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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

What a Poker Player Can Teach a Distance Coach

I'm sitting in a hotel room in Las Vegas.

So let's talk about poker.

Well, kind of.

I've never been a poker player myself, but one of my favorite books is called Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts. It's written by Annie Duke, who was once a PhD student studying cognitive science before becoming a professional poker player. The book is about how the lessons of being a great poker player are transferrable to better decision making in many walks of life.

While there's many threads explored in the book that are worth pulling on, I want to focus on two biases that Duke believes are some of our greatest hurdles to making good decisions.

The first is called the self-serving bias. Basically, we attribute any good outcomes to good decisions, and any bad outcomes to bad luck. Consequently, we ignore the possibility that we made a bad decision. (I would also argue that pessimists can have the opposite problem. Good outcomes are attributed to luck, and bad outcomes are attributed to bad decisions. But those aren't typically the people who show up at the poker table…).

I've made reference to this in a previous blog, but consider a time when your team won a meet. Did you accept that you may have gotten a bit lucky? Or was it all attributed to the hard work, good decisions, and preparation you and your team did? Now consider a time when you lost. What was the prevailing thought then? Oftentimes, I feel like it was bad weather, adverse travel, athletes who got injured, or some other external factor that is difficult to control. In both scenarios, it's not to say that are reasons are false. The reality is just usually more nuanced.

This is all natural, by the way. It's called a "self-serving" bias for a reason. It protects the ego.

The second bias is motivated reasoning. That's our tendency to only pay attention to evidence that confirms what we already believe. Conversely, it also causes us to actively try to discredit evidence to the contrary. In a way, the self-serving and motivated reasoning biases are linked, but I think about the latter more often when it comes to training.

This thought also has made an appearance in a recent post, but when I first started coaching, I was out to prove that what I was prescribing worked. I also mistakenly attributed the poor performances of others to training that ran counter to what I believed in. A few trips through the USTFCCCCA Coaches' Convention would seem to indicate that I'm not alone in falling into the trap of this bias.

Soon, I came to realize that there's no universal secret sauce - that humans are nuanced, that programming is situational, and that there's far more individual filters of adaptation than we can fully understand.

All in all, just as these biases wreak havoc at the poker tables, they can also impede development as a coach. Though I don't know if they can ever be fully eradicated, awareness seems like a good first step.

In her TED talk on the subject, there's a quote that Duke recalls that sums it up well.

"The biggest risk," She says, "is that you have a losing strategy when you think you have a winning one."

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