Decision Making In Sport

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

Decision Making in Sport
Decision Making in Sport

One of the core concepts of our Metuf model is that we break “performance preparation” down into five parts. There is some 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 improve muscle strength – a physical component. Our argument is that if you focus on each part as a separate entity then any “crossover” benefit that rubs off onto another area is a bonus to your improvement. Whereas lumping them all together can result in incorrectly assuming you’re doing more than you are. Decision making in sport is a great example of this. In my experience ‘in the trenches’ as a sport psychologist for the last 15 years decision making is rarely targeted by itself.

Specificity is Special

I often tell the anecdote 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.

Those familiar with our Metuf model will know that we use an analogy of the competitive athlete being like a 4 engines aeroplane. In this analogy, the actual main body of the plane is like health and wellbeing. Attached to this are the four engines. Each of which is a key aspects of sports performance. The two on the left wing are ‘below the neck’ in Technical Wisdom and Physical Capabilities. To two on the right wing are ‘above the neck’. They are Mental Toughness and Tactical Wisdom.

Tactical Wisdom is Decision Making in Sport Contexts

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 yet the coaching of these “in the moment” decisions is, and always wants to be, the domain of sporting coaches not a sport psychologists. This is 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.

Risk Versus Reward

Both of these scenarios have what we call a “risk and reward” assessment to them. None of the four options mentioned are obviously terrible and therefore the goal is to train your mind to “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. Here’s a clue about how to not let that happen (and yes, it requires a bit of hard work).

First, you’re much more likely to make an unemotional decision if it’s a scenario that’s been “mapped out” already. The more often it’s been mentally rehearsed beforehand, 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 so these might be better:

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 for the other example, the footballer:

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

“If any other scenario then pass”

If Blank Then Blank”

Human brains are remarkable at learning these “If Blank Then Blank” right from when we’re newborns. Think about it; “If hungry then cry”. And it carries on all the way 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 a lot of decision making. The “If Blank Then Blank” exercise simply decreases the chances of a brain explosion while under 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 means a slowing of a decision due to being “in the decision”. Basically the decision making process (risk versus reward) is taking longer as it’s new.

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.

Gareth J. Mole (sport psychologist)

If you’d some help to improve the decision making aspects of what you do please contact us by filling in this form. We typically reply in less than 24 hours.

Getting Into The Zone

Getting Into The Zone is something that sport psychologists have been helping athletes with for more than 50 years now

What, Or Where, Is The Zone?

Competing in sport, or even coaching it, brings with it a variety of emotions and mental experiences. Rightly or wrongly the positive ones have often been referred to as ‘the zone’. It’s not uncommon for athletes to say “I was in the zone today”. One of the more common requests we get is “can you help me get into the zone”?

The Zone and its cousin Flow are both describing a kind of effortless optimal performance. For both our internal process are not getting in the way of us being able to execute our skills to the best of our abilities.

These same internal experiences more commonly create barriers to effective performance. They can test an individual’s mental toughness by challenging their ability to self-regulate and manage these experiences constructively. Note the idea of “self-regulation” because we want our clients to develop the skills to do this on their own. Relying on others (which includes us as their performance psychologist) for this is a short term solution only.

Self Regulation is Psychbabble for Managing Your Emotions Yourself

The widely used Yerkes-Dodson Inverted U Stress Curve used to suggest that we should try and always be somewhat aroused. In other words, some nerves are better than no nerves before or during pressure situations.

This theory has two major flaws. Firstly, it overplays the role that emotions play in optimal performance. It incorrectly implies that athletes need to be feeling a certain way to perform at their best. We know this not to be true now. Both scientific and anecdotal evidence confirms that humans are quite capable of being excellent across a huge range of emotions. Secondly, the Yerkes-Dodson model suggests it’s bad to be too relaxed before you compete. This is BS. Unless you’re asleep and miss the opening whistle there is no downside to being very relaxed. In fact, if you decide to work 1-on-1 with one of our sport psychologists or performance psychologists then it’s likely they’ll introduce you to what we called the Relaxed Competition Mindset.

