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The power of choice! The complexity and simplicity of Decision Making.

Have you ever wondered ‘what if’? What are you doing here? You are ‘evaluating’ a decision you have made. This ‘what if?’ Question that we ask ourselves like anything in our lives can be a positive or negative thing.

What if I had gone to that game? What if I had spoken up in that meeting? What are we evaluating here? We are evaluating a decision that we have made.

Decision Making is a very difficult skill to execute and there are times when we all make the wrong decision or the right decision. Sometimes we make impulse decisions, sometimes we spend long periods of time making decisions. Why is this? What affects us to make a certain decision?

The best sportsmen and woman in the world are at the top of their game at decision making. Take Formula 1 drivers, for example; driving around a car going 200miles per hour. This in itself is impressive and there are a number of drivers worldwide who can do this, but then put them on a wet track in the rain where they are racing, or points, or 1st position; racing gets a lot more difficult - there are only a few that come out on top. Decision making can be the difference between life and death in F1, but also between coming a world champion and being in 2nd place. There are many more examples that are like this one, such as being the armed forces; people who have to make life and death decisions every day. On a less pressurised sport like Rugby where decisions don’t affect life and death, the New Zealand Rugby team are renowned for an extremely high win to loss percentage ratio. They always seem to be in the right places at the right time giving the right pass or kick, being in the right position. Just like the F1 driver does, and the New Zealand Rugby players do, and everyone else at the top level -they make everything look easy. How do they do this?

The principles of decision making in sport (Rugby) are the same in everyday life.

A skill is something that that is carried out with ease. Professional rugby players more often than not make the game look easy as mentioned above. As we know the game is split in to 4 parts: mental, physical, technical and tactical. As coaches by nature we focus on the technical aspects of when we coach. I believe this is because it’s what we are comfortable in teaching and maybe we feel like this is ‘coaching’. On the other hand coaches also love ‘plays’ the X’s and Os. This is the tactical side of the game however the issue with this is that sometimes you take the power away from the players and it important that players have the freedom to make their own decisions.

How many times do we hear coaches say things like ‘Keep it simple?’ ‘Don’t risk it!’ ‘Play the easy pass!’ My question is who decides what is simple? What is a risk? Or what is an easy pass? If the players have the vision, the skill, and the empowerment to execute these things, why not allow them to express themselves? Take Quade Cooper for example. With the ball in hand, he is one of the most talented players in the world, however people see him as a negative to the team because he may give the ball away too much or is a risk to the team in terms of performance. The same goes with Danny Cipriani. However if you purely take their footballing ability, their vision and skill is beyond most in the world. Traditionally people don’t like these players because they are ‘unorthodox’, ‘flamboyant’ or ‘hubris’, but all it comes down to is their decision making.

More often than not people negatively criticising these types of players because the outcome doesn’t always work out. However I believe people criticise because people don’t have the vision to see these things. Take for example when Cooper made a cross field kick in this own dead ball area.

The commentators say ‘what was he thinking?’, ‘his team mates don’t even know what he’s thinking’.

People react this way because they have been coached that this is the ‘wrong’ thing to do or it is not ‘safe’. I have to admire Cooper here. Watch the video and write down what options you think he has in this situation, what could he have done instead of the cross field kick?

Here is what I came up with:

If you watch the video back frame by frame you will see that Cooper looks to the left and within two seconds he has scanned the field weighed up options and chose to kick it. In that time you see he shapes to pass the ball and decides against it before kicking the ball, then he has to decide what type of kick he should do. Does he kick it straight to his team mate, in front of him, in the air, on the floor, how much air time. What process does he go through in order to reach this decision? If you asked Cooper to watch this back and asking him what he was thinking I’m not sure he would be able to tell you, however somehow he has come to the decision of kicking the ball in his in goal area how does he do this. According to Figure 1 developed by Raab and Johnson (2008) there are 7 stages of the decision making process.

How does one come about making these decisions and so quickly. What Cooper did with in those two seconds is what the research calls intuitive decision making - it's thinking that comes around so fast that you do it with almost not knowing why you do it. It's automatic. Intuitive processes are generally assumed to be automatic activations of networks (Anderson, 1983). Decisions are so fast and based on a perceived pattern of information that is often linked automatically to a specific action or set of actions (Hogarth, 2001).

If decisions like this are intuitive, then there must be aspects of the game that require ‘deliberate decision making’. We discussed earlier how coaches like to focus on the ‘x’s and ‘o’s of the game. This could be set plays (Scrums and Lineouts) or what to do in certain areas of field i.e. kick when inside our own half. These are decisions that are made for the player prior to the ‘presentation of problems’. How many times do we see games where the commentator says they made a wrong decision or why are they doing this etc. This decision has been made for them.

This deliberate decision making is massively tactical and often the reason why teams dominate over others. Their tactical deliberate decision making is a lot better.

So far we have discovered that there are two types of decision making. Intuitive and Deliberate. Take a look at this video and decide what types of decision making is going on here.

Figure 1: 7 Stage Decision Making Process

So we have discussed what types of decisions are being made and how they are made with the 7 stage process.

But like anything, this knowledge is not effective if we don’t know how we can coach this decision making or how we can develop these decision making skills. This is always a tough topic in coaching. How do you coach decision making? Figure 2 represents way that decision making can be affected.

Figure 2 looks like a lot of things to consider when coaching decision making. I think in order to have a team that is good at decision making it comes down to these steps.

  • Coaching Philosophy

  • Training Environment

  • Team culture / player buy in

  • Execution

  • Successful outcome

One coach’s opinion to another coach’s option may be miles apart, and same with players. It’s important that as a coach you have a coaching philosophy and you stick to it. That way, if players make decisions there is a set way on what decisions to make.

The training environment must match the philosophy, there must be opportunities for players to practice their decision making in high pressurised environments. The more game realistic the better.

The culture of the team has to be one that all players buy in to. They have to agree with other players that there is a set way of decision making, and that if a ‘wrong’ decision is made then they can explain why it is and how they can correct it.

The execution needs to be there when it matters. There is no use in training and then not executing. Players have got to be given the opportunity to show what they have learnt and be filled with confidence in their own ability and others around them that they will make correct decisions.

Gaining successful out comes is obvious. The is no confidence like success the more successful outcomes that get hit the more chance of increasing the player buy in and therefore the tea culture which in turn will benefit other aspects of the game and also the players.

We have discussed the types of decision making and what could factor in to what decision have been made but we havnt discussed the final step. How can you coach intuitive and or deliberate decision making?

This comes down learning styles. Intuitive decision making mainly comes from Implicit learning, this involves tasks that are ill defined, without goals or performance metrics. Deliberate decision making mainly coming from explicit learning that provides specific stable foals and definitive tasks.

Implicit learning can be promoted via game based training. This is a time where players are put in an environment where they are presented with problems (stage 1 of Decision making) on a regular basis. They have to figure out ways to overcome these problems in a split second and there for upon reflection athletes will learn without knowing they have. Players will also lean from watching others, don’t underestimate the power of social leaning.

Explicit learning can be done via video analysis, questioning, instruction, whole part whole methods, part part whole methods, demonstrations.

Which learning methods are better? Both have their positives an negatives and each coach and player will have their opinion on which they prefer. The important thing to do is make sure that players experience a balance of each as they will need to use both types of decision making in a game and within their lives.

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