I was recently having a conversation about risk in volleyball. My own views on the topic are well known. My view is that many people misinterpret what the risks are (here, here and here, for starters) and what they really mean. The specific conversation I was having referenced a service error at the end of a Champions League final (coincidentally this match) ‘costing the match’. A better solution would have been a tactical serve that could have been coupled with a blocking tactic to win a point. However, if we were to analyse the situation to determine which alternative would actually have been the ‘riskier’, we would find that it depends on how you define risk. A strong serve maximises the chance to win the point, but also maximises the risk of losing the point directly. A tactical serve maximises the chance of not losing the point directly, but also maximises the risk of losing the point in the extended rally. So which option carries the greatest risk? Making an error is considered a risky behaviour, and but making an easy play that increasing the likelihood of losing the rally in another way is not. Why do we value the direct error differently than other methods of losing points?
I thought that the psychological field of cognitive biases might provide us with some clues. I found four common biases that seem to fit or contribute to this (false) understanding of errors. A broad list of cognitive biases and explanations is here. The Certainty Effect causes people to overweigh outcomes that are considered certain relative to outcomes that are merely possible. An error is certain to lose the rally, and as risk is associated with errors, risk compared to all the other possible outcomes seems to make errors certain. If we combine this with Hindsight Bias, the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome that could not have been predicted, “I knew they were going to make an error!”, and our old favourite Confirmation Bias, the tendency to search for or interpret information in the way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs, “They always make an error in that situation”, we can see how errors could have become so central to our thinking about the game and to how to make particular kinds of decisions. Alternatively, it could simply be Loss Aversion, the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. The pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. It is better to avoid a service error than to serve an ace. And if you want to read about Regret Aversion, click here.
For the record, I rarely talk about risk in my own coaching. I don’t think it is the appropriate word because it carries an implication of error and I don’t like to talk about errors. I much prefer to talk about how to win points, or create point scoring opportunities.
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