How to lose an argument, but think you've won: A theory on coaching conversations
October 27, 2017
A few months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine that began in lighthearted fashion. We exchanged pleasantries, as you do, asked about each other’s family, as you do, and then began the slow transition into a more esoteric conversation about our common interest – football. What transpired next was one of the more interesting conversations I have had in the last year. However, it wasn’t interesting for the reason’s you might think. We didn’t learn anything new, we didn’t make each other laugh, and for all intents and purposes – at a certain point we probably didn’t even know why we were still on the phone. The reason why it was the most interesting conversation I have had in 12 months was because my friend totally, utterly, and stubbornly disagreed with me on a topic and I totally, utterly, and stubbornly disagreed with him. The topic doesn’t really matter for the sake of this article, what matters is that the conversation quickly transitioned from one of pleasantries and “how do you do’s?” into one of curse-words and “Nope, you’re wrong’s”. As I reflected on the conversation, as I often do, I came across an idea, and a concept, that is much more interesting than the one we got up in arms about.
“Why is it so hard to have a difficult conversation? And, it’s not even the fact that it’s hard, it may just be impossible.”
The conclusion I arrived at from that conversation, and the genesis of this article, is an understanding that the world around us is becoming increasingly intolerable of discomfort. The days of debate and hard conversations are moving faster in our rearview as we speed and evolve into a society that favors political correctness over forthright questioning. In other words, it is very difficult to have a difficult conversation. But, my curiosity abounds at the thoughts about why. Why is it so hard to have a difficult conversation? And, it’s not even the fact that it’s hard, it may just be impossible. And, why is it impossible? Well, that is what this article hopes to explore.
Maybe you are reading this and simultaneously thinking that difficult conversations don’t apply to you. Maybe you have the same exact beliefs, opinions, and ideas as everyone around you. Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones that has a wife, boss, colleagues, players, general manager, assistant coach, head coach, strength coach, girlfriend, performance analyst, sports scientist, and even grandma that see the world exactly as you do. Yeah, I didn’t think so. Anyone that has involved himself in the Football Twitter world knows that insults and name-calling are prioritized over artful debate.
You see, difficult conversations are all around us. From talking to your wife about why you always have to take the trash out, to challenging the head coach of your club about his preferred playing style. The truth is that we are constantly being confronted with people that have differing opinions, outlooks, and philosophies than we do. In fact, if we look hard enough, we can find difficult conversations in almost every aspect of our lives. We can have a disagreement with our bank teller, our girlfriend, or even our neighbor; and this doesn’t even include the extremely opinionated, ego-driven, results-driven world of elite sport. For anyone that works in elite sport, you know better than anyone that difficult conversations are arguably the most common types of conversations. But still, the truth remains that none of us, and I say that hyperbolically because some do, but a lot of us don’t know how to have a difficult conversation. And by not knowing ‘how to have’ I mean a few things. One, there are the people you work with, and perhaps you are one, that avoid difficult conversations at all cost. When someone disagrees with them, they are quick to concede and admit that they are mistaken. Two, there are the people you work with, and perhaps this is you, that live for difficult conversations, but not in a good way. These are the people that when someone disagrees with them, they become angry, irrational, and irate. They crush others arguments and objections with brute force and disregard every idea that differs from their own. Finally, there are the people, and this is the minority, that approach difficult conversations with reasonable, measured, and thoughtful approaches to challenging and provoking questions, and opposing views. These are the people that are constantly open to new ideas, and the possibility that they are wrong. However, that does not mean that they are quick to concede that their idea, or belief, is wrong, but they will approach any objection in a more methodical manner. Perhaps you fit into one category distinctly, or more probably, you might see yourself in all 3 types depending on the context.
The contradictory thing about our societal fear of difficult and uncomfortable conversations is that any innovation, or improvement, in theory, philosophy, and practical application have all come from difficult conversations, or objections to someone else’s work. As an example, just look at the history of Philosophy and what transpires when one philosopher seeks to improve upon another philosophers work. A huge part of what they are doing when they improve upon someone else’s work is they go back, closely examine the arguments and assumptions that previous philosophers have made, and then they scrutinize those assumptions that don’t hold up under close inspection. This is exactly the same process that occurs in sport. The underlying mechanism that drives all of these improvements in philosophical thought and football training is difficult conversations where one person questions the steadfast assumptions and beliefs of someone else. At the culmination of these necessary disputes and hard conversations we find innovation. However, society in general, and football in particular, are growing increasingly wary of difficult conversations. Nobody wants to have them and we don’t know how to act appropriately when they do happen.
I guess before we can even talk about why difficult conversations are so difficult, we have to ask what the purpose of conversation even is. Or, perhaps more important in today’s societal construct – what even constitutes a conversation anymore? Gone are the days of two philosophers sitting at a coffee shop debating existentialism until closing time. Nowadays, the closest thing we get to enlightenment about a topic we care about is a twitter battle between a bunch of keyboard warriors, 140 characters at a time, and some guy with the Twitter handle @soccerDUDE31 calling you an idiot in response to your question. Not exactly the grounds for a philosophical discovery, or increased aptitude about a subject.