The Relaxed Competition Mindset

One way to begin to develop a Relaxed Competition Mindset is to understand the Zones of Awareness. These zones suggest that we can attend to information through three different zones. Zone One is an inner zone (physiological sensations). Zone Two is the middle zone (thoughts) and Zone Three is the outer zone (the five senses). When we are functioning well and coping with our situation, our awareness across these zones is balanced. This allows us to respond very effectively and efficiently. This is mighty useful in high-pressure situations because maintaining a balanced awareness means we can respond quickly to stimuli. In other words, we can maintain good levels of focus during perceived chaos.

When we find ourselves getting too caught up in one of the zones we can lose this balance. With this, our abilities can be impaired and we can experience distress, reducing the opportunity for optimal performance.

Being Outside Of The Zone

While each person is different, the way we respond to adversity can actually be quite universal. In such situations, people tend to become much more aware of their self-talk as well as their physiological state. “Oh my, I can actually feel my heart racing” for example.

When we first notice our thinking or physiology shifting in an unhelpful manner, using strategies such as mindfulness can prove effective.

When these experiences become too intense, trying to challenge our thoughts or become more aware of our body can be like we are putting fuel on an already burning fire. This is where the third zone (the outer zone) can become useful in helping us to manage.

The Five Senses

For touch, individuals competing outdoors might consider pulling out some of the grass from the field. Or tightly gripping a towel and noticing the feeling. What about taste? Eating as part of a pre-match routine can help but instead of quickly consuming the food, notice the flavours more. For each mouthful or while chewing gum, try to notice the release of flavour with each bite. With the sense of smell, noticing any smells in our environment such as muscle rub creams. For sight, individuals may ask themselves how many colours can they notice around them. Or how many people can they count wearing hats? For hearing, listening to music as part of a pre-match routine can really help get your head out of the way.

It’s Also A Matter of Timing

It should be noted that we don’t want to be considering these things while trying to execute skills. In other words, the majority of the Relaxed Competition Mindset work is down before we start competing.

Ultimately, that’s the key. We want to be able to shift our attention and focus where necessary to restore balance and composure to your internal state. In doing so, we remove some internal barriers to performance, which puts us in a position to meet our performance potential.


If you’d like our help Getting Into The Zone then below are few ways to contact us:

Performance Momentum for Elite Sport

Chris Pomfret, a performance psychologist based in Queensland (Australia), looks at the fascinating concept of performance momentum.

'Momentum in Sport' is a fascinating concept but with very little research
‘Momentum in Sport’ is a fascinating concept but with very little research

Performance Momentum; The Basics

As with many phenomena in the world of sport psychology, it’s interesting to observe people talk about momentum. If you listen closely, it’s almost as if they chatting about something tangible, something real.

At the time of writing, the Australian Open tennis tournament is in progress. Listening to commentators it would seem beyond question that there is a mysterious yet unmistakable energy. Something that ebbs and flows through each match like a tide. There is an energy that has the potential to sweep a player towards glory, or to leave them stranded. But in truth, things aren’t that straightforward.

As most of our sporting clients will know we often stress the importance of clear and workable definitions for all component of performance. If we can quantify something we can understand it and therefore improve it.

Momentum can be defined as changes to cognition, feelings and behaviour as an athlete moves towards a goal.

Positive and Negative Momentum for Performance

Positive momentum is typically described in physics-related terms such as ‘surging’ towards victory within a single contest. Or ‘riding the wave’ across multiple contests towards an end-of-season championship.

Negative momentum is often described in terms of a ‘tide-turning’ against an athlete. Some sort of resistance is experienced, or of a ‘pendulum swinging’ against them and energy being ‘lost’.

Momentum Is Not The ‘Hot Hand’

Note that momentum is different from the ‘hot hand’ effect often described in basketball. This describes those freak moments when it suddenly seems like a player can’t miss a shot. Their teammates start to desperately feed them the ball before this shooting streak suddenly vanishes. As much as the hot hand effect captures our imagination there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to back it up. Making a successful shot does not appear to increase the chances of making the next shot.

The fascinating thing about the concept of momentum is that it is almost universally accepted as fact. Research into the topic shows that people perceive momentum to be real. They act on the basis of this perception and past experiences supporting it. Simply put, athletes genuinely believe in momentum. When they think positive momentum has occurred they see it as a direct cause for their success. However, there is surprisingly little evidence to justify this belief.

