The Minority Rule in Developing a Team

How inflexible minorities govern decision making in the developments of a team.

I remember being on a long-flight as a teenager, heading from NYC (Laguardia) to Vancouver, British Columbia, and thinking only one thing, “When did they stop serving peanuts and start serving pretzels?”

Of course, there were a lot of theories out there as to why this change occurred, but none of them seemed overly convincing to me. It really wasn’t until about 8 months ago when I heard a reason that seemed to explain the phenomena more accurately. The reason is something called the minority rule.

I am going to discuss the minority rule in great detail during this article, first generally, but then practically to apply it to situations we encounter in football. Once the minority rule is understood, it is hard not to see it’s applications begin to appear in a variety of ways in our daily and professional lives.

Before we get to the bottom of the peanut-pretzel phenomena — have you ever wondered why there are Handicap Accessible toilet stalls in every restroom on the planet? I mean, isn’t that a bit…I don’t know — strange? The statistics are debatable, but less than 10% of the world’s population has some sort of disability, or handicap, and yet there is a handicap accessible toilet in nearly every restroom we wander into.

In fact, even if we walk into a restroom with only one stall, the chances are extremely high that it is a handicap accessible one. But, why is that the case if less than 10% of the population is handicapped? The answer is the minority rule.

What is the minority rule? The minority rule is the idea that once an obstinate minority reaches a level of around 3–4% of the population, the entire population must submit to their preferences. Contrary to what most of us believe — society is not constructed around the preferences of the majority, but the preferences of a (large enough and substantial enough) minority.

Sticking with our example, roughly 90% of people will use a particular restroom stall regardless of whether that stall is handicap-accessible, or a traditional stall. It is simply irrelevant to their decision making process. But, for 10% of the population, using a traditional restroom stall is an impossibility — the choice is not afforded to them. Therefore, in order to ensure that every human being on planet earth is capable of using a public restroom, engineers and public administration bureaucrats construct restrooms that appeal to the preferences of the minority of people, not the majority.

Thus, the reason why nearly every restroom includes a handicap accessible toilet is because the minority of restroom users cannot use a normal toilet. Let’s say you are a non-disabled individual, void of any physical handicaps. Are you going to refuse to use a restroom because it is equipped with a handicap toilet? Of course not. Therefore, restroom engineers design their restrooms to include the preferences of the minority. This is the power of the minority rule and it is much more impactful than you may think.

The result of the minority rule is as follows:

A disabled person will not use a regular restroom stall, but a non-disabled person will use the restroom stall for disabled people.

And, finally cracking the peanut-pretzel phenomena:

Someone with a peanut allergy cannot eat products that touch peanuts, but someone without a peanut allergy can eat items without peanut traces in them (pretzels).

In other words, airlines stopped serving peanuts and started serving pretzels because the minority of passengers cannot eat, or touch, peanut products, even though around 2% of the population suffers from peanut allergy.

The easiest example to drive home the point concerns automatic and manual transmissions in cars. Why are most cars manufactured with automatic transmissions?

A person that does not know how to use a stick shift cannot use a manual car, but a person that can use a stick shift can also use an automatic car.

Now, let’s make things more interesting by seeing how the minority rule shows up in football.

The best way to conceptualize this is to think of the minority rule as an “asymmetry of choices” to quote Natural Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In other words, the minority in a football team could have less choices based on their abilities, or they could have less choices because they are inflexible when it comes to their choices. A limitation in abilities would be something like the handicap restroom stall and a limitation in inflexibility would be something like refusing to eat meat (think vegetarian/vegan).

As a result, the majority in a football team would be much more flexible in their choices as compared to the minority, but it is a classic mistake, and often one made, for a coach to build his team around the preferences of the majority, without searching to see if there exists an inflexible, or limited, and thus influential — minority.

Let’s take a look at some examples of how the minority rule applies to football.


Imagine that you are the new manager of the team below. And, for the sake of the experiment, let’s say that this is your starting 11. And for now, you can’t make any changes. 9 of the 11 players in your starting 11 are under 25 years old with no injury history. This is the majority of your team. They are flexible in their choices. They could play a high pressing system, a low block and counter-attack system, a system built around ball possession, anything you want as a coach. However, your striker and attacking central midfield player are well into their 30’s, they have accumulated a number of muscle injuries during their lengthy careers, but they are the most popular players on the team, they have the highest jersey sales in the club, and they also happen to be really good, they are just at the end of their careers. What do you do? Do you choose your tactics based on the majority of your team? Or, do you choose your tactics based on the minority?

