Whenever you introduce yourself to someone new, one of the first questions people typically ask is: “Where are you from?”
My response – York, PA – doesn’t usually get much of a response (oh, you grew up in New York?). To which I explain it’s a few hours west of Philadelphia (ohh, not New York). I’ll usually go a step further and say I went to college in Buffalo, NY. Part of this is because I take a lot of pride in my time in Buffalo. It’s also pretty easy to strike a conversation with a football fan (oh, you like the Bills?).
The part that gets annoying, however, is when I get a response that looks something like this: “Oh, it must snow a lot up there!” Yeah, no shit. It snows.
Buffalo, NY is not the only place in the world that gets snow. It is often, however, one of the most popular cities that gets associated with bad winter weather. You can’t really bring up Buffalo and not hear the word “snow” within the next few sentences. It’s like the two words have become synonyms.
At first, it’s funny (yeah, it kinda stunk shoveling snow off our baseball field in April). And then it gets old. Really fast. Believe it or not, Buffalo has four seasons. The sun shines quite often – especially May through October. Sometimes it’s windy. Sometimes you get a thunderstorm. Snow is not the only kind of weather that occurs in Western New York – even though people talk about it like it is. And then I moved to California.
Whenever I tell people I live in Orange County, CA, I’ve learned the new synonyms for my new hometown – “Oh it’s expensive! You live with liberals!” Believe it or not, both of these aren’t quite the case. The city I work in – Huntington Beach – is about as conservative as it gets. When Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom was up for recall this past fall, I think I saw something every day on my way to work that supported the movement (LA is a different story). As for expensive, sure – I don’t love how much I pay for rent every month. But I also enjoy paying less for car insurance than my brother does back in Allegheny County, PA. We also pay the same amount in sales tax. I recently had a dental procedure done on a tooth that got re-chipped. If I had the tooth taken care of back in PA with my previous provider, it would have costed me over $800 more. Sunshine tax and all, I do pretty well in California.
While reflecting on my new list of “obstacles,” I thought back to what people thought of Buffalo. The vague comparisons follow the same pattern: We all have biases, stereotypes, and ultimately make quick – and poor – judgements about things we know little of. Most of the people I’ve met have never been to Buffalo or Orange County, but It doesn’t stop them from having an opinion. This is something we have to be very cautious of. It seems innocent in conversation, but it’s much more benign when it bleeds into our decision making.
For many coaches, it already has.
I was recently listening to a podcast where Ryan Holiday interviewed his mentor Robert Greene – best-selling author of The 48 Laws of Power. One of the things Greene talked about was how uncomfortable people are when they’re in a room where they are not the smartest. We don’t like being around people that make us feel dumb. It’s a threat to our intellect. We don’t want to sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about. It’s much more affirming when we’re the authority on a subject. We want people to come to us with questions. We don’t like going to others with questions.
To protect our perception of authority, we develop opinions. The problem becomes how we form these opinions. To become knowledgable about something, a significant amount of research and study is required. This goes against our natural bias to cut corners. We don’t want to invest time. We’d rather save time. Why bother investing into learning something new when we can just formulate an opinion that aligns with current group think? It’s much more affirming to know something. It’s much less appealing to actually take the time to learn about something. This creates a critical cognitive bias. The less consequential our opinions are, the less likely they are to change with newer and better information.
Even when they become more consequential.
One of the biggest mistakes we can make – personally and professionally – is when our objective shifts from learning something to knowing something. When our goal is to learn, our opinions are malleable. They’re more likely to shift and change when presented with information that challenges previous thought. We’re less married to former ideas and more concerned with trying to figure out how to get it right. If our goal is to know something, however, we often act in the opposite manner. Can you really seem like you know something if your opinion on it is constantly changing?
If we think back to the associations people have created between Buffalo and Orange County, we see a bias to know something. People don’t really want to learn what the area is about – especially if they’re already telling you what they think before asking. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never been there. They think they know something about where you live based off the little they’ve seen or heard. It’s hubris. We overestimate the little we know about something – well, in this case, the little we think we “know.” It’s a great way to lose credibility, but it doesn’t stop people from doing it.
Especially in baseball.
As coaches, we are constantly evaluating. We’re looking for trends, things that stick out, and problems that need solutions. As we spend a lot of time around the game, we end up building out a pretty thick “filing cabinet” system. Every swing, throw, and play we see gets catalogued into a cabinet in our mind. Whenever we evaluate someone new, we immediately go to our filing cabinet. If you’ve ever caught yourself finding a big league comparison for a specific swing you’re looking at, you’ve been through this process. It’s one thing to say a kid has a sweet swing. It’s another to say his swing reminds you of Mookie Betts.
As an evaluator, time is your friend. You have to get your eyes in front of a lot of different players to start to get a feel for what works, doesn’t work, what can change, and what’s more difficult to change. The problem – as stated above – is our natural tendency to want to save time. We don’t want to watch hours of film or study thousands of different hitters to figure out what works. We’d rather just watch a couple. This creates a slippery slope. What you’re looking at might work, but it does not mean it’s going to work for everyone. That doesn’t stop you from thinking it does, however.
One of the things I constantly have to remind myself of is just how many different ways there are to play this game. If you tune into a big league game (granted, if they ever play this year), you’re going to see nine different hitters between both lineups. Those nine hitters will have nine different swings. Some have a leg kick. Others just pick their heel up. Some start open, some start closed. Pitchers are no different. Some throw from higher slots. Some throw from lower slots. Many throw from the windup. Others just go from the stretch. Some stride slightly open. Others stride slightly – or significantly – closed. The one thing they all have in common? They all do it at a really high level. The second we forget this is when we fall victim to heuristics.
When we think the only way to swing is how Mike Trout swings, we’re basically saying it snows in Buffalo or it’s expensive in Orange County. We overestimate the little we know and use it to make judgements about things we don’t really know. It’s a classic case of cognitive bias. We don’t see the forest for the trees. If you’ve ever seen a “Twitter coach” predict a Tommy John surgery after watching a 60 second bullpen, you’ve seen this bias in action. That coach doesn’t know anything about the kid or what they do. They just decided to make a snap judgement using limited context for clickbait. If he does get hurt, he seems like a genius (even if he’s batting .100 on his predictions). This desire for gratification kills our ability to make accurate and informed decisions.
As humans, we all crave the need to feel like we know something. We want to be the expert opinion. We don’t like being in rooms where we feel like we’re not. We must constantly fight this urge. If we feel like we constantly have to know something, we run the risk of making snap judgements that hurt our long term credibility. Our antidote to hubris isn’t knowledge. It’s curiosity. Just think about how different the conversation would be if you said, “Oh wow, that’s really cool you went to school in Buffalo. I heard it’s pretty cold up that way. What did you enjoy most about living there?” If you’re a girl and if you want to get my interest, I just gave you your pick up line (kidding, but actually…).
From the perspective of a coach, we have to run a fine line. We want to have answers when people come to us with question. We just have to be careful how we handle situations where we don’t have them. It’s okay not to know. In fact, I think it’s more credible to admit you don’t know. Why rely on someone else’s opinion when you have the ability to formulate your own? If you don’t want to have an opinion, outsource the question. If you tell people California is filled with liberals, you’re going to lose a ton of credibility when the person on the other end is a conservative that grew up in LA.
Don’t put your reputation on the line with information that isn’t yours. Know what you know, but be comfortable knowing what you don’t know. After all, it’s your credibility that’s at stake.
Refuse to put it in someone else’s hands.