Decision Making

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.

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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.


  1. Tenenbaum, G. (2003). Expert athletes: An integrated approach to decision making. In J. L. Starkes &
  2. A. Ericsson (Eds.), Expert performance in sports: Advances in research on sport expertise (pp. 192–218). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Tenenbaum, G. (2004). Decision making in sport. In Spielberger (Ed.), Encyclopedia of applied psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 575–584). San Diego, CA: Elsevier.
  3. Tenenbaum, G., & Bar-Eli, M. (1993). Decision making in sport. In R. N. Singer, M. Murphey, & L. K. Tennant (Eds.), Handbook on research in sport psychology (pp. 171–192). New York: Macmillan.
  4. Zsambok, C. E., & Klein, G. (Eds.). (1997). Naturalistic decision making. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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