In the past, we’ve discussed how NHL coaches can sometimes be sacrificed before the percentages – meaning they’ll be fired for things that are pretty much completely out of their control. It’s may seem strange to consider the guy who draws up the strategy, the line-up, the match-ups and special teams as not in control, but the truth is there’s only so much coaches can do to ensure victory. Overall, they are at the mercy of the quality of their line-up, injuries to their players, officiating and plain ol’ dumb luck on any given night. This is part of the reason all coaches are “hired to be fired” – when things go wrong, it’s easier to sack the bench boss than trade the entire team.

The asymmetry between a coaches perceived level of control and actual ability to affect outcomes can cause a feeling of helplessness in coaches during dry spells. For example, Avalanche blogger Jibblescribbits recently had this to say about the decision-making of Joe Sacco:

Last night at the beginning of the Phoenix game…McNab said something about Sacco that really starts to make me wonder about him.

Paraphrasing: Sacco told me he changed goalies for tonight in order to change things up and get a win. It’s not that Budaj played awfully, it’s that he felt like he needed to change things up to try and get a spark.

I’m taking it with a bit if a grain of salt. There’s (hopefully) more to Sacco’s decision than he mentions in this quote. That said, I also think there’s at least a kernel of truth to it. If this is the real reason it’s mind-numbingly stupid, for a multitude of reasons.

Sacco’s basically admitting he has absolutely no idea what to do…It’s superstition and one step away from buying a voodoo doll of opposing players and hoping that it helps.

This is all true and not limited to Sacco. As Gabriel Desjardins recently noted, most NHL coaches tend to waffle on goalies, especially in favor of “riding the hot hand”, even though that just means they’re usually just chasing after variance.

Of course, this type of ritual isn’t limited to just goaltending decisions, nor to losing streaks. By way of another example, back when the Flames were losing more often than not, Brent Sutter scratched rookie Mikael Backlund because he felt the kid was struggling a bit. The Flames went on to win the next game and then the next, effectively sealing Backlund’s fate for the foreseeable future. Fans and the coaching staff will tell you now that Backlund certainly wasn’t the reason for losing prior to the scratch, nor was his replacement in the line-up (recently demoted Ales Kotalik) the reason for the new found success. It was merely coincidental. The Flames eventually started losing again and Backlund found his way back into the line-up, but by the end the organization’s lone noteworthy offensive prospect to speak of had watched six contests from the pressbox by then. When asked why he kept Backlund out of the line-up so long, Sutter shrugged and said “we started winning”.

The urge to attribute causation to correlation is strong in people. It’s instinctual, in fact. Even when one can reason that X doesn’t effect Y, it seems impossible to shake the notion of a relationship if the two seem to occur in concert. For example, imagine walking out of your house one day and on your way to work you trip on the sidewalk. Shortly thereafter, it rains. Of course, you’d dismiss it as mere coincidence. However, imagine the same thing happened the next three times you tripped on the sidewalk on the way to to work. Would you start to wonder, against all sense and rationality, that you may have fallen upon a new rain dance?

The urge to engage in ritual and superstition is even higher when a person lacks control. In a recent paper entitled “Lack of Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception”, Adam Galinsky and Jennifer Whitson note that “when individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try to gain it perceptually.”

Meaning, even when things are beyond our control, the brain searches for ways to increase control (or our perception of control) in some manner. Add in the tendency to perceive patterns in randomness and mistake correlation for causation and you have coaches engaging in seemingly nonsensical actions and angry fans writing about it.