So, what exactly is a conversation? Well, a conversation is simply an informal exchange of ideas through the use of spoken words about a particular topic in the hopes of acquiring new information and an understanding about that topic. However, things seem to change when a conversation involves two, or more people discussing a particular topic with conflicting viewpoints. Anyone that has ever watched a debate, scrolled through the thread of a Twitter debate, or even taken part in an argumentative discussion with a colleague themselves, knows this to be true. Everything is great when the person on the other side of the table, or the computer screen, agrees with you. In fact, scientific research shows that people experience immense pleasure, codified by a rush of dopamine in the brain, when they process information that supports their belief.
“Confirmation bias is the human tendency to see all evidence as supporting our side of an argument – even if it doesn’t.”
This rush of dopamine has been fueling the phenomena known as “confirmation bias” arguably since the dawn of consciousness. For those unfamiliar with this brain bias, it is the human proclivity to embrace information that supports our beliefs while automatically rejecting information that contradicts it. Put another way, confirmation bias is the human tendency to see all evidence as supporting our side of an argument – even if it doesn’t.
The best illustration of this phenomena was conducted at Stanford University. For the study, researchers gathered a large group of students that split evenly on the topic of capital punishment. In other words, half of the group supported it while the other half did not. Once the group of students were organized into their respective sides, they were provided two separate research studies. One of the studies provided convincing data that supported the use of capital punishment, while the other study provided convincing data that deterred the use of capital punishment. What happened? The group of students that were pro-capital punishment found the data in favor of capital punishment very convincing, while finding the data that was anti-capital punishment as unconvincing and flawed. Oddly enough, the group of students that were anti-capital punishment had the opposite interpretation of the data – the anti-capital punishment data was convincing and sound, while the pro-capital punishment data was biased and incorrect.
The takeaway from that study, and perhaps the most comedic part of confirmation bias, is that two people with opposing views can read the same exact articles about a topic and grow stronger in their beliefs about a particular side of the argument. In other words, the pro-capital punishment students were even more in favor of capital punishment, while the anti-group grew even stronger in their deterrence. From this, we can conclude that human beings don’t respond to logic, or facts, when it comes to changing their stance on a topic. In fact, it seems as if they don’t respond to anything. What they believe is what they believe and even in spite of overwhelming evidence against their stance, they will grow even more steadfast in their beliefs. There is some literature that shows a dopamine rush that comes from this act of ‘sticking to our guns’, but it’s concerning that a simple feel good neurotransmitter can have that much control over our approach to conversations.
When we are presented with an argument that opposes our beliefs, we are very good, and I mean very good, at pointing out the weaknesses in that argument. However, we are actually blind to the weaknesses in our own argument.
Why are human beings so incredibly credulous of someone else’s argument? Why do facts, logic, and sound argument have an anti-fragile effect on our own beliefs? Anti-fragile is a concept created by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that goes beyond robustness. And please be sure, that is exactly what is happening here. People don’t just stick to their guns when presented with facts and logic counter to their beliefs, they unleash a few rounds. In other words, their beliefs get stronger.
There is another human bias called the ‘myside bias’ that might help explain this phenomena. The myside bias shows that when we are presented with an argument that opposes our beliefs, we are very good, and I mean very good, at pointing out the weaknesses in that argument. However, we are actually blind to the weaknesses in our own argument. This might help explain why we are so steadfast in our beliefs about a specific topic. You see, we take a magnifying glass to the opposing sides’ argument, but no matter how hard we stare at the points our side is making – our eyes are literally closed. As I am writing this, you might be fidgeting in your chair trying to contemplate ways in which you can change this capital ‘T’ truth about the human cognition, but the truth is that there is nothing you can do about it. Nobody is smart enough to see past it because we all do it unconsciously.
But, let’s not get too far away from what we came here to talk about today. The reason why I spent a few hundred words explaining confirmation bias and myside bias is to show one thing and one thing only – we are all irrational beings. And by irrational, I mean unreasonable. So, part of the reason why we can’t have difficult conversations anymore is because when two irrational and unreasonable beings begin talking, there is a strong probability that things will go off the rails rather quickly. But, that still doesn’t tell the whole story.
Confirmation bias, myside bias, and other cognitive biases explain why conversations about bisecting topics can become increasingly difficult. But, I think we can extrapolate the effects of these biases even further. Not only do people tend to grow stronger in their beliefs regardless of the evidence, data, or facts that confront them – people tend to leave a conversation thinking they have won regardless of how the conversation actually transpired. The reason people think they won is the same reason the students that were either on one side of the capital punishment argument, or the other, grew even stronger in their beliefs. We are literally blind to information that does not support our preconceived beliefs. So, when you begin a conversation with someone that sits on the other side of the fence from you regarding a topic – it is going to be extremely difficult to say anything that convinces them you are right and they are wrong.
We don’t break into any new ground, we don’t learn anything new, we don’t come to a new understanding about something, and that is because we refuse to consider, entertain, or conceive the possibility that we are wrong.
Now, I am not saying that this is a bad thing, or that we all need to have a long, hard, look in the mirror. I am also not saying that we should be ashamed of ourselves and we need to be more open minded, or anything like that. To recommend, or propose anything like that would be to deny the human condition. Human beings are irrational beings and these biases are so far out of our control that we can’t outsmart them, and we can’t outthink them. The reason why I have written what I wrote so far is to explain why conversations about bisecting topics tend to go the way they do. These conversations, even the ones that take place in back and forth Twitter battles, always end up in an irrational cross-section between loosely constructed facts and deeply seeded opinions. The frustrating part is that we end up getting nowhere. We don’t break into any new ground, we don’t learn anything new, we don’t come to a new understanding about something, and that is because we refuse to consider, entertain, or conceive the possibility that we are wrong.
