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Game-changing choices: Improving decision making in sports

Game-changing choices: Improving decision making in sports

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

The ability to make good decisions while performing is a crucial factor in elite sport. We always get asked about how to make better decisions, both by the athletes that we work with and the coaches who help them perform at their best.

So, here’s what the research says and what we recommend…

What is decision making?

Although it may sound simple, there is a lot more to decision making than meets the eye. It’s a cognitive process that involves choosing the most optimal action from the available resources. To do this, athletes need to think about the game situation and their own personal goals to help them make good decisions.

While we all make decisions every day, it doesn’t mean they’re always good. A skilled decision maker in sports has certain qualities, such as:

  • Recognising and identifying patterns of play
  • Having a good understanding of the game
  • Predicting future outcomes of the game
  • Selecting and using the most helpful information

What impacts decision making?

When it comes to decision making, several factors can hinder an athlete’s performance. However, research has highlighted one significant factor: mental pressure. This refers to psychological strain or stress that athletes often experience, particularly in competitive situations. Common examples of mental pressure include:

  • Psychological impact errors
  • Negative feedback
  • Sustaining attention in a dynamic environment

Mental pressures can be detrimental to decision making, as they increase the cognitive demands on the athlete. An athlete’s brain sees mental pressures as extrinsic load, which can overload their working memory – which results in cognitive overload.

Because of the decrease in resources available to help the athlete make an accurate decision, their speed and accuracy in decision making suffers. But don’t just take our word for it – let’s delve into what the research has to say.

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The research behind decision making

In this interesting study, researchers assessed junior athletes in conditions of high and low mental pressure. They induced mental pressure with a verbal dual task, where athletes were required to remember a list of words whilst performing decision-making tasks.

Results showed a clear connection between mental pressure and decision-making performance. Athletes in the high mental pressure group displayed slower responses and reaction times in comparison to those in the low mental pressure group. This is because the verbal dual task increased the amount of mental pressure experienced by the athletes, overwhelming their working memory with anxiety and negative thoughts – which rendered the resources required to make accurate decisions unavailable.

Notably, this study shed a light on the influence of feedback as well. Findings revealed that negative feedback from coaches intensified anxiety-related thoughts, placing further strain on athletes’ working memory.

How to improve decision making

Making better decisions is a skill that can be developed with the right strategies. Here are four effective techniques to enhance your athletes’ decision making…

1. Reduce mental pressure

As we know, mental pressure is an enemy of good decision making. So, it’s important to find ways to lower it. You can do this through the type of feedback you give.

Negative feedback can increase something called rumination, which is when an athlete repetitively dwells on negative thoughts and feelings. However, if you make your feedback more constructive rather than negative, you can both can reduce rumination and increase motivation, which allows for better decision making.

2. Limit pre-match distractions

Distractions can increase the amount of extrinsic load an athlete is exposed to before a match. This can increase the likelihood of your athlete experiencing cognitive overload and therefore a reduction in decision-making performance.

To stop this, athletes should try to limit the distractions they are exposed to before competition, such as their phone. Establishing a pre-performance routine can also help athletes with this and improve decision-making performance.

3. Look for patterns

Elite athletes excel in decision making because they can identify patterns in the game. Recognising meaningful cues allows them to anticipate and respond effectively. For example, tennis player, André Agassi noticed his rival Boris Becker would stick his tongue out to the side he was going to serve. This allowed Agassi to anticipate his actions and make the correct decision on how to respond. This highlights the importance of pattern recognition.

4. Allocate your attention to the right place

The best decision makers gather relevant information to enhance their performance. In sports like football and basketball, professionals focus more on free space and attacking team mates rather than just the person with the ball. This broader perspective helps in making accurate decisions.

Final thoughts

Mastering decision making in sports requires practice. By applying these strategies, athletes can develop their decision-making skills, helping them to perform better under pressure and elevate their game to new heights. Your athletes’ ability to make the right decisions at the right time can sharpen their mental game which can be the key to achieving greatness in their sport.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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