Daily Thought: The Fallacy of Small Numbers

bird s eye view of group of people

I understand that I should post a similar pieces daily to do this series justice, and I’ll do better going forward. Today’s feature combines ranting and philosophical musings about something I know as the fallacy of small numbers and how it affects some perspectives leading to bad coaching practices.

My rant is related to the mission I’ve declared repeatedly – to change the conversation about what coaching should be. 

The fallacy of small numbers and bad coaching practices.
Bad coaching and its consequences

As you know, I’ve make it a point to call out lousy coaching practices and those who defend them. This endeavour leads me into necessary conversations with colleagues and other industry “professionals”. 

These conversations are primarily constructive and empowering, but too many cling to the archaic idea of sparing the rod and spoiling the child as a valid approach to coaching. 

And I wish I could say that the last part of that statement is hyperbole, but how some coaches speak to their athletes is often tantamount to a physical beating. I can write volumes about this nonsense, but I want to focus on one aspect of some people’s thinking that might shed more light on the subject. 

The fallacy of Small Numbers

In philosophy, the fallacy of small numbers is the erroneous belief that a small sample of a population represents the majority of that population, or at least, a significant part of it. 

This belief, as it is false, is conceived without sufficient evidence or solely based on the evidence available to the person holding it. 

In gambling, it’s called the Law of small numbers, which manifests as the idea that one single event (or a minimal series of events) affects the probability of subsequent outcomes. It doesn’t. 

It’s a problem of limited perspective, a myopic view of a significantly more extensive and complex set of experiences. 

How It Affects Coaching

In one of those conversations that failed to move any of us forward, my interlocutor asked, “what about all the athletes I’ve helped?”

My reply, which came in the form of different questions, caused an abrupt end to the conversation. 

What about all the children who came to you for help and didn’t get it? How many of them felt ignored, mistreated, and belittled by you? What of all the children whose love for the sport you stole? 

Indeed, we can’t make everyone happy. There are circumstances beyond our control and our purview as coaches. However, if we can’t improve life circumstances, we should endeavour not to make things worse. 

The formula is simple to understand in terms of numbers without detailed statistics. 

If ten athletes come to you for help and only two achieve the goal set by your definition of success, you need to reconsider that definition and your position as a coach. 

— Coach José


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