Sharing Stories and Touching Powerful Intuitions

Last year, Martin Buchheit discussed sharing research findings with coaches and players.

He observed:

The reality is that what matters the most for coaches and players is the outcome, which is unfortunately rarely straightforward with the sport sciences.

And concluded:

When it comes to guiding practitioners and athletes, instead of using an evidence-based approach, we’d rather promote an “evidence-lead” or “informed practice” approach; one that appreciates context over simple scientific conclusions.

I revisited his article after reading two papers on intuition (Jane Risen, 2016;  Daniel Walco and Jane Risen, 2017). Both papers helped me think about how we might deal with superstitions and intuitions as we connect with coaches and athletes to share our analysis and analytics stories.

Jane starts her 2016 paper with this sentence:

No attempt to understand how the mind works would be satisfying without trying to identify the psychological processes that lead even the most intelligent people to hold beliefs that they rationally know cannot be true. (p182)

Thereafter, Jane discusses the psychology underlying superstition and magical thinking and investigates the processes by which people “sometimes recognize – in the moment – that their intuition does not make sense rationally, but follow it nevertheless” (2016:183). She characterises this behaviour as ‘acquiescence’.

In her 2017 paper with Daniel, Jane extends her discussion of acquiescing to intuition. Together they tested three criteria for acquiescence. The individual:

  • Has a faulty intuition that something is more likely to happen given a certain behavior or state of the world.
  • Is aware that the intuition is irrational.
  • Is guided by his or her intuition, knowing it is irrational.

I was particularly interested in their study of fourth-down decisions in American football. The scenario they chose was:

Imagine that you are the coach of an NFL football team. Your team is locked in a close battle with an evenly matched rival. The lead has flip-flopped back and forth all game. You are currently winning 17-13 with just a couple minutes left in the fourth quarter.

You start the drive on your own 30-yard line. After three short plays, you find yourself on your 36-yard line, 4th down and 4 yards to go. There are two minutes left on the clock. You now have to make a decision. You can choose to either punt or go for it.

The scenario “was accompanied by a picture of the scoreboard and a diagram of the field offering visual reinforcements for the relatively complex scenario”. (2017:1816)

Jane and Daniel identified acquiescent behaviour for all three criteria in their American football study. They concluded “recognizing acquiescence can also guide interventions to improve decision making”. (2017:1819)

They observe “it seems that the obvious way to avoid irrationality is to teach decision makers the objectively correct answer’ but add “if someone is already aware that a decision is irrational, then teaching him or her what is rational would be futile”.(2017:1819)

Their final sentence in the paper was:

We plan to investigate interventions that go beyond helping people detect their errors and might be effective in these situations. (2017:1819)

… and, I think, closes the loop with Martin’s thoughts on sharing observations and analysis with coaches and athletes. Context matters, as do powerful intuitions … and the belief in magic.

Photo Credit

Billy’s tally at Garan Vale Woolshed (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

Wheels within wheels (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)


The photograph that introduces this post was taken at the Garan Vale Woolshed in Braidwood, NSW. The woolshed is now a restaurant but the owners have kept the old shearers’ tallies on the beams of the woolshed. Billy Thorne was a shearer at the shed for 33 years.

I really liked the idea that there is a chalk record in his own handwriting of his visits from 1936 to 1969 (my picture has half the dates). There is a superstition at play here too. On arrival, the shearer notes the year before shearing.

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