Thinking on Your Feet: Coaching Decision Makers

Let me share with you a quote from a conversation I had recently with a colleague of mine who coaches a semi-professional sports team. It went something like this: “….we’re all good players, and have been for years. I have no doubt that we are good enough to compete with any side on our day, and maybe our below-par performance is down to some pre-season rustiness, but we as individuals seem to keep making the wrong decisions.”

The conversation has stuck with me all week, and with the cricket season now upon us it seems an appropriate theme to discuss (especially in light of England’s torrid winter!). Regardless of the sport, have you ever coached a player that is technically sound yet has difficulty transferring that competence onto the pitch? Have you ever come across a player that has an excellent game knowledge but has trouble adapting to the ever-changing demands of the playing environment? Perhaps in the classroom, a pupil finds it hard to engage with or perform a task that requires problem solving and creativeness. Certainly the first two examples I have witnessed a number of times in my cricketing experience prompting the following questions – what can we do to improve a player’s decision making process now, but also how can we develop decision makers from an earlier age?

With every sport possessing in its own unique characteristics there may not be a black and white answer to the proposed questions, however an increasing amount of research points towards some generic strategies or ideas that coaches can employ during practice to facilitate the decision making process (Lynne Kidman: Developing Decision Makers; Bunker and Thorpe: Teaching Games for Understanding; Game Sense: Australian Sports Commission; Matthew Syed: Bounce).


Pushing the Boundaries: Performing Under Pressure

The competitive match environment in any sport encompasses pressure and uncertainty, often due to the many uncontrollable factors that can impact the difficulty of skill and subsequent performance. Decision making is at the forefront of the match environment as it determines the level of success we experience. Particularly under moments of extreme pressure our decision making comes under intense scrutiny….so what better way can you prepare yourself than by recreating the pressurised environment in practice? It’s the equivalent of an actor rehearsing his lines on stage, or a pilot going through a full run on the flight simulator, or a marine unit going through their attack plan with live rounds.Why are comedians so good at delivering their material on the big stage? The simple and obvious answer is that they have practiced and rehearsed their sketches hundreds and hundreds of times in bars, pubs, and comedy clubs, making minor adjustments and modifications to their work each and every time until it is as good as possible.

Essentially, the more times you experience and harness the feelings experienced under pressure, the better an understanding you’ll have of yourself and how you react, which will undoubtedly improve your decision making over time. Though competent technique has its place in every sport, often under pressure it is about competent execution and getting over the line – the two do not always fall on the same page! Anyone who would wish to walk into the Millfield Cricket Centre over Easter might have taken note of the two entirely full flipcharts by the nets. Had they delved further, they would have seen just about every page filled with varying scenarios…each one performed under conditions of high pressure. Why? Just like the comedian, every session is like a rehearsal for the big show. So hopefully when the season kicks off for the boys in the next few weeks their decision making will be at the next level, for they have batted or bowled in the same situation under the same pressurised conditions countless times. How is the pressure created during a session? Take your pick from artificial crowd noise, point scoring, taking players out of their comfort zones or competing with a score/target with forfeits for non-completion (tread carefully on the fitness or fielding forfeits so they are not associated with negativity), and many more.

Flexible & Open Practice

Some of the best fielding drills I have had the pleasure of watching and participating in come from Cardiff MCCU Head Coach Mark O’Leary and our Director of Cricket here at Millfield Mark Garaway. Why these drills? Quite simply because they shy away from some of the more traditional fielding drills that focus entirely on the delivery of the skill – i.e. throwing and catching. Instead the skills are a by-product of the exercise; vitally important for the smooth running of the drill but not what is ultimately needed – a decision. Whether it’s choosing the appropriate end to throw from, whether to get to the stumps or support someone on their way to the stumps the drills require the same split second quick decision that is required in a match situation. Interestingly the drills from these guys required very little equipment and instruction, and look very simple, perhaps even unorganised to an passing observer, but boy are they effective for developing decision makers. Though sometimes the most complicated drills look brilliant with cones and equipment everywhere, it often means someone has to be somewhere for the drill to run. Does this not prohibit them making an independent decision to affect the game? Perhaps that is one to ponder.

Brian Ashton once said, “If we expect players, in the white-hot atmosphere of a contest, to implement correct decisions, the preparation should reflect this.”

Next time you take a session or lead a particular exercise ask yourself: am I empowering my players to think for themselves? Is the session setup in a way that facilitates this? If it isn’t, then perhaps we as coaches need to re-evaluate our expectations of our players.

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