The art of thinking clearly

By: Elite Soccer

When it comes to the assessment of habit, philosophy and psychology in sport, you might not think to make Swiss writer, novelist and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli your first port of call – after all, this is someone with his knowledge base firmly in the world of economics. But as he explains to Elite Soccer, the lessons of business and the application of some key cognitive ideas can have profound effects on competitive application not only in the boardroom, but on the training ground as well.

How much of what we do every day in our professional lives is led by ingrained, counterproductive thinking? According to Rolf Dobelli, the author behind The Art of Thinking Clearly, it’s an alarming amount. From the most basic business choices to multi-billion pound mergers, the Swiss entrepreneur argues that evolutionary instinct plays a crucial and often detrimental part in decision-making.

Taken from 104 newspaper columns originally in German, and translated into 99 chapters in English, The Art of Thinking Clearly compiles 30-plus years of research into cognitive biases – such as envy, expertise and social distortion – while highlighting common thinking errors. Made accessible by Dobelli’s keenly observant mind, the tome is packed full of wit and laugh-out-loud analogies, which seemingly prove – somewhat worryingly – that we aren’t thinking very clearly at all.

Dobelli, 47, is a prolific thinker and huge advocate of individual guidance. Subscribing to the notion of ‘the team’ is essential, of course, if any functioning unit is to come together, but he believes we are in danger of moving too far away from the kind of individual spark that, in the context of sport, truly sets great players apart from the others. These are the experimenters, the flair players – the ones possessing the kind of technical or tactical brilliance that can unlock the opposition.

“The application of this theory depends on the situation,” he begins. “If we are talking about common sense episodes, then there is no need to stray from what we all know. And yes, at times we need to follow the trend because that is the established and best route, something that has been proved by countless others before us.

“But when it comes to consequential decisions, and in fields that are new to our brain, that common sense doesn’t apply anymore. It gets us into the wrong territory. It makes sense to take a step back and think logically about these things.

“Something that doesn’t work, for example, is following the crowd. Our brains are really made for the hunter-gatherer world: 99 per cent of our past is hunter-gatherer and only about one per cent is civilisation. So the brain is optimised for that evolutionary path. It makes sense then to distance yourself and not follow the crowd.”

In the book, Rolf calls it “social proof”. He references the example of hearing something rustling in the bushes when out hunting with buddies 50,000 years ago. Your friends dash away, and you probably don’t stand there and think independently – you dash away too; you follow your friends. But this is the inbuilt reactive psychology that the author is attempting to alter.

“Teams – be they management teams or sports team – are rather ingrained in doing things through process and structure too. Yet modern sport in particular is crying out for originality.”

The book attaches itself to the same principles offered in the session by Norwich City coach Gregg Broughton (see page 14), and succeeds largely in its plea for creativity. While the author stokes the furnaces with some rather cutting comments regarding the skill-sets of some management groups, this prose actually reinforces his claim that we are perhaps suppressing the creative instincts of players.

Dobelli’s is a desire for invention, not convention, and this is a body of work that is well worth investigating, whether read from the perspective of a player or coach.