AGC #018 - Overcoming your negativity bias

Five ideas to keep your coaching free of unnecessary pessimism

Our brains are hardwired to think everything sucks.

From an evolutionary and survival perspective, it was more important for humans to avoid negative experiences in the wider world - like getting eaten by a predator - than to find positive ones.

Bad news got you killed, so bad news came first.

This thinking pattern persists in all of us today, even if the threats are (usually) no longer about life or death.

For coaches, succumbing to your negativity bias can have undesirable consequences, especially if you don’t check how you apply it to how and who you coach. It’s an easy trap to fall into, so here’s how to fight against it.

Idea 1: Savor the good stuff

The 2021 season was the most successful (in terms of results) of my coaching career, as Liberty Field Hockey were national finalists and won a first Big East conference title.

But it was also not an especially happy time for me. Wins came with a few minutes of relief before worrying about the next game, losses prompted days of anguish and painful self-reflection.

I let my own negativity bias strip the joy from the experience.

I’m still working on my relationship with winning and losing, but ensuring I make room to celebrate the wins keeps me on a more even keel.

I’ve also always enjoyed Delaware head coach Rolf van der Kerkhof’s take on it: good or bad, you can feel it until midnight, then you move on.

Idea 2: Stay connected when things are hard

Have you ever found your internal monologue shifting towards blaming a player after a mistake that leads to a concession of a goal?

Or let your emotions get the better of you and verbally laid into your team after a preventable defeat?

You wouldn’t be human if you hadn’t, but both actions reinforce your negativity bias, dehumanize your players and put you on an island during and after games.

A productive thing for me has been to make quick connections with players individually after games about what went well, whether we have won or lost. It might be telling them how much I appreciated a big effort, re-living something cool they did, or asking them how something we’ve been working on went for them.

There’s not always time for those types of exchanges during games, but a high five or a “don’t worry, we’ve got this” goes a long way.

None of these behaviors come naturally to me, but little to no good comes from my tendency to go negative, so remembering to do them usually makes both player and coach better off.

Idea 3: Wait for the video

Hot and cold reviews both have their merits.

Debriefing something right after it has happened and it’s fresh in your mind helps things not get forgotten, but a bit of distance and time to reflect can bring new wisdom and perspective.

Too often, I’ve been overly confident in my “hot” reviews as a coach, only to find the “cold” review - after I’ve watched film of the match - proves me wrong and I have to walk back that opinion I so firmly expressed after the game.

Things are rarely as bad as you think they are in-game or right afterward, especially when you’ve lost.

Even if the video proves you right, by the time you’re able to walk through potential changes and lessons with your team, you’re likely calmer and more focused on finding productive solutions than just complaining about what went wrong.

Idea 4: Interrupt negative thought patterns

The part of the brain that’s wired for survival, the amygdala, looks for potential danger six times a second, or 21,600 times an hour.

If you find yourself ruminating on negative thoughts while reviewing an unpleasant event or outcome - for example, after a training session that went wrong, a conflictive moment with a player, or a tough defeat - try to acknowledge the thought pattern, and then interrupt it.

An easy way to do this is to redirect your attention elsewhere and engage in an activity that brings you some joy.

For me, that usually means going outside for a walk or a run, or hanging out with friends from outside hockey, but pick whatever works for you.

Idea 5: Become a “Both/And” thinker

The late Munster rugby coach Anthony Foley, who endured plenty of criticism as the coach of the province he was a decorated player for, would tell his wife, Olive: “I was never as bad as they [the media] say I was and I was never as good as they say I was.”

Getting rid of “either/or” thinking (I’m either good or bad) and replacing it with “both/and” thinking (I can be both good and bad) goes a long way to evening out your negativity bias, especially if you commit the thoughts to paper.

A simple framework I’ve used for journaling or reflection is Good, Better, Next:

  • What went well?

  • What would have made it better?

  • What do we need to do next time?

This framework forces you to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of any situation and keep things solution-oriented by noting what needs to be done or changed in the future.

Whenever you’re ready, here are a few ways I can help you:

1. Efficient Practice Design: My multi-step system for creating practice plans that will flow smoothly, stretch your players appropriately, and save coaches of all team sports dozens of hours a year, on and off the field.

2. Premium Practice Planner:  A Notion template to help sports coaches plan, deliver and review their sessions with maximum efficiency - then smartly archive everything.

3. Coach’s Dozen: An ebook of 12 small-sided games with diagrams and animations to help you train goalscoring in field hockey, co-authored with Mark Egner.