Coaching Soccer and the Instinctual Biases

Jul 23, 2021

By Mario Fernandez and Mario Sikora

There are 40 million children who participate in sports in the United States but, according to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports 70% decided to leave the sport by the time they reach high school. It turns out kids want to have fun, but they often encounter something else. Factors that create a combative and unpleasant environment include: poor facilitation of a training environment as a coach, mismanagement and continual quarrels amongst coaches and parents, general lack of coherence and alignment between club, coaches and parents, etc.

The goal of this article is to challenge the current status quo of what it means to be a coach, and encourage coaches to develop an understanding of what impact our Instinctual Biases can have in our day-to-day interaction with players, colleagues, and parents. This holistic and adaptable approach, regardless of age, level, or culture confronts the standard of leadership and performance management to ensure that we, as coaches and educators, meet the needs of the people and athletes we affect on a daily basis in the most relatable way possible.

The Three Instinctual Biases

The Instinctual Biases are deeply ingrained tendencies to find certain aspects of life—one of three instinctual domains—to be more important than others and focus our attention accordingly. They are at the heart of our systems of values—the fundamental biological needs that we care the most about. It’s important to note, we interact with all three of these domains, but have an inherent bias toward one that tends to be the North Star influencing why and where we spend our time and energy.


Those with a dominant bias towards Preserving tend to focus on ensuring that their fundamental physical needs, and the needs of those they care about, are looked after, and that resources are in constant full stock. Cautious and conservative, keen on traditions, it’s important to revert back to what’s worked for them. Although often very caring and nurturing, when the preserving domain is over-emphasized, the ability to play devil’s advocate becomes destructive, and a guarded approach to everything begins to prevent improvement.

Leaders with a Preserving bias naturally gravitate to the “nuts and bolts” of things. They can display an immense level of consistency when executing continual processes and tasks. As a coach they can be meticulous in the organization of training session, with the ability to clearly define structure and procedures. They are risk-averse by nature and can be resistant to change. Though structure can make for a good leader in an organization that needs stability, the need to improvise or adapt, commonly seen in training sessions or games, can make Preservers begin to feel a loss of control. 


Those with a dominant bias toward Navigating tend to focus on “orientating to the group,” deeply understanding the inner workings of the group, and everything that consists of the relations. They are attuned to communicating and extracting information, but they can sometimes hold back their thoughts and ideas. This skill allows them to navigate the shifting patterns of relationships by deciphering what’s important. When their Navigating domain is overemphasized, they begin to get caught up in the political side of things, become overly concerned about their own standing, which results in derailing their capacity to reach the end goal of player and team success.

Leaders with a Navigating bias are naturally drawn to elements that revolve around group dynamics and interpersonal communication. As a coach, they easily gravitate to facilitating how team members coexist with one another. They intuitively know what levers to pull in order to move a group forward but can find themselves neglecting the structure and procedures that can lead to a lack of player and team development.


Those with a dominant bias toward Transmitting tend to focus on “attracting and bonding.” They are often charismatic, bold, and ambitious. They innately send signals highlighting their abilities and hone in on those who are receptive to their signaling and establish an intense connection. Although good at building relationships, they are significantly better at transmitting their message than receiving those of others.

Leaders with a Transmitting bias are generally very brash, they’re driven to leave an impression. They are able to influence others at the individual and collective level, making them desirable to follow. They are good at building strategic partnerships, but they are not attuned to subtle interpersonal dynamics. As a coach, they are usually able to captivate and inspire a player and team. This allows for his or her players to feel wanted and committed to playing for the coach. When they overemphasize transmitting, however, these leaders live too much for their accomplishments and make the teams victories their own victories.

It’s essential for stakeholders, club directors, and coaches to realize that their Instinctual Bias helps shape their understanding, execution or lack of attention to competencies that ultimately affect the players development and experience. For example, if you’re a coach whose Instinctual Bias is Navigating, you will probably gravitate towards harnessing a cohesive team, concentrating efforts to nourishing relationships. Although this provides continuity and a strong interpersonal bond amongst players, there’s a probable chance that they lack awareness in the organization and structure aspect of player and team development. This imbalance results in discontent in the dynamics between player, parents, and coach.

Challenging ourselves to look at our current competencies through the lens of our Instinctual Bias fundamentally aligns who we are and what we are doing. The aim isn’t to be perfect, nor should it be. However, we demand and challenge players around us to be continuous learners, reflect, step out of their comfort zone, and grow. We should do the same. By doing this, the creation of alignment and cohesion increases and conflict and distractions decrease, leading to an environment more suitable and enriching for the player. Better said, it’s just more fun.

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