Think back to a recent poor performance. What was the cause? Maybe you were sick, had poor sleep leading up to the race, overcooked the workouts leading up to the race, or simply ‘gave in’ when the pain set in. Chances are you have an answer to why you ran poorly. It might not have been immediately apparent but after some close reflection, I would bet an answer developed. An explanation emerged and took hold.

If there is one item that sets us, humans, apart from our close cousins, it’s our ability to create stories. It’s ingrained in us. In fact, it’s this need for stories that help drive our curiosity. The stories themselves aren’t for entertainment but serve a purpose. We need to tie up any loose ends that may exist in our world at the moment, to create a cohesive story that we can accept and walk away feeling good about. If we don’t reach some sort of closure, then our minds deviate down a path of uncertainty and rumination, which is so unpleasant that we are forced to find some sort of satisfying conclusion.

It’s with this inherent need for closure that we assign reasoning to our behaviors, whether they were successful or a failure.

And it turns out; the stories we create are often both wrong and insightful.

The Story in our Head:

Chances are, when I asked what caused your poor performance, the explanations all involved things that had happened recently before.

As a coach, you see this every weekend at any high school, college, or professional meet across the country. Younger athletes assign all of their results to what occurred most recently. The days and workouts leading up are assigned the most importance. Meanwhile, they forget about skipping that summer base a few months before. Ask any coach and we have all had that moment where our athlete approaches us after a bad race and is legitimately perplexed why. In the coaches head, thoughts of “do you not remember all of those supplemental runs you missed, or how out of shape you came in from summer break” ring through their heads. The coach, because of perspective, understands it, but the athlete simply doesn’t get it. He’s focused on how hard he’s worked for the past week or two.

There’s no connection. If an athlete nails his last workout before a race, he instantly thinks he is ready to go. Forget anything that has happened for the previous few months, a good workout or two often has this nice effect of instilling false confidence.

The athletes who have been around in the game long enough, tend not to have an emotional rollercoaster of workout dependent confidence. They go with the flow and have stable confidence over time as long as things are generally moving in the right direction. The newbie approaches each workout as he faces every new text message from the girl he has a crush on. Each message is analyzed and his confidence that she ‘likes’ him rises and crashes based on the use of a smiley face or a winky face there.

The confidence of our young athlete faces similar tumultuous reactions based on a second too fast or too slow here or there on this weeks quarter repeats. The confidence of our experienced pro is based on the knowledge of stringing together months of good, solid work.

Social scientists have a name for this effect, the recency effect. It’s our own internal bias to assign causation to problems we encounter. Our minds work best in assigning causation in a straightforward fashion: If this…then that. It’s why the draw for immediate explanations causes us to believe in crazy things like UFO sightings, astrological signs, and other such nonsense. They provide easy immediate answers that follow this pattern of thinking. Quite simply, when we need an immediate answer, our drive for closure is so strong, that we reach for whatever is there to reach it.

What the experienced athlete has figured out is how to turn down his recency effect bias. They know that while we tend to assign the most importance to what just occurred, the reality is much different.

When it comes to understanding our success or failure, then we must learn to turn down this recency effect. Developing the ability to step back and not grasp onto the immediate answer allows us to dig deep enough to find the actual cause.

As a coach that means after a successful race by an athlete, not jumping to the conclusion that it was the recent 400m repeats you did that was the key to success, but instead, understand the building of the athlete that you had to do to get to that point.

Even if we are strong-willed enough to resist the urge for that immediate recent answer, how we assign blame matters.

The Blame Game:

The word blame has a negative connotation. When it’s used, we think of assigning blame to a person, where we are attaching fault to a person. We attach this fault to a person’s self-concept, essentially attacking that person’s inner conception of themselves. But if we look at what we are doing when we assign blame, it’s the creating a reason for an outcome. And how we do that, gives us insight into how resilient an individual is.

As Psychologist Jim Davies states in his book Riveted“When we are successful, we tend to attribute it to our stable traits (for example ‘I’m smart’) or to behaviors (“I’m a hard worker). When something bad happens to us, we blame the situation.”

Our desire to blame is largely ego driven. We need to protect ourselves from attacks and boost our self-concept when we succeed. But it turns out that our natural reactions tend to follow a pattern. Researchers have divided an individuals reaction to failure as either a rebounder or an evader. The difference largely centers on where they assign the blame.

When we blame external circumstances, we protect our own ego or self-concept. If we can blame someone or something for our performance than we side-step from having to deal with it. “It wasn’t my fault” is the common story we tell to make ourselves feel better. The connotation is that if it wasn’t your fault, then you have nothing to learn from it. It takes us out of learning mode, signaling the brain that we have an answer to our question and we can simply move on without changing anything. This behavior commonly reflects an evader, someone who evades assigning blame to themselves or their actions.

On the flip side, we have rebounders, who generally take an introspective approach where they attempt to learn from their failures. The key difference here is ‘learn’. They don’t assign their self-worth to their performance and realize that the goal should be how to figure out how to improve for next time. Therefore, they take an investigative approach, looking for the cause. These individuals also tend to display the even keel nature that the experienced athletes discussed earlier had. As my High School coach liked to say they “never get too high on the highs or to lows on the lows.”

Now, all of this being said, it’s likely that we need to have the ability to both evade and rebound. After all, failure is going to be due to external factors on occasion and constantly assigning all blame to yourself is a recipe for self-doubt and loss of confidence if you are constantly failing.

The goal shouldn’t be to adopt either way exclusively but to understand the implications. If an external factor is truly the culprit, then you didn’t take yourself out of learning mode. Perhaps you weren’t equipped to deal with the heat in the marathon (an external factor). That’s fine, but if that was the case, now you have learned that you need to better prepare for those conditions.

So What?

In this psychology focused article, we’ve looked at two different influences on how we assign blame. In the first part, we analyzed the recency effect and how it can bias us towards assigning reasons that aren’t the actual reasons. In the second part, we looked at how where we assign that blame impacts our future performance.

Next time you encounter a good or bad performance, step back and realize the importance of the next step you take.

As human beings, we are inherently lazy creatures. Our minds like to take the easy well-worn path. It prefers the shortcuts and simple answers that come right away thanks to our intense drive for closure. Couple this with our need to protect our ego, and you get a dangerous combination of a tendency to want to assign blame to recent external items.

While recent external items might actually be the reasons for our failures, recognizing that this is our default reaction is important. Next time you see yourself doing this as a coach or an athlete, simply step back and ask if this is the true answer of if your mind simply wants to be done with trying to figure this question out, so it’ll accept anything you tell it as long as closure occurs.


Steve Magness is an author of two books, Peak Performance and The Science of Running. His writing has appeared in Wired, Sports Illustrated, Outside, and other publications. He can be found on twitter @stevemagness

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    1 Comment

    1. Russ Brandt on September 6, 2018 at 1:59 pm

      Good article. It got me thinking…aren’t we pretty arrogant to think we can EVER truly assign reasons to any performance? If one were to code an algorithm to predict performance, how many critical factors could there be? Maybe hundreds? Can the human brain actually properly assimilate all these variables?

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