A critical component of coaching is decision making, which is the process of selecting an alternative from among many choices to achieve a desired end. Decisions may involve the training programs; selection of team members; deployment of various strategies, practice, and tournament schedules; choice of uniforms; and such other serious and simple matters. In fact, every act of the coach dealing with the team or athletes is an instance of decision making with a profound impact on the team and the members. From this perspective, it can be confidently stated that successful coaching is in essence the art and science of decision making.
While this perspective is generally understood and agreed upon, there is considerable debate over the extent to which the coach should allow members to participate in decision making. This entry focuses on the specific issue of participation in decision making.
There are two processes in decision making. The cognitive process is focused on the rationality of the decision, which means selecting the best means to achieve a given end. Rationality is best assured when the decision maker defines the goal (or the problem) clearly, generates all possible alternatives to achieve the stated end, evaluates the alternatives, and chooses the best alternative. The social process refers to the extent to which members are allowed to participate in decision making. It must be stressed that the focus in the social process is not on the substance of the final decision but on who should be involved in making that decision.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Participative Decision Making
Coaches need to be aware of benefits inherent in member participation in decision making. First, there is more information and insight in a group than in an individual, which would result in the generation of more and meaningful alternatives and subsequent evaluation of them. Second, when the problem is explained and the solutions are discussed in a group setting, the members understand the problem and the rationale behind the choice of a solution. Third, members feel that it is their decision, and that sense of ownership would spur them to execute the decision more effectively. Finally, such participation contributes to the personal growth of the members, their feelings of self-worth and self-confidence and the development of their problem-solving skills.
Coaches must also be aware of the disadvantages of participative decision making before permitting the athletes to participate in decision making. Participative decision making takes a long time not only because of the complexity of the problem and the factors associated with it but also because members tend to engage in tangential discussions and to argue over trivial issues. A second issue is that the group may not be as effective as the best individual in the group in solving complex problems where a number of factors have to be kept in perspective and series of steps have to be taken to link all the factors involved and gain a gestalt, or overall, view of the issue. As Harold Kelley and John Thibaut have noted, a group may be more proficient than an individual in solving a crossword puzzle because the members can suggest several words to fill up the blanks and each word can be checked against the criteria. Also, it is only necessary to be concerned with one word at a time. But construction of the puzzle involves looking at the whole set of words and associated criteria and ensuring they are all linked in a coherent and logical manner. In this case, the best individual in the group can do a better job than the group as a whole. An example of a complex problem from sport would be that of drawing up a set of plays in football. This would require that the relative abilities of team members and opponents, the sequence of events, and the various options and their consequences all be held in perspective. The coach with all relevant information is more likely to be better at this task than a group of players.
Further, the group needs to be integrated before they can effectively participate in making decisions. It must be recognized that every athlete is self-oriented and therefore would be competing with teammates for opportunities and rewards within the team context (e.g., playing time). In this scenario, it is conceivable that there could be internal rivalries and conflicts, which may not bode well for participative decision making.
It is not uncommon to hear the complaint that coaches in general are autocratic in decision making. In fact some coaches acknowledge that they are autocratic and that they need to be. In the movie Remember the Titans, Coach Herman Boone, referring to his football team, says, “This is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship. I am the law.” In his view, coaching football is a situation that does not allow for much participative decision making. This perspective can be extended to specific problems faced by a coach in any sport. That is, some of the problems would call for participative decision making while some other problems may call for autocratic decisions. For example, there is no time for participative decision making during a timeout in basketball. Hence, the coach has to make autocratic decisions. In essence then, it is the nature of the problem to be solved that defines the extent to which the coach will allow members to influence the decision. Following the model proposed by Victor Vroom and associates, we carried out some research in the context of sport. Our research framework begins with describing the problem in terms of five attributes as follows:
1. Quality Requirement
The solutions to some problems have to be optimal while some other problems may not call for high-quality decisions. For example, selecting team members is more critical than the decision on the style of the uniforms.
2. Coach Information
Rationality of a decision is based on the quality and reliability of the information available. Thus, the extent of athlete participation in decision making is contingent on the coach not having the information and the athletes having it. If the players do not possess the information, engaging them in decision making would tantamount to “pooling of ignorance.”
