Taking the emotion out of decisions is the way forward at a football club

When we became the major shareholders at Grimsby Town in 2021 we chatted to the manager, Paul Hurst, and set out two commitments that we continue to stand by. The first was that, as owners, we would never go into the changing room. This is a surprisingly common occurrence, as demonstrated by Todd Boehly at Chelsea. For us, this is about setting clear expectations and boundaries of trust and we limit our visits to the training ground for the same reason. These spaces are for the manager and players and they should know that. Owners, while setting the tone, should trust the people they hire to run the club, in our case the manager and CEO.

The second commitment was that after a game the manager has no obligation to see or speak to us. After a busy day we want the manager to be able to get home and see his family but, just as importantly, we feel that no good decisions about anything will be made immediately after a match.

Put more elaborately, we want to take the emotion of match days out of our decision-making process. In this I have been influenced by Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist and Nobel laureate who wrote the brilliant book Thinking, Fast and Slow where he introduces the concept of System 1 and System 2 thinking. These are distinct cognitive processes that shape human decision-making and judgment and this analogy is particularly useful in relation to sport.

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System 1 thinking, often referred to as intuitive or automatic thinking, is fast, effortless and operates largely on unconscious processing. It relies on heuristics: mental shortcuts that allow for quick assessments and immediate responses to stimuli. It enables us to make snap judgments, recognise familiar faces and react swiftly to potential threats. Although vital in our evolutionary development, it is prone to biases and can lead to errors when faced with unfamiliar or complex situations.

System 2 thinking is deliberative and analytical. It involves conscious effort, concentration and logical reasoning. System 2 thinking requires mental resources and is characterised by slower, more deliberate decision-making. It is essential for tasks that require attention to detail, complex calculations and critical thinking.

These two systems work together and understanding the interplay seems crucial for comprehending how our minds work. Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from rationality or logical reasoning in human decision-making. In football, there are many opportunities for these biases and being conscious of their possibility can be useful. Some of the main biases I have noticed in football are outcome bias, confirmation bias, availability bias and loss aversion.

Outcome bias involves evaluating the quality of a decision based on its outcome rather than the decision-making process itself. In football, fans often judge success or failure based solely on the final score of a game, without considering the complexities and uncertainties inherent in the sport. Although results are clearly the most important factor, underlying data on performance needs to be brought into the conversation to make a balanced judgment. We experienced this in the 2021-22 season when we had one win in 11 games and people called for us to change the manager. The data told us a different story about underlying performance and eventually we were promoted. It is worth remembering that the team who “deserve” to win (defined as a team that outperform the opposition on xG by a reasonable margin) win only 64% of the time.

Plymouth Argyle manager, Steven Schumacher, celebrates by lifting the trophy with his players after winning the League One title
Plymouth won the League One title despite their top scorer scoring only 13 goals. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Confirmation bias occurs when people seek or interpret information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs. Good examples from football abound when fans use individual events to “prove” their own (usually negative) thesis about a club or player, or the constant discussion about the requirement of a “20-goal-a-season striker” as the only way to be successful. Plymouth won League One this season with their top scorer Ryan Hardie on 13 goals and Leyton Orient won League Two with no player scoring more than 10, but people who hold this belief will find it hard to shake.

This can be further understood as availability bias, which occurs when we overestimate the importance or likelihood of events based on how easily examples or instances come to mind. As football is such a low-scoring game, goals are easier to recollect than tackles made or defensive lines held. This often leads to a lack of appreciation of the art of defending or the collective effort of a team. Another classic is “2-0 is a dangerous lead”, which is pointed out whenever a team give up a two-goal lead. But the reality is they’re given up only about 10% of the time.

One of the most provocative biases in relation to football is loss aversion, the tendency to give more psychological weight to potential losses than potential gains. In non-sporting scenarios an example that often occurs is with financial investments, when individuals may be hesitant to sell an asset performing poorly because they are averse to realising a loss. They may hold on to the investment in the hope that the situation will improve, even if it is more rational to cut their losses and redirect their resources to more promising opportunities.

In football, this bias often shows up when a team have taken a lead. There is a natural inclination for some coaches and players to become more cautious, focusing on maintaining their lead rather than actively seeking to extend it. This defensive mindset can intuitively feel right but data suggests that often maintaining possession, building attacks and creating scoring opportunities can help not only in increasing the goal margin but also in controlling the game and reducing the chances of the opposition mounting a comeback.

There are hundreds of biases and examples of where they show up in life and sport. Our thinking is naturally flawed because it is part of being human. Football will be played predominantly with System 1 and training prepares players for this reality. Strategic decisions should be the domain of System 2. It should be the output of a process of slowing down, assessing options, seeking comparables and taking the chance to seek diverse opinions and data before setting the long-distance course and destination.

This close-season gives us that opportunity at Grimsby. Two years into our three-year plan we are working with Twenty First Group (which has provided some data points here) and our new adviser Gareth Jennings to write a 10-year plan. Like all strategies, it sets you on a journey but has to respond to reality and be adaptive to survive. There are always iterations based on new information but the ability to stay on a defined course is one way to ensure better decisions are mostly being made.

Jason Stockwood is the chair of Grimsby Town