• Jason Lampkin

The broken academy system survives because of survivorship bias

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. It is a form of selection bias.

Survivorship bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are – either consciously or subconsciously – ignored. A young academy footballer provides a perfect personification of the term.

They’re cognizant of the fact that only one in a thousand will achieve their dream. Friends, family and coaches may even remind them of the foreboding forecast at regular intervals throughout their blossoming career. Regardless, every one of those thousand will justifiably believe they’re the one.

Academy footballers are naturally risk tolerant, not risk averse. They know that the odds are stacked against them but, rightly, still play their hand: if they don’t buy a ticket they can’t win the lottery, after all.

The belief of the big winner

When we purchase a lottery ticket, we do so having already picked the exact shade of red that will coat the convertible supercar we’ll be driving off the forecourt once we collect our winnings.

But if the shopkeeper reminded us that we’re statistically more likely to be hit by a meteorite, be canonized, become president of the USA, be wrongfully convicted of a crime, have conjoined twins, or die in a plane crash, we might think twice before handing over our cash.

The statistical truth is that only 0.012% of those that enter the academy system will go on to ‘make it.’ It is a startlingly low success rate, and one that we might not stomach in any other career or industry.

So with the failure rate sky high, why aren’t aspiring footballers better prepared for what is statistically likely to transpire?

Survivorship bias and the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than just coincidence, could be behind the neglect.

Survivorship bias: correlation proves causality

If three of five students with the best college grades went to the same high school, that can lead one to believe that the high school must offer an excellent education.

This could be true, but the question cannot be answered without looking at the grades of all the other students from that high school, not just the ones who “survived” the top-five selection process. Similarly, how many of us are aware of what happened to the remainder of Manchester United’s famed ‘class of ’92’?

Can you name any of the other teammates that Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt, Gary and Phil Neville came through the ranks with? We might assume that they all went on to have glittering careers away from Old Trafford. That would be an incorrect assumption.

Another distinct mode of survivorship bias would be thinking that an incident was not as dangerous as it was because everyone you communicate with afterwards survived. Even if you knew that some people died, they wouldn’t have their voice to add to the conversation, leading to bias in the conversation.

Similarly we think that academy systems aren’t the minefields they really are simply because it’s the ones that make it that get our attention.

It’s frankly not in the interest of the press to interview academy drop-outs over academy graduates. Likewise, we’d rather hear the story of someone who succeeded in an endeavor rather than someone that didn’t. I can’t think of any postmen with autobiographies.

We can all, in fact, learn from both; the ‘failures’ as well as the ‘successes.’ But if you think football is alone in suffering the consequences of survivorship bias, think again.

How can we battle vs our biases?

Survivorship bias is all around us. We just can’t, or refuse, to see it. But in football it is blatantly and blindingly obvious that we must do better.

The academy system is broken but it succeeds because of survivorship bias and the general amnesia of many of those that operate within it: for every success story there are thousands of failures, but who remembers – or even wants to remember – those?

In a numbers game like football, it only takes a couple of wins to cover the cost incurred from the losses. The academy system stinks of gamblers mantra.

The boys that are sucked in to the academy system only to be spat out on the other side deserve better than to suffer the consequences of the clandestine and careless biases that the industry holds. After effectively sacrificing their childhood (past) and jeopardizing future success in another career, the least that the academies could do is help them in the present.

Academy prospects are often taken out of school for at least a day a week for extra training from at least the age of 14 upwards. That’s 20% of their education scrapped and replaced by sessions that evidently and statistically aren’t legitimate or understandable substitutes.

Football is a physical sport and the skills one learns on the field are not always applicable or transferrable to a corporate career.

With such singular focus on creating players fit for the first team, academy systems often falter and fail to offer adequate education options and reasonable contingency plans for the 99.988% that need them most.

Fair enough, you might say: the lads are there to become footballers, not accountants, doctors, teachers, or scientists. And actually, I’d agree with you on that.

But why shouldn’t academies also take more accountability and responsibility for the future of the prospects who won’t become footballers, but could go on to become any of the aforementioned? A proactive rather than reactive approach to preparing people for life after football is absolutely imperative.

It’s time for academies to start looking after the surplus as well as the survivors. We need to rethink and redesign the broken system so we can properly define what it means to be a success.

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