Decision making (DM) is the cognitive operation of selecting a response from a range of available responses in circumstances where an action is needed. DM usually takes place while interacting with either the external environment or internal desires and requirements. Decisions may be made by an individual or a group, which mediates between the environment and the behavior or performance. DM can operate slowly under conditions that lack environmental constraints and demands but must be fast under circumstances of pressure, stress, or temporal constraints. When circumstances permit, the brain processes the information needed for DM intentionally through a perceptual–cognitive linkage.
The environmental information needed for a decision to be made is perceived by the senses, mainly the visual system in sport-related environment. The visual system enables capture of environmental stimuli and perceives patterns in the visual field, and feed-forward of this information to long-term memory (LTM) allows anticipatory decisions to be made or a response decision to be primed. Such a process is slow, deliberate, and intentional. It operates under conscious control and can be modified and altered if time allows. In contrast, an emergent-type of DM is spontaneous, automatic, self-organized, and relies on established perception–action couplings. Such a DM triggers responses that are either retrievable automatically from LTM (in experts who have accumulated many hours of practice and experience) or used randomly with the possibility of a high rate of error (in novices who have acquired limited hours of practice and situational exposure). Repeated exposure to similar situations, stimuli, tasks, and environments may turn DM operations from a deliberate–slow process into an automatic–fast process. Experience and expertise allow DM to shift from an intentional and deliberate mode into an automatic mode of operation when the environmental conditions and constraints necessitate this shift. The ability to shift between different attention and DM modes enables the cognitive system to operate efficiently by increasing the probability of making the right decision at the right time and avoiding errors, detrimental to performance.
Approaches to Decision Making
DM has been given much attention in the military, business, economic, gambling, and statistics domains. While the approaches related to the types of DM in each of these domains differ, each of these approaches has some relevance to sport. We describe each of these approaches briefly before examining the DM concept in the sport domain. The prescriptive approach to DM (the prescriptive theoretical normative model) views the person as a goal or outcome-oriented creature attempting to maximize effort toward goal attainment. In gambling, where uncertainty is an inherent condition, probabilistic estimates are used to arrive at an optimal solution (e.g., the winning DM).
The cognitive-oriented approach to DM relies on the supposition that the person’s cognitive capabilities are limited. However, repeated exposure and domain-specific experience circumvents these limitations by allowing the decision maker to efficiently capture visual and logical patterns, deliver them to LTM via the operation of long-term working memory (LTWM), and accordingly retrieve responses that are stored in a rich network of mental representations.
The naturalistic-descriptive approach to DM (NDA) consists of both rational and irrational processes, and incorporates personal values, morals, motivation, personal state, and emotions; all affect the personal DM process. NDM models, such as the image theory, explanation-based theory, recognition-primed DM (RPD), and cue-retrieval of action attempted to account for the DM behaviors. Heuristics (e.g., a method of solving a problem for which no formula exists, based on informal methods or experience, and employing a form of trial and error iteration) have been offered within the NDA to account for the underlying mechanisms of DM in the real world. The RPD postulates that DM consists of cue identification, situational goals, alternative action generations, and expectations for possible alterations; and all are affected by experience. The more complex the situation is, the more practice is needed for adjustment to take place. This concept is based on mental representations (knowledge structure) for guiding, monitoring, and executing the decision process. The NDA is therefore a knowledge-driven discourse, which consists of accumulating both the declarative and procedural neural circuits necessary for DM in situations that vary in complexity and certainty. The RPD within the NDA is an approach that influenced the current concepts of DM in the sport and exercise domain.
Decision Making in Sport
The approach to DM employed in almost all sport research has been heavily influenced by the RPD naturalistic concept, but modified for the unique environment of each sport. For example, DM in rifle shooting pertains to attending to internal bodily cues and pulling the trigger at the right time. DM in dynamic and fast sports, such as soccer, football, hockey, basketball, handball, volleyball, water polo, and racquetball, is dependent on visual–spatial attention strategy (mainly visual), cue-priming, attention flexibility, selectivity, pattern recognition, anticipatory mechanisms, and the ability to assign probabilities to sequential events (to prime responses), all of which are governed by mental representations, the neural schemas containing declarative and procedural knowledge. Extensive exposure to the sport environment may result in the intentional conscious control of information processing and DM being replaced, at least in part, by more automatic control processes that allow the attention system to be more flexible and seek information from more than one source in parallel. Thus, the efficiency of the information processing system in making decisions is dependent on the richness and structure of the knowledge system (the mental representations network). The ability to encode information via the perceptual system, deliver it to the higher level processing system via LTWM, and process and retrieve responses are all a function of the extent to which the knowledge system is well developed and structured.
When an athlete chokes under pressure, a breakdown in the mental representation network occurs, and the perceptual–cognitive–motor linkage becomes dysfunctional. Specifically, under conditions of emotional or temporal pressure, the perceptual–cognitive system ceases to function appropriately and the probability of an erroneous decision being made increases substantially. Thus, coping with stress must be taken into account within the DM conceptualization.
Competitive sport events are laden with social and emotional stressors. Information processing under pressure may be affected in that attention is narrowed, which inhibits recognition and selection of essential environment cues. In turn, the cognitive system has limited resources to establish visual and meaningful patterns and prime a response. Instead, the cognitive system becomes overloaded with interfering thoughts, and attempts to control emotions are accompanied by declined self-efficacy. Under such stressful conditions, DM is expected to suffer because of the inability to prime and trigger the appropriate response, and this, in turn, is likely to result in performance decline. Existing evidence supports the notion that the quality of DM depends on how pressure is appraised and interpreted and what coping strategies and self-regulation are applied by the athlete in an effort to maintain the operating efficiency of the perceptual–cognitive system.
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