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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

The Fundamental Attribution Error of Coaching Success

The other day, I was listening to author and Australian Rules Football Coach Cody Royle's podcast, Where Others Won't, when a quote caught my attention:

“A lot of the best coaches in the world are not necessarily a function of their own ability, but a function of the environment that they’re actually coaching in."

The quote came from Simon Strachan, who works at Gain Line Analytics, a company that focuses on quantifying cohesion within team sports. Even though he was likely referring to coaches in rugby and soccer, I think the sentiment rings true in NCAA Track & Field.

Pick out the results of a recent conference track meet.

Look at the team who finished last.

There’s a tendency to conclude that the coaches of that team aren’t doing a good job. But is that the reality?

Maybe some of us have coached teams who have finished last at a conference meet. Did we do a bad job? Or were there other circumstances which led to that result?

Now, look at the team who won the meet.

If it wasn’t yours, how would you evaluate the coaches of that team?

There’s a tendency to conclude that they’re doing a good job.

Maybe some of us have coached teams who have won a conference meet. Did we actually do a good job? Or were there other circumstances which led to that result?

The fundamental attribution error runs rampant in college coaching. We over-emphasize a coach’s ability to explain the performances of his/her athletes, and neglect the situational and environmental factors that may provide a better, or at least, more complete, rationale.

That’s not to let us off the hook. It’s just to recognize that we contribute a piece of the pie, but our influence is not the whole pie.

Oftentimes, coaches aren't as good or bad as their results might suggest.

The reality is more nuanced.

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