Know You’re Biased

What happened last time your zone was scored on easily? Did you switch to man?

And what happened last time your man-to-man defence was scored on in 20 seconds? You talked about covering the unders better, or upping the intensity, or holding the force. I’d bet good money you didn’t immediately switch to zone because man-to-man failed once

imagesThis isn’t a post recommending zone over man defence – it’s about trying to spot the biases you don’t even know you have.

Man-to-man is considered ‘normal’ in most situations, and hence there’s no pressure on the captain or coach when it goes wrong; he hasn’t done anything weird, and no-one is likely to blame him. Whereas zone defence might be considered an active decision to move away from the status quo – hence the captain is nervous of taking the risk, and often gives up on it too easily.

Another good example of bias was mentioned in a comment to a previous post about hucking – it can be valuable to take a deep shot early in a game, simply to keep the defence respecting your long cuts, even if it’s not completed. I think that’s probably true quite often, especially if it’s a pretty-looking or a particularly long throw.

Think about that for a minute. A team just showed you that there’s a very solid chance of a turnover on a huck – they’re currently at 0%, for crying out loud – and you’re about to change your downfield defending because you’re worried about the bomb? Talk me through that again…

It’s embarrassing to get beaten deep. It hurts more than giving up 4 unders in a row, not least because those 4 unders were probably 4 different defenders, and the ‘blame’ is spread around. But if you’re there and bidding on an imperfect huck, even though the offence happens to come down with it, should you really be upset with your positioning at the start of that cut? Should you feel worse than all those other points they score by walking it in on uncontested 10 yard passes? And if they don’t even complete the huck, should you really be worried that you got toasted long?

The answer can be found in the stats – over the season, how many turns per point did your zone get compared to your man in similar weather to this? How many turns did the opposition make on hucks compared to when they kept everything short (either all your opponents’ games against you, or all this opponent’s games against others)? But even in the absence of in-depth, long-term stats, just remembering you might have a bias will help you make better decisions.

Always try to look at the situation more carefully – did they take a risky throw to break your zone? Is there really any good evidence that they’ll complete a big enough percentage of hucks?

You can go into this to an arbitrary depth – e.g. perhaps you know that the other team is very emotionally up-and-down and will gain confidence from a couple of spectacular plays. So maybe it’s worth preventing them from making any, even if it’s not the optimal choice on this particular point. Or maybe you want them to take the shot and turn over, so that they lose confidence. You can involve virtually any information in your decision about how to play – including any biases the opposition may have – but you should fight to overcome or at least recognise your own bias.

There’s lots of evidence that we’re not capable of completely overcoming our own biases, even when we know about them. Experiments with the phenomenon of anchoring (the tendency to use an irrelevant number as a starting point when guessing a price, for example) show that people continue to display anchoring effects, even when they’re specifically told all about anchoring and that the starting number should be ignored! But more generally, knowing about your biases can help you to take them into account.

It’s hard to overcome your biases, and you might never succeed completely. But it’s worth the effort. All biases hurt – not throwing to capable women; not throwing to that guy because you still think of him as the beginner he was two years ago; hucking to that receiver in traffic because of that one great grab last year; playing a particular style because it’s the one you thought of and you want to be proved right – there’s an infinite number. Some are very hard to spot, but it’s worth trying.

Bias costs you points. Bias loses you games.

If you’ve seen a bias that people often seem to have, drop it in the comments below. We can all learn from each other on this one…

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9 Responses to Know You’re Biased

  1. Anonymous says:

    You mentioned anchoring in this article and it made me think back to my dissertation on how decisions are made when dealing with share prices on the stock market. I Looked at a number of heuristics (which are methods we use to simplify information which is far too great for our minds to compute and so allow us to take mental shortcuts) and saw shortcomings of these, including those of anchoring, like you mentioned. Much like the stock exchange, there’s a lot of information to take in during a game of ultimate, but unlike the stock exchange, there isn’t really an opportunity to sit down and analyse the statistics (since nobody tends to track them). Additionally, in my studies, I let people make mistakes based on the information I gave them, showed them why their biases led them to the wrong decision and then let them try the test again. I found that, almost invariably, they just made the same mistakes again.

    As you said, it’s really hard to let go of your biases, but I would argue that this feat is even grander than your article makes out. My testing was one thing when this was testing conducted by survey with nice neat tables laid out clearly illustrating prices increasing and decreasing, but in the heat of a tournament game, I think this would be so much harder since there is not the same room for detachment. You’re bound to think things along the lines of “he was just lucky to get that throw off” or “if I just push that bit harder I won’t get beaten like that again” rather thank recognising that you are biased towards a certain style of play.