But Perception Is Reality

If researchers question the existence of performance momentum and the everyday sportsperson struggles to express in words what momentum even means to them, why then is the concept so popular? One explanation is that for most human beings perception is reality. We want the world to seem as structured and predictable as possible. We find it hard to accept the idea of randomness. It’s hard for us to realise that our thinking is biased in many ways and that these biases impact on how we process information. We look for explanations in events, particularly where underlying meanings might help us in the future. Plus, we are just very poor at calculating probability.

There is a certain appeal to the idea that with a little bit of luck and some hard work, one small action we take can trigger a chain reaction which will sweep us towards glory. On the other hand, perhaps there is also some small comfort in the idea that sometimes we are faced with forces working against us which can’t be controlled and we simply have no choice but to hang in there and do our best and then see what happens.

Performance Momentum; The Downside

The most obvious issue with really believing in the concept of performance momentum is when you feel like you lack some. Mentally, if you feel some past success had a lot to do with any success before that you have a mental weak point. Let me explain more.

Let’s say you are a golfer who has started to believe that birdies and bogeys come in groups. Now let’s imagine you need to par the final three holes to make the cut but you bogey the 16th hole. Instead of moving on and trying to play the best possible golf for the final two holes you might feel that the bogey on 16 has set the tone.

Perhaps there is something to those old clichés about taking things one play at a time or week-to-week?

In Summary

Now please be clear that I am not saying momentum is a myth. In fact, there are various studies that do support the existence of momentum in sport. Not surprisingly, positive momentum has a role to play in performing at one’s best. However, some findings suggest that negative momentum is in many ways ‘stronger’ than positive momentum. It seems to be triggered faster and more easily and is harder to ‘escape’ from. Is this due to the sense of helplessness it can provoke?

In the case of positive momentum, there is a suggestion that athletes may occasionally ‘coast’ or ‘ease up’. This can in turn actually impair their performance. In the case of negative momentum, athletes may choose to use this to force themselves to improve focus and boost motivation.

When the topic of momentum comes up in the one on one work I do with my sporting clients this is how I approach it. I liken it to an emotion or physical sensation – like frustration or hunger. I then encourage them to notice it and move on as per the A.C.T model.

The team here at Condor Performance welcome your suggestions for topics to address in future editions of the Mental Toughness Digest so please keep them coming (info@condorperformance.com).

We love getting comments. If you have any anecdotes related to Performance Momentum please add them to the comments section below. If you’re not that keen on people knowing it’s you just exclude you personal details. Can you recall a time when your best performances seem to all be clumped together? That you could do no wrong. Or the opposite? No matter how hard you tried you couldn’t get any momentum going?

Sport Psychology Myths

Some of the most common myths about sport psychology and mental toughness are debunked by leading Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

Sport Psychology Myths potentially outweigh the facts due in part to a lack of consensus and unity from the custodians of the profession until this point.

Sport Psychology Myths – Where To Start?

I am sure all professionals feel like this to some degree. That their working world is full of myths and half-truths. But due to the nature of the work we do and how relatively new our profession is I believe sport psychology is surely up there when it comes to a number of misconceptions. Below are some of my favourites – in no particular order. I use the word favourite due to both a combination of how often we come across them and the potential benefits of debunking them.

Myth 1: Sport Psychology Is Like Counselling, Therapy

This is a classic half-truth in that it is literally half correct. Some elements of the work we do have similarities to the work of counsellors, therapists or clinical psychologists. For example, the confidential nature of the relationship and we can help with mental health issues. But the other half of the process is much more likely to resemble a coach. For this part of the process, we’re more likely to be talking about goals and how to achieve them.

Obviously, some performance psychologists will tend to be more like a therapist whilst others will lean more towards the coaching approach. This is one of the biggest advantages enjoyed by our clients. In a matter of weeks, we will be announcing the 10th psychologist to join our team (spoiler alert – he’ll be based in Canberra). With such a strong and varied team of psychologists, we can literally allow our clients to tell us what they’re looking for. And with very few exceptions, we can ensure their psychologists has these preferences.