Do you choose your tactics based on the majority? Or, the minority?

The minority rule tells us that the preferences of the minority triumph in this situation. Why? Well, the two older players have less choices based on their abilities. They cannot play a high pressing system due to their inability to play at such a high tempo for 90 minutes and consistently over a 10 month season. They fit best into a team that defends closer to their own goal where their defensive responsibilities are scarce. However, the majority of the team can play in any system you tell them too. Here is the rule:

The older players will not be able to play a high pressing system, but the younger players will be able to play in a non-high pressing system.

This is the minority rule in action. When an intransigent minority exists in your team, it is essential to the functioning of that team to pay close attention to and accommodate the needs of the minority.

Training Time:

Let’s say that you are a youth coach at a local club in New York City. You have 20 players on your team that all attend schools in Long Island. However, let’s say that 2 of those players attend Stuyvescent High School in Manhattan. While the majority of your team get’s out of school at 3PM, the minority gets out of school at 430PM and then have to commute over an hour to get to Long Island (not including traffic). Let’s say that your club offers you two training slots: the first at 4PM and the second at [7:30]PM. Which do you choose? Obviously, the minority of your players have less choices based on their inflexible schedules, so you would appeal to their preferences by setting the team training time for [7:30]PM.

Player Buy-In

Imagine you were just hired as the head coach of a new club. First on your priority list is to instill some guidelines and ways of doing things based on values you deem to be essential for a winning football team. Let’s say that this includes your intended playing style, training methods, video analysis, the way you structure a day in the life of the players, team standards, fitness tests, the whole laundry list of things that come with being the head coach.

Commonly, when new coaches find themselves in this situation they talk about getting the players to “buy-in”, which means getting everyone at the club to see the value in what the coach is demanding and offering. But, how do you go about achieving buy-in from players? Every coach on the planet has their own methods for achieving player buy-in, but could the minority rule help us do it much more effectively?

The natural intuition of coaches is to try to sway the majority of the team to believe in them, their tactics, and their methods, which leads to them going to extraordinary means to try and convince a team of 25 players to behave in the way the coach believes is essential.

Now, imagine that the new club you just took over is Juventus. Do you try and convince the majority? Or, do you pay attention to the preferences of the minority?

Do you try and convince the majority? Or, do you pay attention to the preferences of the minority (Ronaldo)?

Cristiano Ronaldo is a significant minority in the Juventus team. So, if your efforts to establish buy-in only involve him, and you are successful in those efforts, the rest of the team will have a much easier time buying-in. Why? Because of the minority rule.

We even know this point intuitively. Whenever you think about doing something as a coach, changing the tactics, making a change to the line-up, disciplining the team, you usually know who the people are that could take issue with whatever you are planning. We didn’t know it explicitly until now, but this feeling is the power of the minority rule.

Imagine now, instead of trying to convince your entire team of something in a group setting, you first convince the minority in your team and then introduce it to the entire group. When some players are confused by the change, or maybe have an initial skepticism, they will look to the influential minority in your team for how they should be responding.

If the minority in your dressing room looks like this:

Getting “buy-in” from the minority

Then the majority of your team will lower their skepticism and orient themselves appropriately.

However, if you try to convince the majority in one fell swoop, then there is a chance when your players look to the influential minority in determining how they should feel about something that he will look like this:

The minority is allergic to peanuts

To summarize:

Cristiano Ronaldo will not just play in any system, for any manager, or with any arbitrary set of values, the rest of his Juventus teammates will do whatever Ronaldo is OK with.

The key to creating buy-in from your players as the new manager could be to target the influential minority in your team and appeal to their preferences.

Now, you might feel uncomfortable with the idea of appealing to the preferences of your players. You could even argue that a manager that appeals to the preferences of his players is a social worker that could be taken advantage of, but there is a big difference between appealing to the preferences of just any minority, the preferences of the majority, and what I am proposing, which is to appeal to the preferences of a significant and inflexible minority.

The key to the minority rule is that you are appealing to the preferences of an influential minority, not just any player, or any group of players. For example, a youth player training with the first team is not going to fit the bill of the minority rule. But, when we are dealing with a significant minority in our team — whether we are talking about tactics, what time to train, player buy-in, or other aspects of football team development, it is the preferences of the minority that will have the biggest impact on your decisions as a coach.

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