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Mental errors in soccer

Image: U.S. Military Health System

Image: U.S. Military Health System

Plenty has been written about the role of cognitive bias in sports. Much of it, however, is theoretical. Having worked in soccer for six years now, I’ve experienced the effect of several biases – and other mental errors – directly in my daily interactions. I thought it might be helpful for other decision-makers in soccer to hear about some of these errors in a real-world setting. Here is a short and doubtlessly incomplete list. I’ve coined some of the terms myself, so expert readers may know some of these phenomena by other names.

Prejudice. Simple, old-fashioned prejudice is alive and well in soccer management. “Players from Country X are all Y” is something I’ve heard several times in recruiting meetings. Even if this statement about players from Country X were true in general, it would only be useful as an initial filter. When assessing a specific player, it’s much more important to look at the merits than to fall back on stereotypes.

Anchoring. Sometimes a player is typecast based on events that occurred years ago. Once a colleague dismissed a player under consideration because he had coached him as a youngster. Usually this kind of first-hand information is the gold standard, but in this case it was out of date. A background check suggested that the player had evolved physically and emotionally in the intervening years. Another time, a player was rejected because he had failed to perform the first time he left his home country’s league. Again, a deeper dive showed that this experience had been a wake-up call for the player, and he had changed his lifestyle, attitude, and training habits in order to get another chance. In each of these situations, an uptick in the player’s data motivated the additional research.

Overoptimism. Every signing and tactical decision has upside and downside risk, yet sometimes decision-makers ignore the downside. For example, a coach whose team was drawing a match against superior opposition midway through the second half saw an opportunity for a famous victory. He put on attacking substitutes and changed his formation, but by opening up the game he ended up getting blown out and destroying his players’ morale. As anyone who has worked inside a club can say, maintaining positivity and aggressiveness throughout the season is a huge priority. That doesn’t mean we can completely ignore the possibility of bad outcomes. In coaching and recruiting meetings, it’s crucial to be realistic. We can’t always assume that what we want to happen will actually happen. It may help to acknowledge that bad outcomes – like some types of injuries – may be beyond our control. If they’re nobody’s fault, it’s easier to consider them and still stay positive.

Reactiveness. The last match is always freshest in our minds, but it’s critical that we avoid overweighting the last match in our decisions. I worked with a coach for a while who, if he lost, would change his back four for the next match. If he won or got a respectable draw, he’d keep the back four the same. Not only did this system create a lot of disruption and uncertainty in the squad, it wasn’t really based on the fundamental abilities of the players. It’s usually better to know the squad thoroughly, pick what looks like the best XI and formation, and stick with it. Things won’t always gel immediately, but chopping and changing can make it harder to forge the connections that lead to the best performances.

Active confirmation bias. I’ve distinguished this phenomenon from plain vanilla confirmation bias because of a situation I experienced. An executive was keen to sign a player whose metrics were mediocre at best. He asked about every aspect of the player’s game, searching for something positive. When I finally offered one aspect where the player looked roughly average, the executive seized on it – he had what he wanted, and the conversation was over. He didn’t just show bias in assessing the data presented to him; he actively sought new data to confirm his bias.

Defensive isolation. When the pressure is on, and a decision is make-or-break, very few decision-makers in soccer will trust anything except their own instincts. If they’re going to go down, they’ll go down on their own terms, because of the weaknesses of their own methods and ways of thinking. So at the time when a decision should be the most collaborative and consensus-driven – in order to reduce risk – an executive may decide to take the decision entirely upon himself. This can be a general outlook as well. I once had a club official tell me that he wanted to “make his own mistakes” in the transfer market. But the mistakes wouldn’t be his own at all; tens of millions of dollars were in play, and many more people at the club would suffer if he erred. His comment, though apparently harmless, was either willful ignorance or pure conceit.

Association error. When someone is very good at one thing, there is a tendency to assume that he or she will be very good at other things as well. I’ve seen this in how executives view coaches: a good tactical coach is often assumed to be a good recruiter, though there’s not always enough basis for that association. Indeed, a skillful coach for defending may not even be a skillful coach for attacking. Owners may fall into the same trap even when assessing their own skills; someone who’s made millions in business may decide that he or she might be just as successful in scouting players through video clips. Some things are best left to the experts.

I’m closing in on 900 words and could probably write another 9,000, so I’ll stop here.