Here today, gone tomorrow: Action bias, coaching and the scarcity of time

Time, that is one of the things that Mark Boucher stated that his team needs during a press conference held in November 2020 as the Proteas prepared to face England in a limited overs series. Boucher said that going forward, the Proteas were implementing a structure that needed a little bit of time as the players transitioned to the new brand of play that they had agreed upon.

But, time is one thing most coaches don’t get. Consider the three-year stint Mickey Arthur had with the Pakistan national team as an example.

By all accounts, Mickey Arthur, who spent three years with the Pakistan side, did not get enough time to take the team further. Arthur spent the bulk of those three years doing the hard part, building the foundation.

However, despite not getting the backing to take the Pakistan national team to the next step, he did leave it in a far better place than when he got there. With the help of his support staff, he brought in and nurtured a lot of young players who have gone on to make an impact on international cricket.

In an interview in November 2020, Mickey Arthur remarked that, “Pakistan was an emotional place to coach. You are either a king or the villain; there’s nothing in between depending on the result.”

This is not unique to coaching cricket in Pakistan. Coaches are always one win away from being heroes and one loss away from being zeroes, with multitudes calling for their immediate removal because of incompetence. The statistics available on the length of coaching tenure show that coaching or managing in competitive sports has a very compressed leadership arc.

Coaches are always one win away from being heroes and kings, and one loss away from being zeroes and villains. There is no middle ground. Click To Tweet

It always ends in tears

In Carlo Ancelotti’s book, Quiet Leadership, author Chris Brady notes that football coaches in England (2.36), Spain (1.31) and Italy (1.34) average 1.67  years at the helm. Their American Football and NBA counterparts average 3.4 and 2.4 seasons respectfully. These are very short stays in the hot seat.

Cricket is no different. In their paper titled, “Defining cricket batting expertise from the perspective of elite coaches”, Jonathan Douglas Connor, Ian Renshaw and Damian Farrow say that the duration of a coaching stint in international cricket is 2.8 years (ranging from 1.5 to 8 years).

And even though in press statements boards often choose to announce that the parting of ways was mutual, it is often the opposite. It is often sudden and brutal. “It rarely doesn’t end in tears.” This is the phrase that defines how most coaching appointments result in. Tears.

Coaching assignments often end in tears, even though they are always described as "a mutual parting of ways" by administrators. The termination of contracts is often brutal and sudden. Click To Tweet

The modern coach is always in some sort of trouble. They are under pressure exerted by boards (or owners) with unrealistic expectations, under siege from the media and fans with their numerous hashtags on social media calling for the removal of one coach, #CoachXOut. Sometimes they are betrayed by underachieving players or they have to pay the price for not selecting someone’s favourite player. It is fair to say that even though a coach’s contract states that they are a permanent head coach, they are treated as an interim coach.

When a team is going through a slump, or needs to transition from one generation to the other, administrators often go for firing the coach as the only way to make a change.

One of the main reasons why coaches have such a short shelf life is what psychologists call action bias. This is the psychological need to at least doing something when we are faced with uncertainty or ambiguous problems. Administrators often choose to rather do something than nothing — even if that something is counterproductive. Waiting for things to take their natural course, to weather the storm, feels no different to giving up. So they take action: fire the coach.

Action bias

A lot of times administrators choose to fire coaches so that they appear as if they are taking action to arrest a situation. They want to be seen to be doing something. This is action bias, taking action for the sake of taking action. Click To Tweet

Facing a penalty kick, football goalkeepers dive either to the left or to the right 94 percent of the time. In most instances, they go the wrong way. Why?

According to the results of a study by a paper published by a team of Israeli scientists in the Journal of Economic Psychology in 2008, they dive because of action bias. Led by Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer H. Azar, Ilana Ritov, Yael Keidar-Levin and Galit Schein studied countless penalty kicks and the reactions of goalkeepers for their paper “Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks.”

“They want to show that they’re doing something,” says Michael Bar-Eli, one of the study’s authors. “Otherwise they look helpless, like they don’t know what to do.”

Bar-Eli suspects that that same behavior erupts during financial crises too. And, if we look at the toilet paper hoarding craze in early 2020, when countries were faced with the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, we can see action bias in full flow.

The temptation to appear decisive — particularly when you’re being heavily scrutinized — can be overwhelming. So during periods of economic turmoil, C.E.O.’s might be tempted to change their corporate strategy, or investment managers to juggle their portfolios, even when staying put is the wisest course. “I know an investment manager whose clients will be calling him on the phone saying: ‘Do anything! Just do something! I cannot sit and look at how my shares decline!’ ” Bar-Eli added in an interview with Clive Thompson of the New York Times.

And just like Bar-Eli’s goalkeepers, boards want to be seen to be doing something, especially when things are not going well. However, a lot of times it is better to weather the storm of a slump, to see out a difficult transition period. But very few posses the mental fortitude to do so. Most simply cannot resist the urge to act.

It takes time

There is no silver bullet to transforming teams or getting on the path to good results. There is no short-cut. It is a long road, and it takes time to navigate it Click To Tweet

In introduction press conferences to announce new coaches and managers, buzzwords like fresh energy, a new brand of play, a new philosophy and culture change are thrown around. More often than not, that is what it takes instill hope and temporary relief in the eyes of many. Belief revitalized, many expect coaches to hit the ground running and produce results.

However, changes in coaching do not often result in immediate results because the same new brand of play, new philosophy and new culture all take time to take root and develop. For the most part, the coach will seem tactically inept as players yo-yo between the new direction and what they are accustomed to. Yet, these up and downs, this Jekyll and Hyde personality on the field is very natural during transition periods. It takes time before a team fully adopts a brand of play before the players take full ownership and ability.

After all, coaches achieve success in one of two ways; either inheriting a team at the peak of its abilities or if they are given enough time to build the team and take it to the next level. However, all information available shows that the longer coaches stay, the more likely they are to be successful.

Coaches achieve success in one of two ways; either inheriting a team at the peak of its abilities or if they are given enough time to build the team and take it to the next level. Click To Tweet