Survivorship Bias in Sports Coaching

Coach analyzing a strategy board, illustrating the concept of Survivorship Bias in sports.

As coaches, our focus often spans multiple aspects influencing performance. However, are we really channeling our attention effectively? Or are we unknowingly swayed by the Survivorship Bias? Let’s delve deeper into this concept, tracing its origins back to World War II and exploring its impact on modern-day sports coaching.

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The Genesis of the Survivorship Bias

Abraham Wald, during World War II, became an unexpected pioneer of the Survivorship Bias concept. This theory, deeply rooted in wartime strategies, has gradually permeated various sectors of daily life. Wald’s primary responsibility revolved around translating wartime data, frequently obtained from fallen soldiers, into mathematical models. The Royal Air Force (RAF) once approached him with a pressing question: how best to shield their bombers from enemy fire?

The RAF’s Protective Dilemma

To enhance aircraft protection, armor needed to be strategically placed. But where? Wald inquired about the most common locations where returning aircraft sustained damage. Evidently, the fuselage, wings, and tail bore the most hits. Surprisingly, Wald suggested reinforcing the engines and the cockpit. This perplexed many officers, as their data indicated maximum damage to the wings, fuselage, and tail. However, this revelation embodies the very essence of the Survivorship Bias. Why bolster areas that already demonstrated resilience? The planes that failed to return probably sustained hits in areas unmarked on the charts – namely, the cockpit and engines.

Sporting Dreams & Survivorship Bias

When we pivot to sports, many young aspirants dream of becoming professional soccer players, idolizing legends like Messi. But what are their real chances? Research reveals that only 180 out of 1.5 million youth footballers in the UK will likely play in the Premier League. A staggering 99.99% will face disappointment. Similarly, in the U.S., male basketball players have a mere 0.03% chance to transform their passion into a professional pursuit.

Perception in Coaching

Often, coaches inadvertently focus on the player with the ball. However, the true essence of the game lies in the movements and positions of the other players. Their readiness, positioning, and defensive strategies are pivotal. Additionally, understanding the opponent’s tactics when you have the ball—like their formation and defensive stance—can significantly inform your game strategy.

The Brain’s Efficiency and Survivorship Bias

Our brains are energy-intensive, consuming about 20% of the body’s produced energy. To conserve energy, our brains deploy mental shortcuts. This can lead to unintentional oversights or magnifications. This inherent tendency emphasizes the Survivorship Bias’s significance, urging us to continuously reevaluate our perceptions and analyses.

Conclusion: A Critical Eye in Coaching

The Survivorship Bias serves as a potent reminder to stay critically engaged in our analysis. Are we observing the entire picture or just the highlighted fragments? Although this blog won’t change your perceptions overnight, it certainly offers a fresh perspective to ponder upon.


Illustration of hypothetical damage pattern on a WW2 bomber. Based on a not-illustrated report by Abraham Wald (1943), picture concept by Cameron Moll (2005, claimed on Twitter and credited by Mother Jones), new version by McGeddon based on a Lockheed PV-1 Ventura drawing (2016), vector file by Martin Grandjean (2021).

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