The Seduction of Certainty

By Tim Nash:

I came across a phrase the other day that caught my attention, and it got me thinking about a trap into which coaches easily fall.

After a little bit of success, loosely attributed to some correct decisions, coaches can start feeling pretty good about themselves. And that’s the point where the coach is susceptible to falling victim to the condition I read about. It’s called “The Seduction of Certainty.”

Seduction of certainty immediately reminded me of a coach who was so dead-set in his way of doing things – even when there was ample proof it wasn’t working – he was described as someone “Who was not always right, but never unsure.”

Coaches who have been seduced by certainty are very likely to ignore the type of objective data DRIVN provides, the value of which I’ve written about here and here.

The positive aspect of never being unsure, is you must have plenty of confidence to behave that way. Confidence is good, but not if you are constantly sure you made the right choice when all the evidence says you didn’t. Instead of seeing the real reasons for failure, you find other things and other people to blame – the players, the referee, the field, the weather.

I decided this whole certainty thing was interesting and thought I’d look into it more. I came across an article on Scientific American by Robert Burton, the former chief of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco-Mt. Zion hospital. He recently wrote a book, On Being Certain, that explored the neuroscience behind the feeling of certainty, or why we are so convinced we’re right even when we’re wrong.

“There are two separate aspects of a thought — the actual thought, and an independent involuntary assessment of the accuracy of that thought,” said Burton.

So, coaches who have been seduced by certainty will assess their decisions and decide they were correct, even if it’s obvious they were not.  

It seems coaches who are never unsure, are missing one of the most enjoyable aspects of coaching – learning what works and what doesn’t and why.

To avoid the seduction, every once in a while coaches need to say to themselves, “Well, that was stupid.” And it can be important to tell your players why you were stupid. Why shouldn’t they learn the same lesson you did?

Here’s a recent example of me being stupid: I was coaching my team of 14U girls in a tournament. We were doing well, but we were a bit short-handed for a four-games-in-two-days tournament. I was certain we would wear down at some point. I was right. I was also certain that a simple adjustment to our formation late in games would solve the problem. I was wrong.

I made the adjustment late in the championship game with a 2-1 lead. As soon as I did, I sat down, basked in my genius, and settled in to watch the last 15 minutes. Guess what? Lost 3-2 in overtime.

I was seduced by my own certainty. I related this story to our Director of Soccer who said, “I find that in general young female players do not react well to two things that took place here.  First, changing shape mid game.  Even if the girls have done both in previous games, they just don’t react well to change.  Second, until they are about 16, they don’t react well to changes in momentum, good or bad.”

It occurs to me that I made a decision I was certain would work. It made me feel better, but made the players feel worse.

Of course, coaches have to be confident in their decisions, and more importantly their ability to make them. But there is a fine line between being confident and being stubborn and so sure of their own wonderfulness that they ignore evidence, facts, advice and constructive input.

“We need to recognize that the feelings of certainty and conviction are involuntary mental sensations, not logical conclusions,” says Burton. “Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.”

And the ability to feel certain about our own stupidity is helpful as well.

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