Expert Tips to Improve Decision Making in Sports

Written by VersusThu Dec 08 2022
Expert Tips to Improve Decision Making in Sports

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Improve your decision-making in sports--on the field and off. The one skill that is often overlooked is the coaches' and athletes' ability to make correct decisions under intense pressure and time constraints.

Professional sports require and demand that athletes display high levels of competency across a number of different skill sets. But the one skill that is often overlooked is the coaches' and athletes' ability to make correct decisions under intense pressure and time constraints.

Sports like baseball, basketball, softball, and tennis are incredibly fast-moving, requiring athletes and coaches to make hundreds of decisions while the game is constantly changing and evolving. For these coaches and athletes to be successful, they need to display rapid and robust decision-making skills that move with the natural ebbs and flows of the game.

The best coaches and athletes in the world display excellent decision-making skills, but are these skills learned? Or are they innate? The fact that we refer to decision-making as a "skill" would suggest that just like any other skill, decision making can not only be learned but improved and mastered through specific strategies and techniques. 

However, many athletes and younger coaches overthink and second-guess themselves. With the right coaching, you can transform yourself from a coach who is indecisive to one that is decisive, assertive, and confident when it comes to decision-making.

This article aims to help provide you with expert tips to improve your decision making on the sports field. But when you sign up today at Versus.co, you’ll gain more insight and knowledge into the mental side of sports with exclusive access to a wide range of other content covering–mindset, leadership, routines, skill development and more. 

Take, for example, a 95MPH fastball in baseball, which takes roughly 0.40 seconds to reach the plate once the ball has left the pitcher's hand. As a matter of fact, according to renowned neuroscientist Jordan Muraskin “You only have about 150 milliseconds to decide while the pitch is coming toward you,” Muraskin conveyed. “A fair and foul ball; the disparity is having your bat in the right position by about 5-7 milliseconds.”

Coaches and athletes understand the critical role decision making plays in determining a successful outcome. So the question now becomes; what, if any, are the measures that athletes and coaches can take to improve their decision-making skills during the heat of the battle? 

Let's take a deeper look.

4 Simple Ways to Improve Decision Making 

Decision making is not an innate talent but rather a learned skill that comes through years of experience playing in pressure cooker games and through specific practices designed to improve decision making. 

One of the best ways to enhance the skill of decision making is by creating practice situations replicating the game-like conditions you'd expect to experience in a major competition. 

Here are four steps to help improve your decision-making skills:

  • Make it a goal to work on your decision-making skills at game speed during practice 
  • Design practices sessions that replicate the conditions of real-game situations.
  • Immediately following any game or practice session, review your performance and make adjustments if needed
  • Be consistent; just like any other skill, decision-making takes time to master; so be patient and keep working at it

Improving Decision Making via Specific Practice 

As a coach, how many times during a game have you witnessed one of your players make a poor decision only to make the same mistake again later on? More often than you'd like to admit, right? 

As a coach and athlete, the first and most important thing you need to do is take responsibility. By learning to take accountability, you can start to get a deeper insight into why the decision was made. Once you better understand the reasoning behind the decision, you can design and implement training sessions to address and fix the problem.

Learning to make quick, decisive, and correct decisions is a skill that can be honed and perfected through specific practice sessions. As coaches, the more insight you can gather into how individuals within your team approach decision making, the better your chances of devising sessions that can help them enhance their skills.

Experienced coaches know that decision making is actually very closely related to "problem solving." However, some athletes have a much tougher time compared to others, especially when it comes to making the right decision under intense pressure. This is where the art of designing practice sessions to help athletes improve comes into play; just like any skill such as hitting or pitching, athletes can improve their decision-making skills over time. 

Providing athletes and coaches with repetitive practice sessions that are designed to enhance decision making is the best way to help them sharpen and refine their skills. To get the most out of these practice sessions, coaches and players are encouraged to:

  • Experiment with processes
  • Not be afraid to make mistakes
  • Take time to work through all the options at your disposal

Undoubtedly, the most critical factor in improving players' decision-making skills is providing immediate feedback that not only points out the mistake made but provides a solution, so the mistake is not repeated. 

Remember, keep your feedback positive and upbeat; avoid making the athlete feel embarrassed, but remind them it's a learning process, and by making a mistake, they're now one step closer to mastering the skill. 

It's also essential for coaches to remember that each and every player has vastly different ways in which they process and absorb information relevant to decision making. Coaches should look to "harness" the power of a player's natural learning style to ensure they have the best opportunity to improve their decision-making ability. 

6 Phases in the Decision-Making Process

So what actually separates the best decision-makers from those still struggling with the skill? More often than not, it's not the decision itself that separates the best from the rest; rather, it's the ability to be decisive and act on the decision made. 