    In short, I appreciate what you say about recognising our own biases and trying to overcome them, but when people find it hard to adjust their thought pattern when it has been shown to them in a controlled environment, I think we’d have to find someone with a real iron will and superstats brain to jump this mental hurdle on the field. Everyone at some point has thought “I know this isn’t the percentage play and it hasn’t worked before, but this time is going to be different.”


    • I think you’re right that it’s difficult – but I do think it’s possible. Maybe not for a player in the heat of the moment, but certainly for a coach. And maybe it’s something we should take into account when picking a captain – is this person calm enough to think clearly? Are they brave enough to trust the stats rather than take the easy decision to play the way everyone else always plays?

      Also, you can adjust your practices, when you’re not in the heat of a game – as Felix suggests below, it might be that hammers are unfairly dismissed as an option, and you could spend time practising the throw and the relevant game-scenarios that will make this a normal part of your armoury come game time.

      With some of the numerical stuff (like anchoring) it may be impossible to overcome the problem; but where there’s an emotional bias against risk-taking or ‘abnormal’ play I do think that someone who takes the trouble to do some stats will be able to make better decisions in a game.


  2. Felix says:

    Teams being biased against hammers. Teaching that only sidearm and backhand throws are acceptable. A few years ago Brighton got into the top 4 and were throwing a lot of hammers – for some reason though, people’s bias made their opinions totally malformed and always seemed alien to us – “You guys have a lot of crazy throws” – er no, the hammer isn’t a crazy throw to us – “We know you guys can put anything up and trust your receiver to bring it down” – er no, we throw hammers to space and know our receiver won’t misread it like a fool…
    Just this weekend at Regionals I saw a player from another team throw a sweet hammer to an open receiver in the end zone who clap caught it uncontested… a team mate complimented him and was then berated by another team mate who said “Don’t encourage him!”, which seemed to be the prevailing & approved attitude the team takes to this kind of situation… seriously… I don’t even… what game are you playing?
    The hammer has a bad rep because, let’s face it, we do all know at least one terrible player who will lob a piss poor hammer towards the end zone when given the slightest provocation… the important words here are “terrible player” and “piss poor” rather than “hammer”. Choosing not to train or even commend a very useful throw demonstrates extreme bias. If you don’t practice it, it’ll always be piss poor and/or hard to read. Perfect practice makes perfect.


    • Alex says:

      Yeah anti-hammer bias is a bit weird. Imagine if you had a team where everyone practiced hammers all the time, and their hammers were as good as anyone’s flick or backhand. I’d have to think they’d be unstoppable.


      • DG says:

        I think the main issue with hammers is that they are a more situational throw than forehand / backhand. I am rarely satisfied with my player’s backhand / forehand as it is, and so I suggest to newer players in particular that they work on those conventional throws much, much more than their hammer / scoober / lefty backhand. Not that all of those throws aren’t legitimate and useful, just that the backhand / forehand are moreso.


  3. Felix says:

    People are so biased against zone that, despite zone defeating vertical and horizontal stack offenses & every set play from said offenses, teams will play man-to-man against them and blame the force being broken, or something else inevitable. I mean, at least do a transition – what is this? Can five players standing in a line really still be happening at the top level? I don’t even…


  4. Pete says:

    Interesting that your article talks about bias against zone, because historically my Uni team has been biased towards it, to the extend that our man-to-man defence suffered as a result. Although we practiced it in training, we were reluctant to roll it out in competition as it was easier to stick to the zone that we were confident would be effective against most teams, in most conditions at the Uni level we were playing. As a result, when we were matched up against a strong, handler heavy team that could comfortably break our zone, we’d resort to shoddy man-to-man and struggle. Or perhaps we should have worked even harder on our zone? Interesting article.


  5. Anonymous says:

    This is a very interesting article Benji and a good point from Felix also. Uni ultimate definitely breeds bias. Often we play how the captains before us told us to and teach how they taught as well. At a uni level this usually means a very inexperienced person faking it till he makes it through the the final year and then passing on the same problems (even if they did also pass on some positive stuff).


  6. Magnum says:

    My only response is a simple one. Before I go further, I must say the “crazy throws” response was a good one. My response would be that (to play devil’s advocate) there is a law of diminishing returns. In NCAA Football 2006, Lee Corso would say that you go with the run, and the defense would start to creep up on you. Then, when the run stops working, you go with the pass. Same thing in ultimate. Between two prepared teams, the team that makes the best adjustments will always win out over the one that doesn’t.


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