Google+ Blueprint for Football: Taking Note: Why Coaches Should Keep A Journal

Monday, June 5, 2017

Taking Note: Why Coaches Should Keep A Journal

One of the finest football books of recent years is Simon Hughes’ Secret Diary of a Liverpool Scout.  It tells the story of Geoff Twentyman who was Liverpool’s Chief Scout between 1967 and 1985, an era that was marked by the club’s unprecedented success built largely on an exceptional ability to identify talent.

What marks this book out is how it was written.  Rather than being based on the recollections of Twentyman himself (sadly, he passed away way before work on this book had started) it uses the meticulous notes that he used to take during every one of his scouting trips.

This was an extension of the practise within Liverpool’s fabled boot room of noting down different aspects of their work from training, recovery and tactical approaches in varying situations.  These dossiers eventually became the reference point whenever the club was faced with similar situations allowing them the luxury to judge whether to take a similar approach or not.

Bill Shankly took over at Liverpool in 1959 and the boot room was established shortly afterwards.  It is testament of how visionary that group of people was that the practices that they adopted are still as effective today as they were more than fifty years back.  

Essentially: every coach should be journaling regularly, documenting decisions taken and the reasoning behind them.

Never Trust Your Memory
To appreciate why that is there is the need to move away from sport and into the realm of psychology.  People act in the manner that they do because over the years their behaviour has been shaped by their own experiences.  The problem, though, is that those experiences and memories might not include all the details; they might be inherently biased.  There will be occasions when a positive result influences one’s recall of a choice or vice-versa.

Imagine if someone were to ask you to think back to a time when you missed the train and describe your experience.  The odds are that you will recall a negative experience.  This will also contaminate any future thoughts that you have and, if that same person were to ask you to imagine how you would feel the next time you missed the train then the likelihood is that you would predict a bad reaction.

All this is not conjecture but precisely what Dr Carey Morewedge and his colleagues from Harvard University found in 2005.  During their study they asked a set of people to recall the last experience of missing the train, another to recall their worst experience and another to think back three past experience.

Their findings showed that those who had been given free reign to think of one experience made the most negative prediction.  Further studies strengthened this theory that people tend to make overly positive or negative predictions if they were to rely exclusively on their memory: they fall prey to their memory bias.

This, clearly, has a number of implications in a football environment.  Let’s say that your team was thinking of bringing over a new player who has a particular character trait that might cause issues in the harmony of your squad.  If you’ve just come from a good season then you might be swayed into thinking that this too will work out well and that you’ll manage to integrate that player.

That might well turn out to be the case but, regardless, that decision was not made on the right basis.  Awareness is key to overcome any bias.  In such a circumstance, if a manager has records of previous transfers and thoughts before they were completed then he might notice instances that might be similar to his current situation.  Reading them and thinking of how they turned out would probably allow them to make a better informed decision.

It makes it harder to justify a certain decision when you have a divergent piece of evidence in front of you.

Accurate And Honest Feedback
Michael J. Mauboussin is an unikely source to find inspiration for football coaches.  He has no history with the game (as far as is public knowledge at least); he is instead the managing director and head of Global Financial Strategies at Credit Suisse and an adjunct professor of finance at the Columbia Business School.  

He has, however, also authored a number of books that look into decision making.  And it is the research that he has put into the latter that is influential

In an interview with The Motley Fool, he said, “when you’ve got a decision-making journal, it gives you accurate and honest feedback of what you were thinking at that time. And so there can be situations, by the way, you buy a stock and it goes up, but it goes up for reasons very different than what you thought was going to happen. And having that feedback in a way to almost check yourself periodically is extremely valuable. So that’s, I think, a very inexpensive; it’s actually not super time consuming, but a very, very valuable way of giving yourself essential feedback because our minds won’t do it normally.

There might not be many parallels between those investing in stock markets and people who work in football but both have one feature in common: there are strong emotions in play which might lead one to make terrible moves unless they are fully conscious and aware of what they’re doing.  That is why Mauboussin argues over the importance of noting decisions.

It is a philosophy based on a discussion with Daniel Kahneman, one of the most brilliant men of our lifetime and who gave birth to the new science of behavioural economics.  In particular, Kahneman’s work helped to bring to light a number of biases that influence people’s actions.

Many years ago when I first met Danny Kahneman…when I pose him the question, what is a single thing an investor can do to improve his or her performance, he said almost without hesitation, go down to a local drugstore and buy a very cheap notebook and start keeping track of your decisions.”  Mauboussin said in that same interview.

And the specific idea is whenever you’re making a consequential decision, something going in or out of the portfolio, just take a moment to think, write down what you expect to happen, why you expect it to happen and then actually, and this is optional, but probably a great idea, is write down how you feel about the situation, both physically and even emotionally. Just, how do you feel? I feel tired. I feel good, or this stock is really draining me. Whatever you think.

The key to doing this is that it prevents something called hindsight bias, which is no matter what happens in the world. We tend to look back on our decision-making process, and we tilt it in a way that looks more favourable to us, right? So we have a bias to explain what has happened.

Do It Yourself
While football is a simple game, the decisions made by those who coach or run a club are often extremely complex.  Often managers’ reactions during games are quasi-instinctive and heavily influenced not by rational thought but by past actions.  Unraveling why a decision was taken can be just as complex.

Writing is a way of facilitating that process.  The simple act of forcing yourself to put thoughts into words actually helps in giving them clarity and shape.

The journal that a coach maintains does not have to be a work of art.  To all extent and purposes it can be illegible to anyone but the person who wrote it.  There is no need for any jargon or deep, insightful thoughts.  Don’t feel under pressure to write something that is great, just write you’re your thoughts.

What there should be a modicum of organisation (so that when you want to look back to a particular decision you can find it with ease) along with clear, direct writing that avoids any vague thoughts.

Initially it might feel like an unnatural act, it can feel like pretentious rubbish.  Push past that resistance and eventually, after a few weeks you will come to appreciate just how important a tool this can be for a coach.

After all, if it was good enough for the likes of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

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