Confirmation Bias: Performance Training Kryptonite

Selective thinking could be another way to describe the phenomenon of Confirmation Bias. Whereby, people begin to look for or confirm their own beliefs and ignore or undervalue information which may contradict their views or beliefs.

Essentially, people would rather avoid the possibility that there may be alternate views on a topic, think religion or politics, and therefore look for any and all information, which supports their view. Some will search and search until they find a glimmer of hope that confirms their view.

People do not want to be wrong. Or, alternatively be told they are wrong.

In a training sense, confirmation bias can be performance kryptonite.

From an athlete perspective, Athlete X achieved a high level performance using “???” system and training with “???” coach, therefore Athlete Y believes if they perform the same workouts with the same coach etc they can expect the same results. From a coaching perspective, the coach may use a short to long approach with their sprinters, yet many are injured or just not performing well. However, one athlete is continually performing well and setting PR’s in training and competition. The coach ignores the other 10 athletes whose performance has nose-dived. The ONE athlete with a high-level performance has confirmed that the short to long approach to training is the way forward. It’s bullshit training with rose-coloured glasses on.

Selectively searching for the answers to confirm what you want to find is foolish. As James ‘the thinker’ Smith frequently reiterates; experience does not trump knowledge. There is no doubt that experience is the guiding light in many facets of coaching and training. However, without using or accessing all forms of knowledge available, instead neglecting that which is in direct opposition, is once again foolish.

When athletes change coach or move to a different club/team/training squad, there can quite often be a spike in performance from the previous season, or a resurgence in form. I do not necessarily believe this has anything to do with the coaching (it may well do however). As the saying goes, a change is as good as a holiday. Often the change in training/structure/environment is enough of a stimulus to elicit a higher performance than the previous season. The athlete may well hold a confirmation bias on the setting they have moved to; they WANT IT to work. And so it does (for a while anyway).

The human body is a dynamic ecological system with many subsystems contributing to the ultimate performance output. Suggesting System A + System B = System C is too simplistic. The body is too complex. There are too many variables, which will ultimately disallow this from occurring. Gold dust in the river does not mean the gold rush is back. It just means there is gold dust in the river. There are no absolutes in training. Training interventions will suit some athletes and be a detriment to others. Searching for case studies with small sample sizes to confirm your system is working is asking for trouble. Undervaluing less common or alternate training interventions also shows a lack of understanding.

Programmes are good. Systems are better. Principles are the key.

If the training principles are well implemented and adapted upon reaction(s) from the athlete then a level of performance should be evident.

Confirm your views with knowledge of the whole context. Don’t cherry pick a performance to make yourself feel good. Avoid the Kryptonite.

Coaching is all about relationships

Coaching is all about relationships. Period. There really is nothing else. Athletes will not listen or buy-in to coaches’ they have not formed a connection with.

The past week has been perhaps the most traumatic week of my life. As a coach, it really made me realise the impact you can have on your athletes. I guess it is something you always hear, you are shaping the lives of the people you work with, however up until this week I really didn’t take much notice of sentiments such as this. I would not say I was ignorant to the fact that this happens; more so that someone had been so impacted by the encouragement, support and confidence which I had attempted to impart on them. It hit me right in the face! Coaching young (or old) people truly is a privileged position.

Reflecting back on my days as an athlete; the times when I didn’t enjoy it was due to a breakdown in the relationship with the coach. I think in the past year or so, I suspect as all coaches go through, I’ve realised it’s much more than just the X’s and O’s. At times, like all coaches, I was immersed in textbooks. I think you need to be. But this is only Step 1 of a very long journey.

It’s not what you know; it’s what you can get your athletes to do.

Without a coach-athlete relationship built on trust, communication and understanding, you have nothing. The relationship you have with each athlete will be different, but you really need to know them better than just their stat line or how much weight they can push. You need to find a way to establish a connection and continue this connection over time. If this begins to fade, not only does the performance suffer, but the relationship begins to deteriorate rapidly. I’ve experienced this both as the athlete and the coach. It sucks.

To all coaches, keep creating strong connections with your athletes, listen to what they have to say, and support them in which ever way you can. You are having a much larger impact on these people than you will ever know.

They don’t care how much you know; until they know how much you care.




If you, or you know of someone suffering from mental health issues, please contact Beyond Blue for support.