Improving decision making in sport

Sport is full of decisions: from the tactical decisions made by a soccer player, to training decisions made be a coach, or funding decisions made by a governing body. Making decisions in sport is hard, because sporting environments are typically highly complex. But new models on decision making help us better understand the decision making process and how to improve it.

Complexity and interpretation

Complexity in sport comes from many different angles. This can transform very simplex tasks into complex ones. For example, let’s look at a footballer taking a penalty kick; complexity may come from the environment (e.g. weather, pitch condition), the opposition (e.g. goalkeeper), the psycho-social conditions (e.g. fans, home vs away, pressure), and themselves (e.g. fatigue). All of these factors come in to play for a relatively simple task—kicking a stationary ball towards the goal to try and score—meaning that any two situations the player faces are unlikely to be the same.

The complexity then, in turn, leads to differences in interpretation; whilst one player may interpret a series of cues in one way, a different player may make a different decision when faced with exactly the same set of cues. To add further complexity, the same player can see the same set of cues on a different occasion, and make a different decision. As an example, take a look at the below image. Do you see a rabbit, or do you see a duck?

This deliberately ambiguous drawing can be interpreted as either a rabbit or a duck, and whether we see a duck or a rabbit appears to correlate with a variety of contextual factors. For example, when Americans view this image around Easter, they are more likely to identify it as a rabbit; when they view it in October, they’re more likely to perceived it as a duck.

Bounded rationality: making the most with what we have

Given the importance of decisions within sport, we need to ensure that we’re making decisions of high quality. In 1957, Herbert Simon, the American cognitive psychologist, proposed the theory of bounded rationality. This theory views decision-making as a rational process of making the optimal choice, given the information we have available to us. This latter part is important. Whilst we can make rational decisions with the information we have available, we might not have all the information we need to make the best decision.

In this scenario, we merely make a satisfactory decision for that point in time, often termed satisficing. As an illustrative example, let’s consider a sprinter who has a sore hamstring before a race. The race is important, so they want to run; they have had sore hamstrings before and been fine, and they have been training well in the run up to the competition. Given this information, what decision would we make about whether to race (and risk injury) or not? It’s a tough call, and if we had more information, we could make a better one; for instance, a scan of the hamstring could show us whether there was any underlying damage, or fixed point dynamometry could tell us whether there is a strength deficit present.

In the moment, and in the absence of this additional information, we make the best decision we can at the time, with the information we have.

Bounded rationality in sport

In a pre-print exploring bounded rationality in sport published last year, Sam Robertson and David Joyce wrote that “the quality of a decision can be viewed as a function of the characteristics of the person making the decision, the quality of the information they have at their disposal, their biases, and the environmental context in which they operate.”

As Robertson and Joyce identify, when it comes to sport (as well as other domains), we start with essentially two categories of things; those we measure, and those we don’t. Objects within either category can be useful or not useful, and so we need to be weary of two key things; those that we measure that aren’t useful, and those we don’t measure that are useful. On the latter, the reasons we might not measure something that is useful is because it is too difficult or too expensive to do so, we don’t have the required expertise to either collect the information, or perhaps we don’t know that it even exists. So, a key question when it comes to decision making is “what information do I need to make the best decision here, and do I have this at my disposal?”

A second, but no less crucial question, is “will adding more data improve the quality of my decision?” This latter question refers to the concept of diminishing returns, whereby additional data past a critical point is unlikely to yield any further important insights. As such, we need to be parsimonious, balancing the collection of sufficient information to make a quality decision against collecting more information than necessary.

Finally, optimal decision making refers to making the best decision with the information we have at the time. It follows that having more information, of higher quality, will lead to better decisions. As discussed above, this can relate to the collection of data, but it can also relate to knowledge—do we have enough to make the best decision? Here, a broad base of knowledge, across a variety of different domains, can be really useful—leading to what Matt Ridley describes as “idea sex” (and built upon here).

This has implications for coaching athletes; we need to expose them to a variety of situations that mimic what could happen within competition, as a means of building their library of potential responses, ensuring they can select the correct one when under periods of high stress and pressure. For coaches and sports administrators, this means being aware of concepts and ideas from a broad range of subjects and domains; the advantage here is that, by having a broader knowledge base and wider mental models, we’re likely to have more information to choose from when it comes to making a decision. Finally, we need to have an awareness that we likely hold biases that can affect our decision making (even if we don’t know what those biases are), and so we need to check and challenge our beliefs to guard against this.

Making better decisions

In short, for better decisions, we need to gain information from disparate sources—books, videos, people we follow on social media—and we should be open minded around seeking out people with different world views to us as a way of checking our biases. Finally, we need to have a better idea of what we don’t know, and try and include that in our thinking. The end result, hopefully, is that we can both make better decisions and perform better as a result.