This is somewhat of a follow-up to my last piece on evidence based training. What I’m describing here today is an interesting trend I’ve noticed over my years of coaching. I’m calling it the Simon Cowell Effect after the entertainingly blunt talent show judge. This is more of an anecdotal observation, but I’d guess there would be a fairly large effect if it were to be researched formally. I’d also guess that it applies to much more than sports coaching.

Ok, here’s how it works. People lie a lot. People usually lie to cover up negative truths and avoid conflict. We are somewhat aware that this is how things work because we all partake in it to some extent. Because of this, we automatically assume the truth is usually more negative than what is presented. This is why we find characters like Simon Cowell so refreshing and entertaining. He cuts through the niceties and tells it how it is – absolutely terrible! No sugar coating or participation trophies here.

This is not the Simon Cowell Effect, though. The Simon Cowell Effect is the general assumption that something that feels harsher must be more true even when it’s not. It’s a reasonable line of thinking given our inability to confront difficult truths. Try these two positions on for size and see which one feels more honest, mature, and in touch with reality.

  1. We have met our goal to cut world poverty in half by 2015 ahead of time.
  2. We are facing a global food shortage that will see half of developed nations fall back into extreme poverty by 2050.

Now, the first statement is true and the second one is false, but if you’re like me it doesn’t feel that way on a gut level. The first statement feels like some kind of rose-colored glasses. The second one feels mature and responsible to me. That must be the truth because people would want to make things seem more positive than they are. Someone presenting the first position will have to fight against being seen as a Pollyanna or safe-space snowflake. Someone presenting the second position is backed by the weight of this effect. It feels like they’re braver and more honest.

What does all this have to do with coaching? Well I’ve noticed a tendency for parents and even some coaches to assume that the coaches who “tell it how it is” with a constant stream of loud verbal feedback must be more in charge of the developmental process. A coach who says that youth players learn by playing games that represent performance environments is at risk of sounding soft and “positive” even though they are supported by the research. Telling a player they made an awful touch sounds more honest than adjusting the dimensions of the playing field.

Parents who see their children developing well in a more hands-off approach are usually surprised. They usually wonder why there aren’t more lines or why I don’t harp on tactical roles early in the season. To them it looks like chaos. To the kids it feels like learning. I’d also like to point out that this isn’t some abstract moral victory. Evidence based training creates stronger players and teams. My experience has been that even when these teams are winning (as in having scored more goals at the end of the game) observers are usually still confused.

Personally, I think this goes back to the historic emphasis on organization and replication of ideal movements in sports. As I mentioned previously, this was leftover from physical education programs intentionally preparing children for military service, not skill acquisition. Still, it’s hard not to think of these antiquated practices as being proper and effective.

The irony of all this is that it often takes more courage to present a view that appears more positive or passive. The Simon Cowell Effect biases us towards positions that feel braver because they are more negative.  Actually having the bravery to push past these types of cognitive biases is the doorway to developing a methodology that leads to results, not impressions.

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