What forms of selection bias are there?

 In Coach, Contributor

As with most pursuits of betterment, a strong sense of self-awareness is integral to becoming the best coach you can be.

Identifying the biases you are prone to can hopefully help you avoid these in the future, create a greater sense of parity within your organisations, and ultimately deliver greater success through selecting better players and creating more harmonious environments.

When we discuss selection bias in sport, this has historically been heavily analysed along a few lines.

Racial bias is a clear determinant that has shaped teams in the past century and beyond.

It’s further alleged that, in certain sports, a bias towards particular social classes is also evident.

When we discuss gender, that takes the conversation in an even more complex direction. Females have not only been denied equal prevalence in unisex sports, but also the same fulltime training capacity, professional contracts, promotion and pay as male counterparts.

For the sake of avoiding rehashing what has been discussed many times in the past, for this Coach’s Companion column we will focus on a different facet to show how subconscious bias can impact your team make-up.

What we will talk about has been shown many times to have a presence in the workplace, but has largely gone ignored in sporting circles – which is kind of crazy when you consider how closely workplaces and professional sports now reflect each other.

How much better off are the better looking? That’s the question which paved the way for the 2011 book by economics professor Daniel S Hemrmesh called Beauty Pays.

Along the same lines, Forbes Media says that the “existence of a beauty premium in the labour market is well-documented”.

A trio of University of Chicago researchers penned a research paper which ultimately concluded that physically attractive people are more likely to be interviewed, be hired, advance rapidly through promotions, and earn higher wages.

It’s been my contention that this same bias exists across the sporting sphere.

In some corners of sport it’s almost impossible to argue against. Those players who get selected for post-career TV roles or marketing opportunities by-and-large fit a particular mould.

But I’d also contend that the bias starts at a much more formative stage, which can impact the tangents of entire careers.

Could you hand-on-heart say that you don’t think facial appearance has anything to do with how junior coaches, representative coaches and scouts prioritise developing talent?

I’m not talking about it being a conscious bias, or even an all-pervasive bias.

Yet I do think, in the greater probability of outcomes (not in every instance), that it can tip the scale.

Does a ‘better looking’ kid stick out more from the crowd? Does a kid who smiles more and reflects an appearance of positivity encourage more favourable treatment? Or does a kid who perhaps reminds the coach of their younger self gain an advantage?

Attractiveness bias

On some level, I believe we subconsciously will ‘better looking’ kids to succeed, because we want them to become a champion of the human race, an embodiment of perfection for others to aspire to.

And perhaps, for the vainglorious, some want a later association made between their mentorship and a product of perfection.

However, I’m also happy to concede that the exact opposite may also be true – and that maybe certain sports coaches shun ‘better looking’ kids because they don’t think they are cut out for the demands of their pursuit, or perhaps there is even an element of resentment.

Either way, it is a bias. And bias is something for us to acknowledge and combat when the decision should instead be based on contribution, ability and skill.

More strongly, it might be argued that aesthetic appearance affects the role that people come to play within organisations.

Do our preconceived notions of what halfbacks or props look like (beyond mass) prevent us from picking certain people in certain positions?

Have you ever heard somebody say “They’re too good-looking to be a forward”?

Do we have an ingrained idea of what a striker looks like? A wicketkeeper? A goal attack? A captain?

I’m not talking about height or weight here, purely from the neck up.

Interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section. Is this pure bunkum? Or have you thought the same thing?

You might even like to jot down some biases you believe have been detrimental to your own selection policy in the past, whether that’s privately or here to discuss with peers.

Coaches will naturally favour the hard-working, the committed and talented, but it’s those non-performance-based biases of which we must be wary.

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