Capturing the Nature of Decision-making in Team Sports
A hallmark of post-game interviews with coaches across all team sports is the concept of decision-making, possibly framed in a positive or negative sense. It is clear that decision-making, whether team-based, or individual is a key discriminating factor toward success in elite sport. However, despite its prevalence, there never seems to be a clear description or conception of what ‘decision-making’ actually is. This ambiguity is usually counteracted with responses like ‘well it’s just the decisions players make’ or ‘they made the right or wrong choice there’ whereas the reality is far more complex. Consequently, I decided to use the sport of rugby union as a vehicle to investigate decision-making and truly identify its place and purpose across all team sports.
A Battle of Perspectives
Research in decision making can be dissected into two perspectives, the ‘information processing’ and ‘dynamical systems’ approaches. Work from the information processing paradigm suggests that a player will make a decision through the conscious processing of information provided by the competitive environment. Informational cues, whether visual (defenders, position on the pitch, teammates) or auditory (calls from supporting players, pre-planned calls), are recognised in the perceptual environment and allow for the selection of an appropriate response and an appropriate motor action. Then, the dynamical systems approach proposes that decisions are made intuitively, where players act on perception without processing the information. They suggest that decisions are made based on what the athlete can implicitly offer the environment, rather than how they interpret and process different cues. Research from both parties has generated empirical evidence to support their stance, but seem to miss a clear factor when investigating decision-making, the ever-changing situational complexity in team sports.
Over the period of a competitive match, there will be variation in time and spatial constraints, available information, and difficulty of tasks. This change in demand can be labelled as the level of complexity provided by different situations. Research has suggested that high levels of complexity, include a higher frequency of informational cues, time, and spatial constraints which demand explicit processing in order to generate an appropriate response and action. Conversely, low levels of complexity, which afford minimal pieces of information demand an implicit and subconscious response to make a decision. This would suggest that the two conflicting perspectives are both accurate depending on the complexity of the situation which a player faces. To provide examples, a fly-half in rugby union may have time to scan the defensive line from a scrum situation, call a tactical move and execute the correct option within the unfolding play. Conversely, a winger may receive the ball wide on the pitch with limited time to make a decision due to a defender closing down their space, reducing or perhaps removing their ability to process options. Both situations demand a different decision-making process depending on the complexity that is provided.
Tactics, Knowledge and Experience
There are a number of external factors that would impact on how a player makes a decision (or doesn’t) within team sports. Firstly, tactics allow players to play within a framework, meaning players adopt a ‘role’ they have to execute which may take away the emergence of a decision. Tactics tend to provide players with clear options when making decisions, suggesting that the information should be processed to come to an appropriate response. Secondly, individual knowledge and experience may impact on the level of processing a player makes in different situations. A player may have played for 10 years at the highest level and now sees a fairly complex situation with high spatial and informational cues, but is able to respond appropriately without the conscious processing of information. This suggests there is a clear link between higher levels of expertise and the ability to identify the most relevant cues, thus lowering the required processing of unneeded information within the decision-making process.
The Decision-Making Processing Continuum
There are different levels of processing players will use when faced with different levels of complexity. These can be impacted by the levels of tactical coaching and the ‘role’ the player has within the team and the level of knowledge and expertise each player has. Therefore, five clear levels or processing have been created to capture the nature of decision-making in team sports (figure 1). These being, 1) Tactical (pre-planned), 2) Knowledge-based, 3) Intuitive, 4) Automatic, and 5) No decision. This tool can be used to assess and investigate how individual players react to different situations within a match and highlight possible strengths and weaknesses in certain areas.
Applying the theory into practice
Understanding the nature of decision-making within team sports will allow for the design and selection of different strategies according to the levels of processing a situation may demand. Intuitive and automatic decisions should be developed within a task that exaggerates the decision more frequently. In accordance, coaches and practitioners should adopt a participant led approach through small-sided games which are constrained through adapting the task and environment in order to allow for implicit learning of the decision. Conversely, tactical and knowledge-based decisions demand a more explicit approach. Coaches and practitioners should explicitly transfer the picture they’re aiming to construct with their players through leading video analysis sessions, drills and representative game-like environments, which will allow the players to process the information and learn explicitly.
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