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Different types of decisions, for athletes and coaches

Twitter was a highly thought-provoking place last week. I shared this article:

The paper is open-access, and it is worth a read in my opinion. To quote from the abstract:

“In this article, we discuss how coaching practices have the potential to be enhanced by integrating key principles from both traditional and contemporary (CLA) approaches to adapt practice to the emerging situation and meet the skill development needs of their athletes while considering the intricacies and subtleties that typify real-world coaching environments.(Lindsay & Spittle, 2024)

There was some ensuing twitter discourse, which I was grateful for, particularly around the idea of perception. It is either direct (the information in the environment is enough to control movement or action/make a decision) or indirect (the information in the environment must be interpreted using previous knowledge and/or mental models). Therefore, combining theories, particularly ecological dynamics (direct perception) and traditional representation-based accounts of motor learning (indirect perception) makes no sense. The theories are incompatible - perception cannot be both direct and indirect.

However, there are parts of the game (team sport) that I don’t think are possible without prior knowledge and indirect perception (the lineout in rugby union is one, see below). Similarly, there are parts of coaching that I don’t think make sense without direct perception. But at no stage could I say that everything is as a result of direct perception only, or indirect perception only.

Something I have been exploring in recent times, and what has been further stimulated in the last few days, is the idea that there are different types of decision making going on, from an athlete’s perspective, and from a coach’s perspective.

Athlete decision-making

Coaches have indicated that developing decision-making is one of the hardest things to do (Morgan et al., 2020). From my reading, to best support coaches in the development of player decision decision-making abilities (skills), a useful discussion on this come from Ashford et al. (2022). Player decision-making can be classed into:

  • Intentional decision-making, like tactical frameworks (Tee et al., 2018).

  • Incidental decision-making, where players are attuned to real game contexts.

Intentional decision-making aligns with “traditional” cognitive perspectives (Taylor et al., 2023). Incidental decision-making aligns with ecological dynamics perspectives (Chow et al., 2019). To illustrate two examples, one in rugby (intentional decision making) and one in soccer (incidental decision making).

Rugby union – lineout

The lineout in rugby union is a unique spectacle. 4-7 players from each team are involved as jumpers or lifters, while one player on the attacking team (team in possession) feeds the ball in. The attacking team are trying to retrieve the ball, while the defending team are trying to steal. Teams all over the world, at every level will have lineout calls. One player within the attacking team will call a number for example, there might be a few movements, dummy lifts, before the ball is thrown before execution of the lineout. This is a rehearsed play.

An argument against this might be that once the player calls out the information, that information is now “in the environment” for players to “directly perceive”. But to suggest that all players can coordinate their movements based on a number without prior mental representation of what that number means does not make sense to me. This is an example, to me, of when the information in the environment is insufficient to direct team behaviour.

Soccer – counterattack

Take this counterattack goal from Man Utd back in the day when they were a good team:

While it may be had been a team principle to counterattack at pace, the successful execution of each specific counterattack is only possibly by players regulating their actions based on the information in their environment (ball position, teammates, opponents, space, offside etc.) Players must directly perceive what is in front of them.

As opposed to the shared representation or mental model that was evident in the rugby lineout, this seems more an illustration of a shared affordance (Sheehan et al., 2022; Silva et al., 2013). Collectively, Man Utd players recognised the opportunity to exploit the space to successfully score.

In both cases, both types of decision making (intentional and incidental) were present in my view, just in varying quantities.

Coach decision-making

If we define coaching as a decision-making process (Abraham, 2015), then it stands to reason that the best coaches are the most expert decision makers. Coaches have to make adjustments to their training session design in real time, due to the non-linearity (Chow et al., 2011), or make tactical changes in a game due to an injury or a sending off or a tactical tweak from the opposition. But coaches also have to make decisions around the short/medium/long term planning. Abraham and Collins (2011) framed these different kinds of decisions as:

  • Naturalistic decision making: the ability to connect previously seen cues to a method of action. This aligns to the in-session or in-game changes that a coach might make.

  • Classical decision-making: this generally applied during planning, implementation, and review (or reflection).

While these are two separate and distinct types of decisions, in my view, both can be used at appropriate times. Using a naturalistic decision-making process during a season planning meeting, coaches may miss the opportunity to refine their practice. Using classical decision-making processes during a training session may result in a coach missing key opportunities to manipulate their practice design to ensure athletes are getting the best opportunity to learn or perform. To align with the athlete terminology above, naturalistic decision making for coaches is similar to incidental decision making for athletes. Classical decision making for coaches is akin to intentional decision making for athletes.

How can athletes or coaches improve their incidental or naturalistic decision-making?

Despite the distinction made above about there being two separate types of decision making, I question if it matters. In any case, athletes want and need to improve their ability to make decisions on the field, whether incidental or intentional. While coaches want and need to improve their ability to make decisions, either in a classical or a naturalistic manner. Critical planning, i.e., an ability to understand how different sources of evidence can inform practice (theory is not evidence) - i.e. evidence-informed practice (Nevo & Slonim-Nevo, 2011); and critical reflection (Schön, 1992) inform each other and are critical to both classical and naturalistic decision making!

To illustrate this point, I will focus on a coach. To develop their decision-making, is it enough to just coach? Is it enough to just rely on experience? Do coaches only learn by directly perceiving the information in the environment? If so, the coach with the most experience would be the best (i.e., they have the most expertise – display the highest quality naturalistic decision-making). Only relying on experience may lack a quality assurance (Mallett et al., 2009). For example, the former player has loads of experiential knowledge from previous coaches, but his previous coaches may have been poor and coached primarily out of tradition and emulation (Williams & Hodges, 2005)!