Simply put, the better decision makers ultimately make and act on their decisions much quicker than their rivals and teammates. It's this decisiveness and confidence that produces the best athletes. They can evaluate, choose and act on their decision promptly and under fierce pressure.

It’s commonly agreed upon in the world of sports psychology that decision-making in high-performance sports comprises six critical steps that remarkably all take place in just a matter of milliseconds. 

Here's what the six phases look like when the decision-making process is slowed down to a turtle’s pace.

Identifying the problem at hand

First and foremost, the athlete and coach must identify that a problem actually exists. Secondly, they must recognize that an appropriate action or measure must be taken if the problem is to be overcome. 

Analyzing the problem

Once the athlete or coach has clearly identified the problem, they must determine what is causing the problem. Identifying the cause is one of the most critical steps in the process and one that the best decision makers excel at.

Understanding outcomes

Understanding the outcome simply means that the athlete or coach is confident that they know what the outcome is and how they can achieve it effectively and, most importantly, quickly.

Examining the options

In this step, the athlete or coach examines all the possibilities they have at their disposal and chooses the option most likely to achieve the desired result. Practice sessions provide players and coaches with the perfect opportunity to analyze each option because they are not under the strict time constraints of a real game. 

Coaches and players must not retreat to the same behaviors they display during a game that causes mistakes. Take your time and work your way through the problem at hand.

Selecting the right option

Once players and coaches have analyzed all their options, it's time to select the best one to achieve the desired result. This step signifies the first stage in the process where a decision must be made. Many sports psychologists refer to these as "choice points." A decision must be made that not only achieves the desired result but also aligns with the team's broader goals and aims as a whole. 

One of the most crucial aspects of the decision-making process is eliminating options that are not likely to achieve a satisfactory result; the quicker players and coaches can eliminate flawed options, the faster the decision-making process is. 

Pulling the Trigger

So once all the hard work is done, and now it's time for the player or coach to pull the trigger on the option they've chosen. It's absolutely critical here that both player and coach pay close attention to the outcome after they select their desired action; this way, they can make adjustments for similar situations that will undoubtedly "pop up" in the future.

8 Tips To Improving Decision Making For Athletes

The coach has many vital roles to play in the development of their athletes, but one of the most critical is giving them the confidence that they have what it takes to make and execute the right decision. Providing players, particularly young players, with specifically designed decision-making sessions is one of the best ways to ensure they gain the confidence needed to perform in a real game.

Whether it's Jennie Finch, Albert Pujols, or Adam Wainwright, athletes are constantly making hundereds of decisions throughout the game. Think about some of the best athletes in the world; it's no coincidence that they're also the best decision makers. Michael Jordan, Novak Djokovic, Roger Clemens, Amanda Lorenz, and Jessica Mendoza are just five such players that come to mind when one thinks of clutch performers.

As we've seen, decision-making is a skill just like any other and can be improved through specific training sessions set up to replicate real-game conditions. Many coaches believe that decision making is an innate ability that some players possess. While that might be true for some players, all players can learn to become great decision makers.

  1. Actively include players and license them to get imaginative when designing practice sessions to help improve decision making. 
  1. Coaches can create practice situations and conditions that confront players with unfamiliar problems. This will compel players to adapt and "think outside the box" when trying to solve the issues and make the right decision.
  1. Take advantage of other team members and have them set up to play in ways that will keep others guessing. Many coaches use strict practice sessions that are predictable and monotonous. Coaches should design unpredictable and demanding drills to challenge decision-making skills and ultimately improve them.  
  1. Facilitate and create an environment where players feel comfortable enough to question each other's decision-making. However, coaches must ensure that players keep their feedback positive, constructive, and well-mannered to maintain team harmony.
  1. Providing players with praise is also highly recommended as it can encourage them to continue on in the face of adversity and intense pressure. Learning to become a better decision maker is possible, but no one said it would ever be easy. Compliment your athletes, especially after they've made a mistake. 
  1. Coaches should strive to prepare as many practice sessions as possible to replicate the conditions likely to be experienced in real-game situations. While this is not easy, there are things you can do, such as having staff serve as umpires, setting time constraints, and even including an award for the winning team.
  1. Try to avoid planning practice sessions that are highly structured and set up to run specific plays or patterns. These types of drills are detrimental to the decision-making process because they eliminate the need for athletes to make decisions regarding the outcome of the activity.
  1. A great way for coaches to improve the decision-making skills of their athletes is to have them play different sports. For example, if you coach a baseball team, then once a week, you might have them play tennis or basketball. Playing various sports provides a broader knowledge base, and although the sports are different, the decision-making processes are typically the same. 

If you want to go deeper on how to make better decisions in sports, and what it takes to have a winning mindset, head over to Versus and check out our Game Plans. Any of our packages will get you access to our lessons, plus tons of other training sessions, interactive content, and more.

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