Decision Making During Sporting Competitions

Sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the often overlooked role that decision making plays in the outcome of sporting contests.

One of the core concepts of our Metuf model is that we break “performance preparation” down into five parts and emphasise the importance of making each one as strong on possible. These parts are (in no particular order) Mental Toughness, Physical Capabilities, Technical Consistency, Tactical Wisdom and Wellbeing. There is much debate about the pros and cons of separating performance like this. After all, they’re all related to one another (for example it takes a certain level of motivation – a mental state – to do the work required to improve muscle strength – a physical component).  Our argument is, and always has been, that if you focus on each part as a separate entity then any “crossover” benefit that rubs off onto another pillar is a bonus to your improvement. Whereas lumping them all together can result in incorrectly assuming you’re doing more (variety more, not quantity more) than you are.

A great example of this is an old adage I often tell of the coach who once told me he used to get his players to run up sand dunes in extreme temperatures in order (in his mind) to improve their mental toughness. Risky, risky, risky. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some nice mental benefits of doing this (the most obvious to come to mind is an improvement in the confidence of being able to ensure extreme conditions while exhausted) but that’s a very, very small part of good mental performance.

One of the reasons I bring this up is that recently a number of our 1-on-1 clients have been asking us for more and more input into their Tactical Wisdom. ‘TW’ is very tricky as in theory it’s entirely mental (decision-making takes place in the frontal lobe of the human brain) yet the coaching of these “in the moment” decisions is, and always wants to be, the domain of sporting coaches not a sports psychologists (one of the many reasons why it makes so much sense for us to work more directly with coaches).

I’m going to use two examples from different sports here to emphasise my point. First, the decision faced by a golfer whether to “lay up” short of a creek located just before the green or “go for it” by attempting to hit the ball directly over the creek onto the green. Second, the decision by a striker in football (soccer) when near the penalty area to “have a shot” or pass the ball to a teammate in a potentially better position.

Both of these scenarios have what we call a “risk and reward” assessment to them. In other words, none of the four options mentioned is obviously terrible and therefore the goal is to train your mind to (wait for it) “make the best decision according to the specifics competitive situation”. Most decision-making errors take place when the emotion of the moment trumps the competition situation so here’s a clue about how to not let that happen (and yes, it requires a bit of hard work).

First, you’re much, much, much more likely to make an unemotional decision if it’s a scenario that’s been “mapped out” already and, like most things in sport, the more often it’s been mentally rehearsed, the better. This is best done by what we call the “If Blank Then Blank” exercise. Let’s go back to our two examples above.

Although there might seem like an overwhelming number of scenarios, if you really think about it there are probably only half a dozen or so. For example;

“If stroke play then lay up”

“If match play then go for green”

but maybe that’s too simple (don’t dismiss simple as it’s often very useful) so …

If stroke play and a par 5 then lay up”

If stroke play and windy then lay up”

If stroke play and leading then lay up”

If stroke play and less than 3 shots within the lead then lay up”

If any another situation then go for the green”

and the other example …

“If ball is on / near my right foot with no defender near then shoot”

“If any other scenario then pass”

Human brains are remarkable at learning these “If Blank Then Blank” right from when we’re newborns “if hungry then cry” to adulthood “if red or amber light then slow down and stop”. Certain commentators have and continue to object to the fact that this exercise appears to bring “thinking” into what really want to be instinctive actions.

Our answer to this is simple. There’s no escaping the fact that certain moments in certain sports require decision making and the “If Blank Then Blank” exercise simply decreases the chances of a brain explosion while under competition pressure. In our experience, the greatest benefit of this is the reduction of one of performance excellence’s biggest threats – indecision. I’m not sure if I’m taking the word too literally but indecision essentially means a slowing of a decision due to being “in the decision” for longer than ideal as the risk assessment is done then and there. The decision, on the other hand, is faster as the risk assessment has already taken place.

In fact, indecision is so damaging to performance it would be fair to say that you’re better off making the wrong decision quickly and with confidence rather than the right one slowly and full of self-doubt.

The team at Condor Performance is currently in the process of creating some exciting sports specific Mental Toughness programs where decision making will feature heavily. Until then, you can access / complete the non sports specific version of Metuf here.