It is not true that experience = expertise. Highly experienced coaches can still lack expertise, while coaches who might lack a high level of experience can still display an impressive level of expertise. How can one develop this decision-making expertise, if one can ONLY perceive directly – as in, they can only learn directly from coaching? Critical reflection involves making sense of what was experienced, and a key piece of critical reflection is the consideration of alternatives (Collins & Collins, 2021). Without reflection, a coach does not consider if their decisions were appropriate or not to achieve their desired intention (which they would have hopefully defined beforehand in the critical planning stage). Other things to consider through reflection include coaching issues, role frame and the setting of problems (Gilbert & Trudel, 2001). However, if perception is only direct, what is the point?

To be clear, much of my work involves in-situ coach support (informal learning) to support coaches (Nelson et al., 2006). Coaching is obviously a crucial part of becoming an expert coach – it simply cannot happen without it. Coaching experience, however, is not enough, but adopting the stance of only direct perception means that it has to be. But if there is ONLY direct perception, what is the purpose of formal and non-formal learning opportunities - in other words, learning outside of doing, which IS impactful (Cushion et al., 2010; Mallett et al., 2009; Nelson et al., 2006; Stoszkowski and Collins, 2016)? If the dichotomy is falsified for coaches, then it also must be falsified for athletes.

There, if athletes ONLY perceive directly from the environment, does any learning outside of the game happen? What is the purpose of a coach – only to design tasks? Playing the game is clearly important - athlete development cannot occur without it, and I would suggest that there is currently an imbalance between training form (drills) and playing form (games) activities in training (as in, it is too heavily weighted in training form activities). However, the solution is not creating a dichotomy, which I am not sure is 100% accurate as it is often presented (although the discourse has been and hopefully will continue to be beneficial for my own development, and maybe that of others).

Final thoughts

There has been no evidence to suggest one approach is best, and neither theoretical approach discussed in the original paper explains everything. I accept, including certain practices in training because everyone else does it, or because its good enough for a certain high-level coach is a poor rationale. Appeals to tradition or authority, are weak.

My current thought process is that athletes and coaches perceive in different ways, at different times. There are times when athletes need to respond directly to the information in their environment – opponents, teammates, ball position, time, score etc. However, there are times when athletes need to utilise previous knowledge to support their decision making. In either case, that doesn’t mean that the other “type” of decision isn’t used. When a coach makes a decision to modify a task in training (out of necessity due to a player injury for example; direct perception), it doesn’t mean that they can’t be informed by their long-term plan. When a team makes a call for a lineout and subsequent strike play (indirect perception), that doesn’t mean that an individual player cannot attack the space if it opens up. No doubt I am naïve, or maybe just not educated enough (yet, maybe one day I will be), but I look forward to learning more soon.


Abraham, A. (2015). Understanding Coaching as a Judgement and Decision Making Process: Implications for Coach Development Practice University of Central Lancashire].

Abraham, A., & Collins, D. (2011). Taking the Next Step: Ways Forward for Coaching Science. Quest, 63(4), 366-384.

Ashford, M., Cope, E., Abraham, A., & Poolton, J. (2022). Coaching player decision making in rugby union: exploring coaches espoused theories and theories in use as an indicator of effective coaching practice. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 1-22.

Chow, J. Y., Davids, K., Hristovski, R., Araújo, D., & Passos, P. (2011). Nonlinear pedagogy: Learning design for self-organizing neurobiological systems. New Ideas in Psychology, 29(2), 189-200.

Chow, J. Y., Shuttleworth, R., Davids, K., & Araujo, D. (2019). Ecological dynamics and transfer from practice to performance in sport. In N. J. Hodges & A. M. Williams (Eds.), Skill Acquisition in Sport (Third Edition ed., pp. 388). Routledge.

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Gilbert, W., & Trudel, P. (2001). Learning to Coach through Experience: Reflection in Model Youth Sport Coaches. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 21, 16-34.

Lindsay, R., & Spittle, M. (2024). The adaptable coach – a critical review of the practical implications for traditional and constraints-led approaches in sport coaching. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 0(0), 17479541241240853.

Mallett, C. J., Trudel, P., Lyle, J., & Rynne, S. B. (2009). Formal vs. Informal Coach Education. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 4(3), 325-364.

Morgan, K., Mouchet, A., & Thomas, G. (2020). Coaches’ perceptions of decision making in rugby union. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 25(4), 394-409.

Nelson, L. J., Cushion, C. J., & Potrac, P. (2006). Formal, Nonformal and Informal Coach Learning: A Holistic Conceptualisation. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 1(3), 247-259.

Nevo, I., & Slonim-Nevo, V. (2011). The Myth of Evidence-Based Practice: Towards Evidence-Informed Practice. The British Journal of Social Work, 41(6), 1176-1197.

Schön, D. A. (1992). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (1st ed.). Routledge.

Sheehan, W., Tribolet, R., Watsford, M., & Fransen, J. (2022). The forest through the trees: Making sense of an ecological dynamics approach to measuring and developing collective behaviour in football. 

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Stoszkowski, J., & Collins, D. (2016). Sources, topics and use of knowledge by coaches. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(9), 794-802.

Taylor, R. D., Taylor, J., Ashford, M., & Collins, R. (2023). Contemporary pedagogy? The use of theory in practice: An evidence-informed perspective [Perspective]. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 5.

Tee, J. C., Ashford, M., & Piggott, D. (2018). A Tactical Periodization Approach for Rugby Union. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 40(5), 1-13.

Williams, A. M., & Hodges, N. J. (2005). Practice, instruction and skill acquisition in soccer: challenging tradition. J Sports Sci, 23(6), 637-650.


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