Most of us have heard the label “fake news” applied to some information source in the past few years. On the other hand, social media clickbait-journalism has made use of phrases such as “science says”  or “research study finds” to add backing to sensationalist claims. While issues such as climate change and vaccinations gather most of the press online, anyone involved in sports knows that coaching methodology is as fierce a battleground as any. Today I’d like to talk about something called identity-protective cognition and how it affects our development as coaches.

The jumping-off point for this research was the question of why people can be so spectacularly misinformed. Initially it was thought that these silly ideas were the result of good old-fashioned stupidity – not stopping to think twice. Researcher Dan Kahan, however, thought there might be more to the story. He gave people a test called the Cognitive Reflection Test which asks questions such as “if a bat and a ball cost $1.10, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?” The theory was that misinformed people would score lower on tests like this. Shockingly, this didn’t bear out in his research. It turned out that the misinformed were no worse at reflecting. (Kahan 2012; Kahan, 2017).

Let’s take an entertaining example that we can probably all agree on – flat-earthers. The easy answer as to why they believe something so silly is that they looked out the window, saw flat ground and left it at that. Ironically, that explanation is also simplistic. The truth of the matter is that most of us learned a little bit about physics, gravity, and some corny mnemonic about the order of the planets fifth grade and haven’t thought much about it since. The flat-earthers going to conferences and posting conspiracy videos on Youtube have likely consumed more information on the topic than we have.

So when and why doesn’t additional information clear up misconceptions? “When individuals apprehend—largely unconsciously—that holding one or another position is critical to conveying who they are and whose side they are on, they engage information in a manner geared to generating identity-consistent rather than factually accurate beliefs” (Kahan, 2017). Let’s imagine a flat-earther named Larry. Larry was born into a flat-earth family, makes a living speaking at flat-earth conferences, and met his wife at one of these conferences. No matter how much he researches it, Larry’s mind will protect him from seeing evidence for a round earth because the consequences of losing his family and livelihood are overwhelming.

What we can learn from this is that the coaches who ignore the research on skill acquisition probably aren’t idiots – they just have too much to lose. In some cases coaches fear they will lose their employment if they don’t align with traditional methods, but in keeping with our theme let’s be skeptical of the first explanation that presents itself. There may be some top-down pressure from clubs and parents for coaches to look like they are “in command” or organized in some mechanistic fashion, but I don’t think this can account for all the contention.

What, then, triggers the identity-protective cognition mechanism when it comes to coaching? My feeling is that the roots of this are deeper than a coach’s career as such. See, before anyone identifies as a coach, they identify with the sport itself. The coach’s success is subconsciously seen as a validation not only of the coaching methods endorsed, but of their whole body of experiences in the sport. Let me say that again. Coaches refuse change not because they are such strong proponents of dribbling through cones, but because they see their coaching style as an expression and validation of their connection to the game. At this level we’re talking about formative experiences; the devastation of being cut from a team, the bus or car rides to games, the mind-numbing ecstasy of jumping up and down as a unified whole after winning a championship, life-long relationships and rivalries. Is that enough to trigger identity-protective cognition? Hell yeah.

Take the average professional youth soccer coach. Assume they’ve played up to some level (even professionally) and then taken up coaching. The natural template for them to use is their own earlier experiences in the game. What they are attempting to re-create in “their” players is not just a skill level, but a whole way of approaching the game, much of which they aren’t consciously aware of. When these pawns offer a favorable reflection, the coach identifies with them to the point of embodying their movements during games.

Furthermore, national or cultural identities often thicken the stew. Coaches from historically successful soccer nations often assume they must have a superior understanding of coaching by merit of their ethnicity. Coaches from less successful cultures may feel additional pressure to prove themselves. A question of pedagogy then turns into an unproductive debate in which a single coach feels the burden of representing their entire culture.

For these reasons, coaching education that stays within the confines of the sport itself is doomed to fail. The problem exists at a more fundamental level of teaching and learning. If learning is a 1:1 linear information transfer from teacher to pupil then the identity of the teacher (including experiences and abilities as a learner or performer) is wrapped up in the success of the pupil and identity-protective cognition will prevail. Because this mechanistic paradigm is implicitly held by our culture, educating coaches at the level of session planning or sideline behavior is insufficient.

The depth of these beliefs is best illustrated by an old joke. A man consults a therapist because he is troubled by a delusional belief that he is not a man, but a seed of grain. After some time, the therapist succeeds in convincing the man that he is, in fact, a man and not a seed. Several weeks later the man rushes back in frantically reporting that he saw a chicken and was afraid that it might eat him. “My good sir, I thought we had established that you are a man, not a seed”, the shrink says. “Well of course I know that”, the man exclaimed, “but how can I know that the chicken does!”

In a similar fashion, many coaches have earned high-level licenses and become well-versed on the tactical nuances of the game without ever stopping to address deeper beliefs about learning and teaching. It isn’t so much that coaches consciously identify with the outdated pedagogies – they are not usually even consciously aware that they hold them – it’s that anything challenging their perceived influence in the sport is dangerous to their identity.

This means that traditional pedagogies based in information processing theory have a head start for two reasons. First, they are aligned with the reductionist and cartesian/split approach of the cognitive sciences that most people take for granted. Second, the pressure on coaches in these systems fosters identity-protective cognition and makes them less open to change. Clearly, coach educators have their task cut out for them.

One of the many pros of nonlinear pedagogy is that the focus on the individual differences of learners and manipulation of constraints reduces the likelihood that coaches feel their team’s success and failure is directly linked to their identity. With this initial hurdle cleared, coaches are far more able to honestly evaluate their own effectiveness and continue learning.

Kahan, Dan M., Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study (November 29, 2012). Judgment and Decision Making, 8, 407-24 (2013); Cultural Cognition Lab Working Paper No. 107; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 272.

Kahan, Dan M., Misconceptions, Misinformation, and the Logic of Identity-Protective Cognition (May 24, 2017). Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper Series No. 164; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 605; Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 575

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