Satisficing: Why Coaching is More About Good Enough than Best

In archery, competitors face a target with what we’ll call a concentric scoring model. Archers aim for the center of the target (the bullseye) and face linear consequences for failing to hit the bullseye: an arrow that hits just off the center will still be worth 8 or 9 points.

A standard archery target. Notice the concentric rings of linear scoring.

On the flipside, we have darts.

Dart players face a much more illogical scoring model. In darts, the optimal score (Triple 20) is sandwiched in between the dismal scores of 5 and 1. A slight deviation in wrist position, forearm supination, or dart release can be the difference between a 180 points or 3.

A standard dart board. Notice the random, illogical nature of the scoring.

Maximizing vs. Satisficing: Two types of winning strategies

If you and I are competing in archery, we’re playing a simple game of maximization. Aim for the bullseye, count up the points, see who’s the best in this concentric scoring model.

But if we’re playing darts, the best strategy might actually be to play a game of satisficing. While the Triple 20 is sitting there all nice and pretty in between the 5 and 1, if I’m not confident in my ability to hit the 20, I would probably be better off aiming for the area on the left part of the board running from 14-16. I won’t maximize my points, but I may win by finding an approach that is good enough. I satisfice.

That is, of course, unless I’m playing this guy:

A Whole New (More Realistic) World

Back in the 1950’s, economist, political scientist, and cognitive psychologist Herbert A. Simon introduced the idea of satisficing. In his Nobel Prize in Economics acceptance speech, he said that humans use satisficing in two distinct ways:

  1. To find an optimal solution for a simplified world
  2. To find a satisfactory solution for a more realistic world1

In our archery vs. darts example, the distinction is clear. 

Archery is finding an optimum solution for a simplified (concentric) world — one simply aims for the middle and tries to maximize their points. 

Whereas darts is all about finding a good enough solution for a more realistic world. For example, if I’m playing darts, a satisficer’s thought process might look like this: “I don’t have that good of aim the way it is, and I’m slightly tipsy after having a few drinks at the bar. Let’s aim for the left side of the board and hope for the best.”

I’ve used archery and darts as a way to make a point. The broader point of this post is to help you realize that most problems in life require satisficing, not maximization techniques.

Said differently, life’s scoring rubric is much more like darts than archery.

What any of this has to do with coaching

When we’re involved in a complex task like coaching, we’re forced to consider the trade off between maximizing and satisficing. Do we want the best, or are we willing to accept (and possibly even encourage) a satisfactory/sufficient outcome that avoids the worst outcomes.

As Rory Sutherland wrote in Alchemy, “It’s surely better to find satisfactory solutions for a realistic world, than perfect solutions for an unrealistic one.” I think that is brilliant.

While your decision will always be context-dependent, I want to close this article by highlighting some common coaching decisions that you can begin to employ satisficing today.

  • The strength coach: Instead of agonizing over which squat variation is the best for your particular athlete, ask yourself if there are any variations that should be avoided. Once you’ve eliminated the bad options, choose one from the list that’s left.
  • The pitching coach: In a similar vein, don’t get tied up in debates about which drill is best. Don’t seek to optimize where satisficing will do. Build drill packages that first do no harm before optimizing the athlete’s routine.
  • Hiring assistants: Using the idea of satisficing, there’s a pretty short list of traits you’re looking for in a “good enough” assistant, right? Trustworthiness, reliability, honesty, knowledgeable, hard-working, maybe a few others. If you can eliminate candidates who fail in one of these key areas, you can move forward much easier.
  • In your cueing: The only thing that matters in cueing is that you connect with the athlete in a way that he or she can apply what you asked him to do. Therefore, we are not necessarily looking for the optimal cue — a satisfactory cue will do.

I actually think this is how many of the best coaches think. Just like Bill Belichick, the best coaches have figured out that the best way to win is to not lose.

Unfortunately, we’ve been taught that coaching is like archery — aim for the bullseye and try to simply be the best. 

In reality, coaching is like darts. A small mistake can have significant downside. 

That’s why, when I coach, rather than aiming for the triple-20, I choose to aim for the left side of the board.

It’s not glamorous, but it works. I think you should give it a try.

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