which leads us to The Pygmalion Effect, another powerful bias that can influence opinion based on little or weak evidence. It suggests that high expectations can bring about greater performance from an individual because of their desire to please those who believe in them, pushing them onto ever more challenging concepts, leading to effort on the task. Is this at play in Tipperary since Liam Sheedy’s return?
But while those who are perceived to have ability are given more attention and a little additional TLC, those who feel neglected will go on to experience the power of The Golem Effect. Where low expectations of an individual can lead to them performing poorly and so confirming the self-fulfilling prophecy of the confirmation bias that underpins so much of what we do and see. But what of those biases that players themselves embrace?
Such as The Galatea Effect.
This happens when a player views their ability in comparison to their peers and allows that feeling to determine and even dictate performance. Regardless of the fact that maybe they are better or worse than their peers for, yet again, a host of unseen, unreliable reasons. Such as, for the better player, being born earlier in the year, having older siblings, having a large playing space in their childhood, among others.
As coaches we can go a long way to dealing with these biases in our coaching environment in an effective way, whatever side of the bias a player experiences, but especially for those players who do not get the rub of the green.
We can encourage players who are not selected to stay strong on their dreams and not to drop their expectations of themselves. We can educate these players of the presence of bias in many of these processes so that they can rationalise the decision that negatively impacted their progression as they set about proving people wrong.
If there is power in a bias, surely, there is even more power in being aware of it, so that it can be dealt for the development of all players, not just the lucky few.