• Jack Fleming

The Pitfalls of Categorical Thinking

"The traditional learning environment inhibits the cross-pollination of ideas. It’s led to a world of isolated subjects where cutting-edge discoveries in fields like physics and mathematics can only be understood by a small number of people." - David Perell





How do we understand and learn and remember things?


By this thing called categorical thinking, where we put things


into groups or chunks in order to make it easier to store information and evaluate.


How do we remember phone numbers? Well we take this 10 digit code, and we chunk it into a 4-3-3 pattern.


How do we remember players when we have a whole bunch of them? Well we might categorise them into positions such as guards, wings and forwards.


So categorical thinking or chunking is important. But here are some of the downfalls.


1. You can't differentiate two facts which fall within the same category. Compression.


Let's take the example of roster building or team selection. You've got your list of 5 traditional positions - point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and the centre.


You have a list of the point guards you can afford, and you're analysing the numbers and video etc and this can often make us forget how different two point guards could be.


You could take a Damian Martin in the NBL who defends 94 feet, gets offensive rebounds, leads his team but might shoot 4 shots a game.


Then there's Casper Ware who might score in the high 20's per game, but will potentially get hung up on screens and spend most of his energy down the offensive end.


Well they are entirely different players in the same category.


2. Have trouble seeing the subtle differences when you put a boundary between two things. Amplification.


Win and loss is a fairly big difference, but is it? Emotionally it changes my whole night.


"Consider that NBA coaches are 17% more likely to change their starting lineup in a game following a close loss (100–101) than they are following a close win (100–99), even though the difference in the other team’s scores is only two points. But few coaches would change a lineup because their team lost 100–106 rather than 100–108, even though the difference is still only two points. A loss feels qualitatively different from a win, because you don’t think about sports outcomes as being on a continuum." - Harvard Business Review


You often see the drastic changes after a disaster, fire the coach, change the offence etc. But are we over reacting?


Are we letting our emotions or categorical systems get in the way?


The same applies to late game situations, maybe you ran the right play, got an open shot but it didn't go in. Does that make it wrong? Because of the result.


Stan Van Gundy said "You have to take the criticism that it didn't work out, but understanding your own mind, would I play that the same way or did I learn something that I would change? And it can't just be the result.


As a coach we get sensitive to the criticism."


3. When you pay attention too much to boundaries, you don't see the big picture. Microscopism.


The best view I have of this is this shot by Andrea Bargnani, he's so focused on that fact that he's open with an opportunity to score for himself, he forgets they are up 2 in OT with 15 seconds left and has just given the ball to the other team.


Another story that comes to mind is my mentor telling me about them selecting an elite junior team in Victoria, and it came to the discussion of the best player in the age group. Still in the NBL to this day, but at the time the assistants were quizzing the Head Coach about what position will he play? Is he a 3 or a 4, where will he fit? The Head Coach responded with "it doesn't matter, he's good."


The video below, I'm sure you might have seen before but is interesting nonetheless.



Sometimes we get so caught up in our own little parts that we forget to step back and take the broad view. It's a day to day, moment to moment problem. We are only human, and we all do it.


Possible Solutions to Work Against Categorical Thinking


1. Insert a devils advocate into the room

  • Have somebody who is outside of the emotional investment of your team, that can take a broader perspective.

  • Someone who is looking for the pit falls and problems of categorical thinking, who can question with comfort and confidence.

2. Have consistent processes regardless of the outcome

  • Review games the same way, with the same rigour whether you win or lose.

  • Have hot and cold reviews, immediately after the match/practice and then after watching the film to check the accuracy of your recall.

3. Have visionaries and integrators

  • This often happens organically, but the Head coach is usually the visionary who maintains the broader perspective and the bigger picture.

  • The assistants are the integrators, they are putting the pieces together and getting into the detail.

  • As Brett Brown says "I coach from a cloud" meaning he trusts his assistants but his job is to look from above and make sure the pieces fit together.

4. Constantly audit your processes

  • Keep continually evolving and looking for holes in the objectives you measure or criteria you use.

  • Scrutinise your most basic beliefs to not get stuck in the 'that's the way we've always done it' mould.


Resources for Further Reading

The Dangers of Categorical Thinking - Harvard Business Review


Robert Sapolsky - Stanford Lecture


Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business


Stan Van Gundy - Basketball Immersion Podcast






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