If we look beyond our own brain biases and dig into some more conscious elements of our cognitive process, we can actually see that our beliefs and understandings that we think to be foolproof and factual, are more often than not built on a house of cards. Yale University conducted a study that tried to uncover what it is that people think they actually know. In the study, students were asked to rate their understanding of devices we use every single day like zippers and toilets. Students were then tasked with writing down, step-by-step, how those simple everyday devices actually work. Following that procedure, they were once again asked to rate their understanding of the everyday devices. As you can imagine, the study showed that toilets, and a lot of things we think we have nailed down, are much more complicated than they seem. This has been termed the illusion of explanatory depth. And, when you look for it; it can be found almost anywhere, especially in our own beliefs and ideas. In a word, people tend to think they know way more than they actually do.
Even more alarming is how our illusion of understanding creates dangerous communities of knowledge. You see, most of the time we actually develop our beliefs and, dare I say it, ‘expertise’, based on information that we get from others. In and of itself, this has fueled innovation for centuries. We would not make progress fast enough to cope with the speed at which society progresses if everyone had to spend their entire life mastering the intricate workings of a toilet. So, again, I am not saying that this is a bad thing – also, once again, I am just explaining how we actually think and create our ideas before making a bigger point. There is nothing wrong with not knowing how a toilet works, of course, unless you are debating about toilets. And this is where we get into trouble. This is a big reason why conversations become difficult and end up with people getting frustrated, upset, and calling their counter-part an idiot.
You see, the incomplete understanding by society about toilets allows us to use them thanks to the people that dedicated intensive portions of their lives to toilet-workings. However, at the end of the day, we all unconsciously assume we know how a toilet works, or a zipper, or even how a pencil is made. But, that is because we forget that these were not our ideas! We did not do the work to come up with these devices, or ideas, we are just the benefactor of them. Now, if we keep it to toilets, nobody gets harmed, but when the topic changes to sports science, tactics, football coaching methods, isolated technique training, strength training, etc., things can get bloody. However, we have to ask ourselves if we know how a toilet works, or just know someone that knows how the toilet works? Again, this is not a problem! This is the way it should be. But, it does become a problem when someone is arguing their side of a topic related to any of the fields I mentioned above without having mastered the interworking’s of a toilet; metaphorically, of course.
Now, you might think I am getting ready to say that only true ‘experts’ and ‘master’s’ are allowed to argue and debate from now on. Far from it. Coaches evolve and get better the same way we make technological advances. Some people master toilets, while others master zippers, and then we share ideas and benefit from both toilets and zippers, but that doesn’t make the zipper guy a master of toilets. Now, that doesn’t mean the zipper guy can’t explain what he has come to know about toilets to someone that thinks about toilets different from him. Hopefully you are beginning to recognize the parallels between this scenario between the zipper guy and the toilet guy and the thousands of conversations that coaches have every single day. The only difference is that we are talking about football, not toilets. But, the fact remains that most of our ideas, beliefs, and understandings are built on someone else’s beliefs, ideas, and understandings. Again, that is perfectly fine as long as we keep in mind the fact that we have an incomplete understanding of most of those ideas and beliefs because we did not discover, or iterate them, ourselves. We typically read a book someone else researched and wrote, or listen to a podcast with someone else giving their perspective based on their life’s work, or watch a training session based on someone else’s entire life proceedings and understandings. Now, we can definitely learn things from these experiences, but we will still have an incomplete understanding of somebody else’s complete, or incomplete, understanding. We develop an incomplete understanding based on someone else’s incomplete understanding, ad infinitum. And, we don’t really know where it begins, or ends. Its turtles all the way down really.
“We have an incomplete understanding about most of the things we feel we have a complete understanding of.”
The issue is that we all actually tell ourselves that we do have a complete understanding of the origin of our beliefs, but the illusion of explanatory depth shows us that we think we know how a toilet works until we have to explain it. We think we know about motor learning until we have to explain it, and not just a piece of it – all of it. We think we know about complex systems until we have to explain it, all of it, every last bit down to the understanding of genetic algorithms and elementary cellular automota. Say it aloud: We have an incomplete understanding about most of the things we feel we have a complete understanding of. Again, don’t try to think about a way to not be like this, or to escape it as the truth – it is simply how the world works and guess what? It’s perfectly OK.
As coaches, we just simply need to become more aware of this truth. If we are more aware of our confirmation bias, myside bias, and the illusion of explanatory depth, then why on Earth would we dig our heels in during a conversation amongst colleagues? What makes us think we are right, and everyone else is wrong? Confirmation bias and myside bias prove that we are irrational, but the illusion of explanatory depth proves that we don’t even know what we think we know.
The scientific research on the illusion of explanatory depth shows that our strong feelings about an issue fail to emerge from a deep understanding. However, because of this shallow understanding, we tend to seek out people that also have a shallow understanding, but that agree with us to some extent, even though their opinion is just as baseless as ours. Therefore, by cultivating this community of shallow beliefs built on shallow understandings of extremely nuanced and esoteric topics, we can all share in the pretentiousness that we are a group of omnipotent beings that are incapable of fallibility. I know I see that in myself sometimes. How many of you can think of a group of colleagues that you talk to on a consistent basis? Now, ask yourself the question about how often you sit together just confirming what each other already believe while laughing at those on the other side of the debate about how senseless and moronic they are? You see, we create these communities of knowledge, or rather ‘fake knowledge’, because they trigger that rush of dopamine that comes with the processing of information that confirms what we believe.
