Episode 48: Mental Biases (with John Kiely)

Developing high-level performance is not an easy thing. There’s a hugely complex mess of factors and science has taken a simplistic approach that, in the end, does not always provide us with the answers we need and we are left to fill in the gap ourselves. In light of our upcoming seminar with Irish coach and academic John Kiely, on this episode we sit down with Kiely to discuss one of the topics he will be presenting on: what are the mental biases we confront when trying to fill the gaps.


This episode is brought to you by our upcoming seminar in Ireland with me and John Kiely on May 14th. I will dig deeper into this topic with a section on feedback and testing, with practical case studies from how elite coaches implement best practices in their own training. You can learn more about the seminar and sign up here. And Nick and I will be in England on June 11th to present on long-term training solutions and athlete development. More information about that event is available here.

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The list of biases is long covering such things like the desire for conceptual closure and clarity, the inadequacies of human memory, group-think, over-confidence based on perceived past experiences, and more. They all greatly affect how we consider and action our training plans. Knowing them is the first step in making our own decisions better.

“If we’re going to do the best job we possibly can, we need to be aware of these little cognitive shortcuts and mental biases that we have to justify what we want to be true. Once we are aware of them we have to take steps to overcome them.”

You need to know the mental biases so you can take steps to overcome them. Click To Tweet

To start with, we discussed confirmation bias:

“Initial periodization science is really based on how humans in the mid-20th century thought was the best way to plan. We fit our scientific rational around that logic and gave it a veneer of scientific validity that doesn’t exist. Did they have their mind made up first and retrofit the science to justify what they believed? You’d have to think that was the case . . . If I constantly look for reasons to validate the program, I will find it everywhere.”

Be wary of confirmation bias. 'The one person we all agree with is ourselves.' -@simplysportssci Click To Tweet

“We look at the success stories. What you don’t see evidence of those that failed. You can change infrequently with a large course correction, or change frequently with a small course correction. But first you have to see there is a need for a change.”

You also have to walk manage to stay confident, so that your athletes have faith in your programming, while at the same time constantly analyzing your own effectiveness and finding a way to change without undermining the faith of our athletes (which small course corrections help out with):

“The humility you need to make good judgments is not necessarily self-doubt; it is intellectual humility. It is knowing you have a small brain facing a hugely complex problem. You can say you are smart and still admit you are not smart enough to face something and be accurate all the time.”

Another big bias is groupthink:

“When we reevaluate, what we often do is we ask other coaches we respect to comment on our programs. But obviously the coaches that we respect the most are the coaches that kind of agree with us, so we are not getting unbiased analysis . . . We all think we’re open minded because it is in our interest to convince ourselves we are open minded.”

'We should seek & expect disagreement. We don't do that because it's hard.' -@simplysportssci Click To Tweet

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Listen to the full episode for more or subscribe now on iTunes.

Further Reading

The following links were referenced in the podcast or provide some additional reading material on the topic:

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