How to Improve Athlete Decision Making Skills

Published: 18th November 2009
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We have all enjoyed watching athletes who are able to make things happen on the competition field or in a race. These athletes have one very important skill in common. They are excellent decision makers - instead of letting things happen, they take control and make things happen.

In the work we do with coaches around the world from all different sports, one common issue coaches ask us to assist them address, is how to have their athletes develop better game or competition decision making skills. The simple answer to how to develop these critical skills is to practice them. This article discusses how decision making is a learnt skill, how to develop it, the link between your athletes developing the skill and your coaching style and how your athlete's AthleteDISC profile supports their development in decision making.

Decision making is closely linked to problem solving (problem-solving often involves decision-making). Decision-making is more natural to certain athletes, so they should focus more on improving the quality of their decisions. Other athletes, that are less natural decision-makers, are often able to make quality assessments, but then need to be more decisive in acting upon the assessments made.

Making any decision is a process of six key steps. In sport, the decision process may occur within milliseconds and if we were to slow down the process, we could identify:

1. Seeing there is a problem needing to be solved: Decision making begins when the athlete recognizes there is a problem with the status quo. Therefore something must be changed if there is to be any improvement.

2. Analyze the problem: When the athlete has identified the problem, they need to specifically define what is causing it.

3. Know the outcome to achieve: This is where the athlete knows what it is they want to happen.

4. Explore the options: Athletes identify what options they have available to them which will create the outcome they are looking for. In a game as opposed to training, there is often not sufficient time to explore all options. What is important is the athlete does not simply revert to autopilot-like behavior and make poor decisions because they have not cognitively processed the information available to them.

5. Choose the best option: At this time, the athlete pursues their most favored option. This is the choice point in the decision making process. The essence of decision making is the elimination of competing options.

6. Take action and responsibility: At this point, the athlete puts thought into action and pursues their choice of option. What is critical here is they pay attention to the result the chosen action creates. How many times have you seen an athlete make the wrong choice only to repeat this at a later point in the game resulting in the very same unfavorable outcome? By understanding the reason a decision was made and taking responsibility, future decisions often improve.

Making rapid (instinctual) decisions are the result of excellent decision making skills rehearsed in the training environment. This leads us to our next issue in becoming a better decision maker: Practice.

Where does an athlete practice these skills? The obvious answer is in training within an environment where athletes are actually encouraged to make decisions by weighing options and being allowed to make mistakes and to be consciously debriefed on these mistakes so they may not happen again in the future.

For this environment to be achieved, it is to be created by the coach. And the biggest impact on whether athletes end up taking responsibility is how the athlete is coached. Coaches are advised to incorporate a Sharing style of coaching where they use questioning techniques to draw out their athlete's thinking. To use questioning technique means not relying on a "traditional" style of coaching which is usually based around the Directive style of coaching. It is not suggested a coach never uses a Directive style of coaching. However, if coaches predominantly rely on this style and give their athletes the answers to most of the problems they face, then the athlete never learns to address issues themselves. They need to learn and practice decision making.

If an athlete does not get the opportunity to learn and practice decision making in training, what chance do they have of getting it right in a competition, when it matters the most? Overall, coaches who use an Athlete Centered approach have a better chance of developing athletes who have self-awareness and who have the abilities to make great choices in both training and then competition. (For more on the different styles of coaching and the Athlete Centered approach, see the bottom of this page for more articles.)

Another interesting and determining factor in athlete decision making is their behavioral profile type. Within the context of the AthleteDISC, certain behavioral profiles take more decisive action than other types. For example, Dominant and Interactive styles have a natural inclination to make rapid decisions. Both these types base their decisions on different criteria.

In simple terms, Dominant styles rely on logically summing up the criteria available to them, then quickly choosing the best alternative. Often only a small portion of tangible information is considered.

Interactive styles make their decisions fast (and often change their mind as quickly again) based on intuitive feel for what is happening around them. They do not pay specific attention to facts and raw data. Both Dominant styles and Interactive styles can learn from each other by sharing each other's tendencies to more fully explore options.

The other styles of the AthleteDISC model are the Steady and Compliant styles. Steady styles take more time to reach decision. They actually prefer the status quo and often prefer not to make a decision. When they do make a decision, it can often happen too late. Their decision is based on feelings and relationships with those around them.

Compliant styles make highly detailed and logical decisions. All data must be considered prior to them actually making their choice. This high level consideration takes time, often to the frustration of faster style decision makers.

Ultimately all improvement in the decision making domain and all others, rests with increasing self-awareness. A critical role of coaches therefore, is to improve athletes' self-awareness and we obviously recommend athlete profiling for this massive first step in this direction. When self-awareness is combined with the coach using an Athlete Centered coaching style, focusing on the Sharing style with effective questioning, then there is a genuine likelihood of athletes learning to become excellent decision makers in both training and competition.

Want more information:

Other articles you can access on our website include: "How To Be An Athlete Centered Coach" | "Creating a High Performance Coaching Style" | "Do You Have Adaptability?" | "How to Identify Another Person's DISC Behavioral Style" | "Do Athletes Know How They Need to be Coached?" | "Are Your Athletes Accountable?" | "Do Your Athletes Care?" .

If you have any comments or questions, please contact us.

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