Just imagine a group of friends sitting at a table discussing how toilets should be made, and what color they should be, and all sorts of things related to their beliefs about toilets. Now, imagine that same group being asked to write down how a toilet works. Can you see their faces? Can you see their hands tremble as they go to grab a pen and attempt to bullshit their way through an explanation of something they thought they knew so well inside their community of knowledge? Well, that happens all the time, just not with toilets.
Once again, I must point out that I am not saying it is compulsory to know how a toilet works to be able to use one. I am simply pointing out how ridiculous it is that we have a vague understanding of most things and yet when we have a conversation with someone that has a differing viewpoint than us, we remain extremely steadfast in our beliefs despite being presented with facts that contradict what we think we know. And so, the point is that the more aware we are of our biases and the more realistic we are regarding our lack of knowledge about many of the things we think we know, the more open we can be to the idea that we are wrong. And, when we are more open to the idea that we are wrong, the more we will learn. The less baseless our beliefs will become. The more expertise we will develop.
Another hopeful result of an increase in our self-awareness is that it will allow us all to argue, debate, and converse much more effectively. When evidence flies in the face of what we think we know, it is our responsibility to concede and admit that we may be wrong. But, unfortunately, it is our default setting to dig our heels in and go deeper into the illusion of explanatory depth. We don’t like being wrong because we think that we are right. And when we dig our heels in, or when the other person digs their heels in, or we both end up digging our heels in – bad things tend to happen. When people on either side of a bisecting discussion explore the depths of their illusory explanations and understanding, people tend to resort to dirty tactics to ‘win’ the conversation, even though, as I will explain, the logic behind their tactics make it so that both sides of the discussion lose. It comes down to this simple notion. We don’t even know what we think we know. So, when someone provides a fact, objective truth, or statement of logic that blows apart our current beliefs about a topic, we should become less steadfast. The point of this article is to explain that our irrational human brain convinces us to become more steadfast in our beliefs. And because of the shallows of our actual understanding about a topic, this is nothing short of irrational behavior. It is not good, or bad, it just is. The only thing we can do is try to take conscious control of our unconscious irrational behaviors so that we can move our profession forward through the appropriate use of difficult conversations.
Next, I want to explore our inclination to use logical fallacies in an attempt to coerce others into joining our side of a debate. You see, logical fallacies are these irrelevant and illegitimate errors in reasoning that human beings resort to when we run out of factual and objective things to say. Instead of accepting that we have reached the shallows of our ignorance and concede that we may be wrong, we resort to logical fallacies in a last ditch effort to ‘win’ the conversation. But, as you will see, by ‘winning’ an argument in this way – we actually lose. My hope is that by learning more about our unconscious motives during a conversation, we will be better equipped as a coaching community to have a difficult conversation with one another that actually produce an illuminating and positive result for the coaching world, rather than just another ‘win’ for the trophy case of our steadfast beliefs hall of fame.
We know that human beings are irrational and when two irrational people get together to debate a bisecting topic, things can get messy. Things get messy because of brain biases like confirmation bias and myside bias that create illusions of explanatory depth where we think we know what we know, but when tested, we realize that our beliefs are actually built on a shoddy foundation appropriated from someone else’s deep work on a topic. In other words, we have no idea how a toilet works, but we think that we do. Therefore, when we engage in difficult conversations where our beliefs are challenged, we end up becoming incredibly resolute in our now questionable beliefs. Our response to these challenges are irrational attempts to ‘win’ the argument rather than accepting the new information, conceding that we don’t have a full understanding of a situation, and as a result, learning something new. In a word, this is why two people that disagree about promotion and relegation in the US, isolated technique training, or the efficacy of GPS never come to a thoughtful, or useful conclusion following a lengthy discussion. Instead, these conversations usually end up with both parties going home even more assured and convinced that they are right and the other person is wrong.
Regardless of the subject being discussed, people pretty much use the same arguments to make their points. Unfortunately, many of these arguments are commonly used because they effectively reduce the complexity of a topic down to a more simplified version that is harder to argue with. Many times, people use these arguments as a safety net when they plunge into the depths of the illusion of explanatory depth. They find themselves unable to cope with the arguments and challenges being presented against their beliefs, so they resort to a more simplified argument that is harder to challenge and oppose. The reason that we often resort to these common arguments is due to our unconscious desire to win the argument. Unfortunately, our human capacity for reasoning has much more to do with winning an argument that it does with thinking logically.
The main reason we are so adamant about winning arguments and staying committed to our beliefs about something comes down to the fact that it feels good when we stick to our guns. It sucks when we admit that we are wrong. So, most of us unconsciously avoid admitting we were wrong because it feels so much better to stay committed to the idea that we are right. The fact that we all tend to approach conversations with colleagues as something that needs to be won or lost is another issue entirely. Nevertheless, let’s look at the common logical fallacies that people use in an attempt to win an argument. It is important to recognize that these arguments are in no way, shape, or form adequate in pushing human knowledge, or your own knowledge, forward. They are simply used to save you from the embarrassment of being wrong.