Myth 2: The ‘Natural Talent’ Myth

This is a humdinger of a myth. The notion that we are born to be potentially excellent at something regardless of the amount of effort we put in. In my view, people confuse what they regard as “natural talent” for biological and genetic variation.

The classic example is when young athletes hit puberty and some of them suddenly become taller and heavier than their peers. Although there is no doubt these growth spurts play a role in influencing the outcomes of sporting contests, they should not (yet often are) be regarded as natural talent as there is nothing talented about your genetic makeup.

In fact, I try to get my sporting clients to stop using the word “talent” altogether. Quite simply there are performance variables which are either controllable, influenceable or uninfluenceable. What you inherited from your parents falls into the last of these three categories. Simply put you cannot influence your genetics, and therefore they should occupy as little of your attention as possible.

Myth 3: The ‘Best Time to Start is’ Myth

Mondays, or the 1st of the month or the old favourite January! Don’t get me wrong, in much of the work we do we use time as reminders. For example, using Sunday night as a cue to plan the next seven day. However, these time point myths are often used as an excuse to delay effort.

We know this first hand by the number of enquiries we get for our Sport Psychology services based on the time of year. We still get about the same number of enquiries in December compared with any other month. However, unlike other months most people who decide to start working with one of our sport and performance psychologists delay it until January.

This is despite the fact that we continue to be available to our current and future clients right through the Christmas and New Year period.

The best time to do/start something that is going to benefit you is now, today – no exceptions.

Myth 4: The ‘Thoughts Can Be Controlled’ Myth

As current and past Condor Performance clients will know we’re often encouraging our clients to consider the amount of control or influence they have on different aspects of their performance. Just over 10 years ago, when clients of ours added ‘thoughts’ to the controllable column we didn’t challenge it. But recent research suggests that although we can influence our thoughts we can never control (guarantee) them. This is not to suggest that traditional thought improvement strategies (such as reframing) are a waste of time. It suggests that thoughts (as opposed to actions) should not be relied on as an essential ingredient of your performance plans.

A classic example of this is the work we do around Pre Performance Routines in start-stop sports. In the old days, we constructed short routines with both actions (put on my glove) with thoughts (“focus on just this shot”). But in recent times we have removed the thought component so our clients’ routines are now all actions based.

Myth 5: The ‘Feeling Can Be Controlled’ Myth

Same as above basically. In fact, as humans, we have even less influence over our emotions than our thoughts. Consider extreme emotions like grief. Sure, there are a number of things that you might be able to do to lessen experiences of grief if you lost a loved one. But these kinds of interventions are only going to make a small difference. Those that imply you can control your emotions (an unfortunate number) or suggesting that you can actually make the grief go away entirely through your own volition.

Myth 6: That ‘sport psychologists’ are similar to ‘mental skills coaches’

Possibly in terms of ability, this might occasionally be true. However, in terms of formal training and regulation, they couldn’t be further apart. Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologist (in Australia at least) are all registered psychologists. So what? This link does a better job than I ever could at explaining the benefits of choosing to work with a highly qualified and regulated professional. And this article from The Age highlights a possible ‘worst-case scenario’ of allowing unqualified individuals to “work on” the emotions of athletes. If the link doesn’t work it’s because the article has been removed but the basic details should now be permanently available via Wikipedia here.

Myth 7: That ‘sport psychologists’ only work with athletes

Not true. We have been operating for long enough now and have tracked enough data to be able to answer this categorically. Yes, the majority of our monthly clients are still athletes (70%). But the rest are a multitude of different kinds of performers. From politicians to dancers to students to emergency workers. One of the most significant group of non-athletes we work with a sporting coach. A lot more detail about this kind of work can be provided in this separate blog post and this one. It is both my hope and my belief that as time passes a greater percentage of our work will be with coaches. Helping mentally astute coaches become even better they working with someone genuinely qualified in this area.

If you’d like to bust some more sport psychology myths have a listen to the answers to our FAQs here.

Do you know of any other common sport psychology myths that are not covered above? If you do please add them to the comments sections below and we’ll then add them when we update this blog