How important is an understanding of decision making to a sport psychologist interested in using it in their work with athletes?
Posted by Dean Holden at July 20th, 2013
by Tom Buck, 24 May 2013
Decision making in sport has been a well investigated topic area in Sport Psychology, and it is one that is constantly developing and becoming more important in the world of sport and sport psychology. Decision making is a complex phenomenon in that if you were to ask a professional athlete why they made a decision, they would probably be unable to tell you, but as psychologists we are able to deduce what separates expert performers from novice performers in their decision making abilities. Much of the research that has been published also examines decision making in officials in sport, i.e. referee’s, umpires, etc., a topic which is becoming increasingly popular as we more frequently question an officials ability to make the ‘correct’ decision in a high pressure situation on a consistent basis. While decision making is somewhat of a new area of interest it has already seen great strides in results and much of this is due to the early research into memory recall by De Groot, (1965) and Chase & Simon, (1973). These early studies were quickly replicated into a sporting setting and it is from this that further research into recall in a sport setting was conducted and eventually grew into decision making research.
One of the first studies into decision making in sport by Berry, Abernerthy & Cote (2008) focused on invasion-type sports, more specifically in the Australian Football League (AFL) and what the differences were in expert decision making and novice decision making abilities. The results of the study suggested that it is the amount of time invested into the sport that is experienced that influences the decision making expertise compared to the level of a novice player. From these findings we can presume that improving an athlete’s decision making requires them to invest in the sport through specific training and competition. This type of research could relate back to a memory setting, however. The results of Berry, Abernerthy, & Cote’s (2008) study suggested that the athlete must partake in deliberate practice of the sport, which is what separates elite from novice. But can we determine that what the athlete is actually doing is recalling a memory of successful decision making procedures, but merely adapting these to a new, similar setting? A more recent study by Furley & Memmert (2012) examined the effect of controlled attention and working memory capacity in tactical decision making. The results indicated that Working Memory Capacity is predictive of controlling attention in a complex setting and also highlights the importance of working memory in tactical decision making. From these results we can see that working memory is not only beneficial to decision making procedures but also helps athletes to focus attention and also helps to block out any irrelevant auditory distractions. From previous studies it has been shown that working memory capacity, attention and the amount of deliberate practice undertaken is what separates elite athletes’ decision making abilities to that of a novice athlete.
Decision making research is largely conducted upon team sports, mostly invasion-based or striking-based sports. The research conducted into striking-based sports is largely on anticipation, which is a decision making process but in a slightly different manner. Anticipation is a very quick process, and it is no coincidence the research conducted on it is in striking-based sports. The speed at which the ball is pitched and struck in games such as Cricket, Tennis and Baseball is much quicker compared to sports such as Rugby or Football where the aim is to build the play over time. Although it must be said that anticipation does play a large part in invasion-type games, as we so often hear about players being able to anticipate where the ball is going to go (otherwise referred to in media and society as ‘reading the game’). So how do these elite athletes in striking-type games not only manage to make a decision during competition, but consistently anticipate where the ball is going to go at high speeds and time the strike of the ball with exact precision? A recent study by Mueller & Abernerthy (2012) aimed to investigate the anticipation process in striking sports. Again, much like previous research, experience has much to do with how elite athletes are able to anticipate the location of the ball, meaning that through deliberate practice and replicating competition environments during training will help to prepare the athlete for what they may face in competition, and by taking what they have experienced through deliberate practice they are able to transfer to a competition setting. This research again, along with previous research is ideal for a sport psychologist who is working with sport persons. By implementing a competitive environment during training, athletes are able to recall on similar experiences (from training) during actual competition.
It would seem the most efficient way of improving an athlete’s decision making abilities is again through deliberate practice (Berry, 2008) and replication of a competitive setting during training.
We have looked at how current elite performers are able to perform complex decision-making procedures during high-speed competition. But how is it that these athletes are able to get to the elite level and consistently make these decisions that benefit them and the team during competitions? It is highly possible that during their development, these athletes would have had access to much more established and effective methods of training during those important years in adolescence when they begin to focus more intensely on one specific sport and begin to attempt to become elite or experts in this sport. Berry & Abernerthy (2009), looked at the development of young athletes and what factors affected their development in sport and eventually led to their elite level. The results of the study outlined four main factors that expert-level footballers in the Australian Football League (AFL) were more likely to have during their development compared to those who were still considered to be at an ‘elite’ level but were classified to be lesser skilled decision makers. These factors were; extensive experience of invasion games during their development, early experience of playing against older children or adults, playing experience in related sports (e.g. similar invasion-type games such as basketball or rugby), and finally, they would have had their father coach at some stage during their early development. It would seem from the results of this study that elite level players, from an early age are not only gaining more experience through increase amount of competitive experience, but by also playing older children or adults at an earlier age they are gaining first-hand experience of competing against those who may not only be better skilled than them (at the time), but are also further developed physically than they are, providing them with a suitable challenge and a necessity to improve to compete at a similar level. All of these factors have therefore helped to improve their own levels of decision making abilities through various types and level of experience. This can be directly applied to youth sports, for example, in football, implementing competitive situations at grass roots or similar age groups that will not only challenge their abilities but also provide the platform to improve ability and decision making. This will lead to further improvement in the later stages of development by providing practice experiences to further improve decision making abilities.
The research conducted into decision making in sport has given us a clear insight into how the elite athlete performs high level decision making procedures at a consistently faster pace than the decision making abilities of novice level athletes. The main issues with these studies, however, specifically the studies conducted by Berry & Abernerthy (2008), Mueller & Abernerthy (2012), is the use of the sample. The samples used were in Australian Football League and are considered to be ‘elite’ athletes in this sport. This can be argued against as the ‘elite’ athletes in this specific sport play in professional football leagues around Europe, mainly in Spanish and English Premier Divisions. To gain a clearer insight into the decision making abilities of ‘elite/expert’ level footballers, the use of participants from these elite leagues, considered to be the best in the world would give a truer indication into how an elite level football player uses decision making processes to their advantage during competition.
In conclusion, the previous research into decision making has given us a clear insight into how decisions are made at elite level sports. Through this research we can then begin to apply what they have found to a real life setting for sports persons. A sport psychologist working with sportspersons would begin to introduce these findings at an early age in the development of the athletes’ abilities. By introducing and replicating competitive situations into the training, the athlete is then able to draw on these experiences in an actual competitive setting and recall their own successful decisions that have been made and simply apply them to a similar situation in competition. It seems that the best way to help improve young athletes during development, as suggested by Berry & Abernerthy, (2009) would be to increase the amount of experience the young athlete is subjected to, i.e. more competitive type situations will prepare and improve the level of decision making during actual competition. Whilst this is great for young, developing athletes, it is also very beneficial to older elite level athletes who are competing at a high level consistently. It should also be noted that by applying replicated competitive environments during training this will help boost self-efficacy and attention during competition which will then affect the performance of decision making (Furely & Memmert, 2012; Hepler & Feltz, 2012). Taking the findings of multiple studies into decision making, the most successful way of improving decision making in competition would be to apply more competitive situations in which the athlete would be able to recall on previous experience to apply already successful decisions to a new setting, therefore not only increasing the level of consistently successful decisions being made during competition, but also increasing the attention, (or decreasing the risk of losing attention during competition) and also the self-efficacy of the athlete, which in turn again positively affects the performance of decision making procedures.
<A fantastic website, Sport in Mind is well worth a look! DH>