- Argument from Consequences: People will argue for something because they like the consequences that arise from their argument being true. Just because life is better if a certain something is true does not mean that it is. In other words, simply wanting something to be true has absolutely nothing to do with it actually being true. For example, just because someone really likes blocked style practices doesn’t mean that blocked practice is better than random practice. Someone may want this to be true because it makes organizing practice easier for them, but it doesn’t mean that it is true.
To put it more clearly, this argument basically says that if I do something (x), then something else (y) will happen. Y is a good outcome for you, so therefore you believe x to be true. To quote the late Christopher Hitchens, “A belief is nothing more than something you wish to be true.” But, wishing something to be true does not make it so.
Another example of this would be if I say, “I just don’t want to live in a world where football coaches are fired for losing games. Therefore, football coaches don’t get fired for losing games.” Just because you want that to be true, or life is better if that is true, does not mean that it is. When we are having conversations with colleagues we need to be aware of the direction our discussions are going. We need to be consciously aware of when our conversations begin to confuse what the truth actually is with what we want the truth to actually be.
- Affirming the Consequent: This logical fallacy occurs when we assume that a particular consequence was caused by a particular antecedent. In other words, we know that winning a football match can cause people to be happy. Therefore, if we see a coach on a Monday morning and he appears to be happy, we can’t just assume that his team won the night before. That would be affirming the consequent, or assuming a result was automatically caused by something we know to be associated with that result. In other words, the coach could be happy because he got a free coffee that morning, or signed a new contract, or took a newly discovered shortcut into the training ground. Regardless, the consequent of happiness is not automatically completed by assuming that the cause of the happiness was winning a football match the day before. The possibilities regarding what caused a specific outcome are endless, so assuming one thing caused the outcome when it could just as easily been caused by something else is a fallacy.
As coaches, we do this all the time when it comes to attributing reasons to our success, or failure. For example, we may associate losing with poor refereeing; therefore, we incorrectly assume that poor refereeing is what caused us to lose when it could have been a litany of other possibilities. This idea is very closely related to another logical fallacy called the Black and White fallacy that I will explain shortly.
- Appeal to Ignorance: This is one that I hear used all of the time. People that appeal to ignorance typically assume that something is true based on the fact that there is zero evidence that supports the notion that it is not true. For example, there is no evidence to show that the Loch Ness Monster does not exist; therefore, it must exist.
This argument is perhaps better recognized as something we all do to verify our various beliefs. Basically, the appeal to ignorance allows us to believe something because, technically, it hasn’t been disproven yet. Therefore, we can justify our current beliefs while never really questioning them.
A simple example would be someone arguing with you about the development of Lionel Messi. You might be arguing that Messi developed through the use of a more games based program, while your counterpart believes that Messi developed through a more traditional skills and technique program. An example of the latter person appealing to ignorance would be them saying, “You really believe Messi got as good as he did by never doing a single box passing drill? Or by learning how to dribble by not first learning how to do so with cones? And you think he got his agility without the use of speed ladders? You really believe that?” So, both sides of this argument could be incorrect because the truth is that there are a large amount of possible explanations for how Messi became the player that he is (the previous argument can actually be applied here). But, appealing to ignorance has to do with the fact that just because this person, just because the person you are debating with can’t fathom Messi doing anything other than his own, personal, and preconceived notions of effective training doesn’t make it so. His personal belief is just an arbitrary and subjective interpretation of Messi’s development. The truth is that there are countless possible means in which Messi was developed, but just because this person can’t imagine Messi doing it any way other than his own doesn’t mean that he is right. What this person feels is the right answer is baseless. Just because they can’t imagine it happening any other way is totally irrelevant and ineffective as a basis for logical argument.
One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson. “The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” In other words, just because you think black holes aren’t real because you can’t fathom their existence does not mean that they don’t exist. Likewise, just because you can’t fathom Messi developing without the use of dribbling drills does not mean you can use that as an argument for their necessary existence in his training program.
Another quick example could be a debate about isolated fitness exercises, or fitness developed solely through the use of small sided games. Now, I am not saying that there is a right and wrong answer to this debate, I am simply pointing out the arguments we use that are actually logical fallacies that we think make a good point, when in reality they are completely irrelevant to the debate itself. So, in this debate, if an exercise physiologist said that he just can’t fathom how a team can get all of the fitness adaptations they need to be effective in the real game by always including the ball in their training, he would be using the appeal to ignorance. There is nothing wrong with questioning the ‘football-only’ narrative, but if your only basis for questioning is your own inability to fathom or intuit the possibility of fitness adaptations in a football-only program, then that is a logical fallacy. It does not poke a hole in the other side’s argument. It goes back to the black hole. Just because you don’t understand it, or see how it is possible, doesn’t mean you are right and the other side is wrong.
- Slippery-Slope Fallacy: This fallacy basically says that accepting a certain idea is bad because the acceptance of that idea will lead to a negative sequence of consequences. For example, let’s go back to the exercise physiologist in the previous example. As the head coach, you may say to him that you want to do everything in the game this year. You don’t want to do any isolated fitness, but everything within the game. Again, I am not saying that one is right and the other is wrong, I am simply pointing out the common arguments we use that are logical fallacies. Let’s say, in this example, that the physiologist says, “No, coach, we can’t do that. If we do that then the players won’t be fit enough, learn how to work hard, and they will develop laziness, which will cause us to lose games and have a lot of injuries.” That may sound like a sound argument, but it’s completely opinionated and using the slippery-slope fallacy.
