Cognitive Biases in Coaching: The Impact Of Optimism Bias

*Originally posted on the Blog by Radius Athletics’ Randy Sherman.

Optimism Bias can lead to unrealistic expectations, disappointment and emotional turmoil for coaches who do not guard against it.

There are numerous cognitive biases – or mistakes in reasoning – humans are susceptible to. Coaches can and do fall prey to these biases as well. One such bias is the optimism bias and failure to guard against it can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment.

The optimism bias is defined as the difference between a person’s expectation and the outcome that follows (Sharot 2011). While coaches (and other leaders) may view themselves as rational and logical, there is research to suggest they are overly optimistic. All humans can fall prey to this. Ask a newlywed the percent chance their marriage will end in divorce and they will likely respond with “0%” despite the fact that divorce rates are much higher.

Further, ask the same newlywed of the percent chance that a friend’s marriage will end in divorce and they will likely respond with a much higher estimation. We are better able to estimate the probable outcomes of others than our own probable outcomes.

A closer look at Optimism Bias

Take a look at the graphic below. Can you accurately categorize your team on this continuum? Seems easy enough as you, better than anyone, know what it does well and what it does not do well.


Optimism bias would suggest that you cannot. Being passionate about a team (your own) can make you think that team will be more successful than they can reasonably expect to be. Optimism bias would also suggest you are much better able to place a rival team or a team from your conference in the correct category than your own. So why the disconnect?

In her book The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Braincognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot offers an explanation. We experience the optimism bias more when we think the events are under our direct control and influence. In other words, we believe we have the unique skills and ability to change the outcome. Examples: I will not get a divorce, because I am a good husband/wife; I will not have a wreck, because I am a good driver; I will not have a bad team because I am a good coach. There is an illusion of invulnerability which can lead to disappointment.

It is easy to see how optimism bias can lead a coach to have unrealistic expectations. If your perception of your program is off by a category (or more) you will be in turmoil when your team performs to what may be its actual ability. Your optimism led to anguish when a more realistic expectation would have led to a degree of satisfaction.

Without a sudden infusion of talent, even the best coach will have a hard time getting his or her team to rise more than one of the above categories in a given season. If your team is average you will not “coach” your way to elite in a season. Without the sudden infusion of better quality talent, coaches should not expect to skip steps on this continuum. The climb up this continuum is often gradual.

How else Optimism Bias shows up

Optimism bias can be reflected in tactical decisions as well. An offense that does not build in safeguards is not accounting for the fact that their opponent will disrupt it. Practicing in perfect world conditions reflects an unwarranted optimism that perfect world conditions will exist in competition. They won’t. It is better to prepare your team for the inevitable chaos than to cling to the optimistic belief that things will go perfect.

In his book Black Box Thinking author Matthew Syed offers a helpful exercise that could guard against optimism bias – the pre-mortem. A post-mortem is looking back at possible causes for an unfavorable outcome after the fact. What went wrong? How can we prevent it from happening again?

A pre-mortem is different and takes some imagination. Let’s say you and your staff were considering a shift in defensive playing style and you are excited about all the positives this shift could bring. You decide just before practices begin that you are going to implement this defensive change. Do a pre-mortem. Gather your staff and imagine that the season is over and this defensive idea was an abject failure. Why did it fail? How did teams attack this? List these things.

Imagine you are in a post-season meeting discussing how and why this defensive shift failed. The answers will make you aware of the tradeoffs of the shift and reveal the most important areas of emphasis to make it work. Don’t go into it assuming it will be great without considering the possibility it will not be.

Optimism bias can lead to short term thinking for the head coach in his/her first year in charge. First, it is much easier for the new coach to see the flaws in their predecessor than themselves. Again, optimism bias is strongest when we believe we have control.

Second, a high school coach taking over an underperforming varsity TEAM may optimistically believe they can win a bunch of games with some quick fixes and heavy-handed X’s and O’s. They fail to take a PROGRAM > TEAM approach. In essence they believe they can coach their varsity TEAM up more than one of these levels. The better usage of their time would have been to lay the foundation for their PROGRAM by installing a long-term system even though it may not have been the best thing for the varsity TEAM in the short term. No matter how hard you try, you will not win until you are good. Too many coaches are optimistic about their ability to guide their team to wins before they are good.

Be optimistic, but realistic

Optimism is not all bad. Without optimism entrepreneurs would not take risks and innovation would cease. Optimism motivates us to pursue goals. If we expect good things to happen we are more likely to be happy. Coaches should absolutely dream big about the heights their teams and programs can reach. But they should be more realistic (and less optimistic) about the timeline. Improvement without a sudden upgrade in talent takes time. Much like your friend who is always late because they are overly optimistic about traffic conditions, things tend to take more time than we estimate.

The purpose of this essay is not to be a downer. Sports offer a few examples of over-achievement for sure. The purpose of this essay is to help coaches steer clear of emotion turmoil. Stay out of your emotions and deal better with the realities of your coaching situation. Stay in the moment and resist the urge to skip steps in the process – something coaches always ask players to do.

Research has shown that optimism bias is difficult to avoid even when a mound of evidence is presented. Showing someone cancer rates does not cause them to adjust their estimation of the likelihood of getting cancer. As coaches we want to reflect belief to our players. It feels foreign to accept unfavorable outcomes and you should not stop seeking to improve. Dream big and aim high, but stay realistic about the time and investment it will take to get to your desired destination and set realistic goals along the way. Stay away from the emotional and hyperbolic roller coaster by detaching from optimism bias. Find a mentor or friend to self-scout your team. These are all action steps to help you avoid the impact of optimism bias.

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