Decision making in sport has been a well investigated topic area in Sport Psychology. It is a complex phenomenon in that if you were to ask a professional athlete why they made a decision, they will probably be unable to tell you.

Decision-making describes the individual capability to select functional actions to solve a given issue or to achieve a specific task from a given number of possibilities. It relies on perception anticipation, attention and memory and it is closely linked to problem solving. The ability to make good decisions rapidly (often within milliseconds) and instinctively is a skill that can be learnt and practiced.

However, if this process was slowed down, we could identify these six steps to decision-making:

  1. Noticing the problem that needs to be solved – when the athlete recognises there is a problem.
  2. Analysing the problem – the athletes need to define what is causing it.
  3. Knowing the outcome to achieve – what is it the athlete wants to happen.
  4. Exploring the options – identifying what options are available to the athlete will lead to the desired outcome.
  5. Choosing the best option – the athlete pursues the most favoured option. This is a critical process as limiting options dramatically increases the speed of decision – making.
  6. Taking action and responsibility – the athlete pursues the action, and they pay attention to the result the chosen action creates.

Decision making research has largely been conducted within team sports, mostly invasion-based or striking-based sports and is most commonly been associated with anticipation. Anticipation is a very quick process. For example, the speed at which a ball is bowled in games such as cricket, tennis or baseball is much quicker compared to sports such as rugby or football. A recent study by Mueller & Abernethy (2012) aimed to investigate the anticipation process in striking sports. They found that experience had 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 prepare the athlete for the decisions they will have to face in competition.

So as well as creating those high- pressure, competition-like situations in the training environment, it is also important to review the decision made and determine if you need to make any adjustments. This reflective task aims to improve any poor decisions if the situation was to arise again.

Making poor decisions in sport can often lead to punishments such as being shown a red or yellow card or being banned or suspended from the game. It is not only players that are required to make, but also coaches, managers, support staff and officials. These decisions ultimately result in the level of success. We are more frequently questioning officials abilities to make the ‘correct’ decision in high pressured situations on a consistent basis. Often there are disagreements between those involved in the sport.

Whether it is making a decision about how to properly prepare for a competition, decide to stick to a rehabilitation plan, or stay away from shortcuts, good decision making, although challenging to teach, is a skill that is crucial to an athlete’s success.

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Müller S & Abernethy B. Expert anticipatory skill in striking sports: a review and a model. Res Q Exercise Sport. 2012 Jun;83(2):175-87. doi: 10.1080/02701367.2012.10599848. PMID: 22808703.