Instead of having the actual argument between football fitness and isolated (physiology based) fitness; the physiologists sidesteps the actual argument and concludes that the thing being discussed will lead to a horrible outcome. From there, the slippery slope fallacy then asks the person you are debating with to defend this horrible outcome you just laid out. And obviously, the head coach will not defend lazy players, unfit players, lost games, and a lot of injuries. Therefore, the physiologist might actually get the coach to concede, but he didn’t do so through convincing, articulate, and calculated discussion. He just created a dystopian future where the training methods the coach is advocating lead to awful outcomes, but not on the basis of logic, or fact.
- Strawman Fallacy: This is an extremely common fallacy that people use when they are winning an argument. Basically, the strawman is used by creating a comical, simplified, and ridiculous version of an argument in order to have an easier argument to attack when it is your turn to talk. However, the reconstructed ‘strawman’ is not the actual argument, which makes it very easy to attack and very hard to defend. The genius of the strawman is that most people don’t recognize it when it pops up because they can recognize a strong enough resemblance between their original argument and the one being attacked.
The strawman is accomplished by misrepresenting someone’s actual idea by reconstructing it as a worse argument that is easier to refute. The reason why we do this is because it is much easier to attack a simplified version of someone’s argument rather than closely examining the nuance of the topic at hand to come to a more intellectual understanding of what the truth is. For example, if a politician chooses to leave the tax rate at its current level, a strawman would be to argue that the politician is refusing to lower the tax rate in order to take more money from citizens. That is obviously easier to argue, but that isn’t exactly the argument. The argument is much more nuanced, but arguing against a refusal to lower taxes is much easier than debating the decision to keep the tax rate where it is.
- Ad Hominem Argument: This is arguably the most recognizable and the most used of all the logical fallacies we will discuss today. An Ad Hominem argument is better understood as attacking someone’s Curriculum Vitae instead of their actual arguments. In other words, people will look to attack the actual source of the information, you, in an attempt to discredit the source of the information so that they don’t have to answer questions regarding the actual topic of discussion. A quick example of this would be someone saying, “Yeah, well you have never played professional football,” or, “How many championship trophies have you won?” In each of these cases, the person is attacking you, not the argument. People usually resort to this when they are clearly losing an argument. Ad hominem allows people to attack and discredit the source of the information so they never have to evaluate their beliefs honestly.
- False Equivalence: This fallacy is used by taking a couple of attributes about a particular thing and using those to compare it to another thing with the intent of showing that they are both exactly the same. For example, Jose Mourinho coached at Porto and then moved to Chelsea and so did Andre Villas Boas; therefore, they are the same coach and will enjoy the same success at Chelsea.
- Appeal to Bandwagon Fallacy: This is another fallacy used all of the time in coaching conversations. Basically, people that use this fallacy argue that because a lot of people believe in something, then it must be true. For example, the majority of football teams use GPS nowadays; therefore, GPS must be good. However, the amount of people that use something, or think of something to be true really has no impact on whether or not something is actually true. Millions of people used to also believe that the Earth was flat. Again, this isn’t to say that GPS is bad, I am just pointing out that appealing to the bandwagon is not a successful way to defend its usefulness. Likewise, billions of people believe that the Earth is round in today’s world. The fact that billions of people believe that the Earth is round is not what makes it true; what makes it true is the empirical data that shows it to be true.
- Red Herring Fallacy: Ah, the red herring. This is another common fallacy used in conversations around the world; be those political debates, conversations with colleagues, or even a Thanksgiving argument with Grandma. A red herring occurs when somebody changes the subject to something else that is only moderately related to the actual topic at hand. People do this unconsciously to avoid having the actual argument and to have an argument they are better equipped to handle. For example, let’s say that a political debate was focused on tax rates. If one person is arguing for an increase in tax rates, a red herring could be, “We need to raise our taxes to create more government revenue to support our government programs. I mean, children are our future, so I think we all need to support our children.” As you can see, the fact that children are our future really has nothing to do with the issue of raising taxes; however, it is thrown in so meticulously that it appears to be tangential enough to the topic of raising taxes that it will probably be met with a rousing round of applause. I mean, who would argue against supporting children?
Coaches use red herrings a lot too. Let’s say that two coaches were debating about the best nutritional guideline for players. A red herring could be, “I think that players need to eat chicken and pasta before every game. We don’t want our players to go hungry and I think having players malnourished is a bad thing.” What this person says, in and of itself, is true. However, not wanting the players to go hungry has nothing to do with whether or not chicken and pasta, or fish and vegetables are a batter pre-game meal.
Coaches use these all the time under intense, or even mild, criticism. “Hey Coach, why do you train your team 3 times a day in pre-season, when we know that increased fatigue leads to a higher chance of injury?” “Well, my team is built on hard work and discipline. These are staples of our program and we have built that identity over the last few years.” Can you see the red herring? What does hard work and discipline have to do with the distinct question regarding his pre-season training methods? Remember, a red herring is something that is only moderately related to the actual question, or topic. However, these arguments are used constantly to trick people into thinking that their question is being answered, when it is really being avoided.