3. Problem Complexity
As noted earlier, when a problem is complex, the coach with the necessary information is more likely to make the optimal decision than the team as a whole. For example, the selection of plays for a football team should be based on the knowledge of the relative abilities of team members and opponents, the sequence of plays, and the various options and their consequences. Thus, the coach is likely to make more optimal decisions than the team.
4. Group Acceptance
Most of the decisions have to be implemented by the members of the team. Thus, it is necessary that the athletes accept a decision as optimal and executable. For instance, the strategy of a full court press in basketball should be perceived by the players as useful and well within their capacity. Such acceptance is easily generated when members participate in the decision to employ full court press as and when necessary.
5. Team Integration
This attribute refers to the quality of interpersonal relations and cohesion among the team members. Participative decision making would be fruitful only when the team is integrated. If it is not integrated, decision participation may weaken the already fragile team consensus and team spirit.
The configuration of these five attributes in a given problem situation would indicate the extent to which the coach would allow the athletes to participate in decision making regarding that problem. The various levels of member participation (or decision styles, as we had labeled them) are described as follows.
Autocratic I. The coach makes the decision using the information available at the time.
Autocratic II. The coach obtains the necessary information from relevant players and then decides. The coach may or may not tell the players what the problem is. The role played by the players is simply providing the information they have.
Consultative I. The coach consults with relevant players individually and then decides. Coach’s decision may or may not reflect players’ influence.
Consultative II. Coach consults with all players as a group and makes the decision, which may or may not reflect players’ influence.
Group. Coach shares the problem with the players and the coach and the players jointly make the decision without the coach exercising his or her authority.
The results of two studies conducted by Pakianathan Chelladurai, Terry Haggerty, and Peter Baxter in 1989 and Chelladurai and Cheng Quek in 1995 are reported here. Our approach was to present to the respondents a set of cases representing all possible configurations of the presence or absence (or high or low) of the five problem attributes, which resulted in 32 cases (2 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 2). Following each case, the set of five decision styles described above was presented for the respondents to indicate the one style they would choose or prefer in that particular case.
The participants in the 1989 study were 22 coaches (males = 15; females = 7) and 99 players (males = 53; females = 46) from university basketball teams in Ontario, Canada. The coaches indicated their choice of a decision style in specific situations, and the athletes expressed their preferences of a particular decision style in the same situations. Although there were differences among the three groups (coaches, male, and female players), the AI style (coach making decision alone) was chosen more often than any other style by each group. The CII style (consultation with all players on a group basis) was the second most popular choice in all three groups. While the participative style (G) was chosen less than 20% of the time in all three groups, the combination of AI, AII, and CI (because they involve minimal influence from the members) resulted in 64.8% for coaches, 59.4% for male players, and 57.3% for female players. The study in 1995 was concerned with the decision-style choices of 51 coaches of high school boys’ basketball teams in and around Toronto, Canada. With these coaches, A1 was the most preferred choice (32.5%) and CI style was the least preferred choice (9.7%).
The results of these two studies and earlier ones show that the respondents chose or preferred different decision styles according to situational characteristics. It is also noteworthy that players of both genders and coaches were influenced more or less to the same degree by the variations in the problem situation. These results support Vroom’s assertion that we should view the situation as either democratic or autocratic rather than dubbing the leaders or coaches as democratic or autocratic.
Based on the preferences of players for more autocratic decision making than participative decision making, the coaches should not be faulted for being autocratic. That is, the coaching context is relatively more autocratic than participative. However, coaches should be able to analyze a problem situation correctly and decide on the extent to allow participative decision making. Further, they should also realize that participative decisions require different skills than coaching per se. The coach should make the problem clear to the group, control the discussion to be focused on the problem than on tangential issues, and help the group reach a good decision, and in the whole process, should avoid influencing the decision in any way. Thus, the coach needs to consciously develop the skills to conduct participative decision making.
- Chelladurai, P., Haggerty, T. R., & Baxter, P. R. (1989). Decision style choices of university basketball coaches and players. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 11, 201–215.
- Chelladurai, P., & Quek, C. B. (1995). Decision style choices of high school basketball coaches: The effects of situational and coach characteristics. Journal of Sport Behavior, 18(2), 91–108.
- Kelley, H. K., & Thibaut, J. W. (1969). Group problem solving. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Vroom, V. H. (2000). Leadership and the decisionmaking process. Organizational Dynamics, 28(4), 82–94.
- Vroom, V. H. (2003). Educating managers for decision making and leadership. Management Decision, 41(10), 968–978.