Decision-Making Styles In Coaching

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.

Decision-Making Processes

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.

Decision Styles

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Vroom, V. H. (2000). Leadership and the decisionmaking process. Organizational Dynamics, 28(4), 82–94.
  5. Vroom, V. H. (2003). Educating managers for decision making and leadership. Management Decision, 41(10), 968–978.

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