- Argument from Authority: This is best understood as the opposite of the Ad Hominem argument. Instead of discrediting the source of the information, the argument from authority promotes the source of the information. In other words, people assume, or promote the idea that whatever being said is true given the experience, or status, of the person providing the information. I probably don’t have to provide too many examples of this because, in the coaching world, this argument is used constantly.
The way you can recognize this argument is by looking out for phrases or things like, “Well, Pep Guardiola says that this is the best way to play,” or, “We use heart rate monitors because I saw a presentation that the Chelsea Sports Scientist gave and they use them every day.” Anytime someone confirms a piece of information by reciting the experience, or curriculum vitae of the person providing the information, they are using the argument from authority. Note that this is a completely invalid point in any argument. It has nothing to do with the actual argument itself, but it appears as if it does. It is also important to mention that people themselves do this as well. We aren’t always using this argument to promote what somebody else said; we use it quite often to promote or validate something we say. For example, “I won 10 State Championships, so I think my methods are pretty effective.” Argument from authority. “I went to Harvard Business School, so I think I have a pretty good idea of what to do here.” Argument from authority.
I could go on forever.
- Circular Reasoning: This is my favorite logical fallacy because I can see it in myself and others. Circular reasoning is when someone only provides a conclusion to their argument while simply ignoring the evidence that must be provided. They act as if their claim is completely justifiable all its own and doesn’t require a preceding coalition of sound argument and objective assertions. Circular reasoning is things like:
- Jose Mourinho is the best manager of all time.
- Isolated technical drills suck. How could anyone use them? I mean, that’s not football.
- Why would anyone drive a Honda? Honda’s are the worst.
In each of these examples above, you can see a conclusion with absolutely zero substantial evidence provided. Usually, when someone uses circular reasoning, simply asking them “why?” they believe something, is enough to send them into a tailspin of irritation where they do nothing to add to their conclusion beyond just confirming their conclusion even more.
Circular reasoning is the logical fallacy that makes sense given what we know about confirmation bias and the illusion of explanatory depth. You see, we all have certain beliefs, or conclusions, that we think are completely verified and factual when in reality, they are just beliefs with very shallow supporting arguments. So, if I am surrounded by an echo-chamber of people that also believe that Honda’s are the worst, I can get away with my conclusion until the end of time. However, if I end up in a room with a bunch of people that own Honda’s, or mechanics, or car salesman, and all of a sudden I am challenged with the following, “Actually, Honda’s have the best gas mileage and safety rating of any car manufacturer in the world. Can you explain why Honda’s are the worst?” Uh oh. Now we have a problem. Now we are confronted with the illusion of our explanatory depth. Do we really know how toilets work, or do we just think we know?
A tell-tale sign of someone using circular reasoning is that they support their unsubstantiated claim by saying things like, “I just believe that Honda’s suck,” or, “Honda’s are just bad cars.” Basically, they are trying to convince you that their belief is completely self-evident and doesn’t require any sort of substance beyond the mere notion of their conclusion.
Circular reasoning is perhaps the most dangerous of all the logical fallacies. If beliefs like ‘Honda’s suck’, or that ‘isolated technique training’ is the best – become self-evident facts in our lives, then we can literally become so close-minded that we never actually develop the need to question those beliefs. In coaching, it is fairly common to refer to a coach as “old school”, or say things like, “He’s a dinosaur”, but what does that really mean? Well, for me, it means that a dinosaur has used circular reasoning to confirm every positive experience they have had in coaching. They refused to seek out substantial evidence for their beliefs and just settled for believing what they believe because they believe it. Then, when they are confronted after 25 years about the inadequacy of their methods, they use a number of logical fallacies including this one to defend themselves. The funny thing is, this whole process can be avoided if we just give up the idea that we are right about everything and exchange it for the idea that we are wrong about most things, if not all things. That simple shift in the way you think can change your career and your life.
My whole point in writing this extremely long-winded article can be summarized by the example above. The person that is using circular reasoning to defend his opinion and belief about Honda’s has zero, and I mean zero, substantial evidence to support his belief. Therefore, wouldn’t logic tell you that this person should be extremely open to new information, or even information that conflicts with his belief? Think about it, this person simply hates Honda’s just because. Now, someone provides him actual substantial information in favor of Honda’s, so you would think he would be grateful and say, “You know what, I never knew that. I guess Honda’s aren’t that bad!” But, in coaching conversations, when we are confronted about our own Honda beliefs, we respond by digging our heels in and using every logical fallacy imaginable to win the argument. Fortunately, part 1 showed us why that is. We are irrational beings that prioritize winning an argument over discovering the truth because it feels good.
- Black and White Fallacy: This is the logical fallacy that I use most often. It is a weakness of mine that I am distinctly aware of and trying to improve. It could be argued that this is the logical fallacy that is the easiest to fall into. The black and white fallacy is a failure to recognize that a topic, or idea, is much more nuanced than we think. In other words, either you believe THIS, or you believe THAT. In the football world, this happens every day in the debate between an isolated, or reductionist approach to football training vs. an integrated and holistic approach to football. I, myself, definitely sit on one side of this argument and I use the black and white fallacy in my arguments. However, the honest truth is that this argument is much more nuanced than either side of the equation likes to admit. We like to polarize ourselves to one side of the argument, or the other, and stay there in an epic battle between conflicting beliefs while simultaneously neglecting the solution, which probably lies somewhere in the middle.
The best indications of someone using this fallacy occurs when any sort of dichotomy is presented in their claims. For example, “You have two options here. Either you do THIS, or you do THAT. There is no in-between!” Or, the infamous, “There are two kinds of people in this world…” These are all indications of someone about to use, or using, the black and white fallacy. The premise of this fallacy is that by making the world much simpler than it actually is, you will be left with no reasonable option, but to agree with them. For example, you either agree that we must do everything in training with the ball and specific to the game, or you are completely wasting your time and providing zero transfer to the game. Is it really that simple? Or, is that just a logical fallacy being employed to win an argument and get everybody to agree with you? The scary thing is that our beliefs blind us so much to the possibilities of alternative trains of thought that we are quickly becoming incapable of knowing the difference. Are we providing sound argument, or logical fallacy? Can we even recognize the difference?
- Hasty Generalization: The last one that I will discuss is the hasty generalization. This is the fallacy that involves someone making a very big claim based on an extremely small sample size. We see this one in coaching all the time. A coach wins a championship in one season and then makes the hasty generalization that everything he did that season was the reason they were successful. The coach believes that he has discovered the winning formula for success and can’t believe how smart he is. The coach then uses those same methods every year for the next few years and before long – he is sacked.
My grandfather smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 50 years and he never got Lung cancer; therefore, smoking isn’t bad. This is another hasty generalization. We take an extremely small sample, or n = 1, and extrapolate that into a ridiculously larger claim. Basically, anything anecdotal should be held under scrutiny here. Anyone that starts a sentence with, “Well, I saw this one documentary…”, or, “I read this one book that…” is the beginning of a hasty generalization.
I find it important to mention that this is not an exhaustive list of logical fallacies. If you are interested in learning about all of the logical fallacies, or you want to memorize all of them, just google ‘logical fallacies’ and enjoy. However, before I leave you for today, I want to recap the purpose of this nearly 10,000 word document. I drew inspiration to write this article after many months of frustration about the nature of coaching conversations. Rather than engaging other coaches to improve our own ideas and learn about theirs, these conversations end up becoming a battle of wits where one man is hoping to conquer the other. As I began researching why the hell we are so competitive when it comes to conversation, I came across the power of confirmation bias, myside bias, and the illusion of explanatory depth.
In part 1, I explored the reason why it is so difficult to have difficult conversations. What I found was that no one likes to entertain the possibility that they are wrong. It doesn’t feel good to be wrong. Therefore, we all seek out colleagues and friends that believe what we believe. Every conversation we have with fellow colleagues, or other coaches, is ‘all good’ right up until the moment our beliefs are challenged. Like I explained in part 1, logic would make you think that we would welcome this opportunity. Anytime your beliefs are questioned, you end up learning something new. Every time you are learning something new, you are improving as a coach. So, it is actually quite a paradox. We talk to others in the hopes of improving, but if they show us something new, or poke holes in our current beliefs (which is necessary to improve), we get really competitive and refuse to concede that we are wrong, which evaporates the learning potential. Here is the paradox: we are only interested in learning if the information confirms what we already know, but by definition, that would not be classified as learning, but just confirming. Learning implies acquiring new knowledge, or information, which our brains are wired to meet with hostility. So, how the hell are we supposed to learn? Are we just destined to believe what we believe until the end of time?
In part 1 we learned that difficult conversations are difficult because of the unconscious human desire to win arguments, not discover the truth. In part 2, I tried to explain some of the most common logical fallacies that people use in these difficult conversations to try and “win the argument”. We use these logical fallacies as if they are sound, intelligible talking points, but, in reality, they are illogical arguments constructed for the sake of winning an argument and avoiding the truth because the truth might mean us losing the argument.
If you have made it with me this far, hopefully you have learned something about yourself and human nature in general. My only call to action would be for our coaching community, which includes football coaches, strength coaches, sports scientists, coaches of other sports, and beyond to become more aware of these unconscious drives that dictate our behavior during conversations with colleagues. It is a shame that the only time we behave ourselves is when we are within our communities of knowledge where everyone agrees with us. As soon as we venture out into the unknown shallows of our ignorance, we instantly become irrational beasts in search of a dopamine hit through a perceived conversational triumph. We can’t control, or outsmart these unconscious biases, or even the use of these logical fallacies, we can only work to become more aware of them. Hopefully, through simply recognizing them, getting to know them, and becoming more familiar with them, we can stop ourselves and others from using them in an attempt to make difficult conversations more useful.
There is no use in debating a colleague and having both of you leave angry and even more convinced that you are right and the other guy is wrong. My hope is that the next time you engage in a debate with a colleague, you do so with a common goal in mind. It isn’t about winning. It isn’t about confirming what you already know. It isn’t about using a logical fallacy to twist the argument in a favorable way, so that it supports your argument. It’s about getting together with our colleagues and fellow coaching community to get up, close, and personal with the shallows of our ignorance. My hope is that the next conversation you have is one where you find out that you are wrong, or at least partially wrong. My hope is that we start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Don’t shy away from someone challenging your beliefs. Instead, let’s embrace those moments because the end result is either an opportunity for us to learn, or an opportunity for us to teach someone else. Either way, we are creating a better coaching world.
I will leave you with this quote by the great Richard Feynman for you to digest and think about.
I have approximate answers, possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and many things I don’t know anything about.
Unfortunately, it took me nearly 10,000 words to simply say that. Thanks for your time.