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Making judgements and decisions as a skill acquisition specialist

Something that I have been considering in recent times is viewing skill acquisition support/coach support as a decision-making process. I have been reflecting on my interactions and some sessions I have had with coaches, and decisions constantly need to be made about what support I provide, how I provide it and why. For example, I might have two minutes before a session to discuss a coaches session planning, there might be a 30s window within a training session (during drinks break for example) where a coach might ask for my thoughts, or they share their own, and I might have a three minute debrief after the session. I don't have a lot of time to offer whatever I offer, and something I am conscious of is respecting the time that coaches (often volunteers) have committed time to coaching. How can I be as efficient as possible with support? What is the lowest hanging fruit? What is the rate limiter?

Skill acquisition support then becomes a decision-making process to determine what to say or feedback on (double down on something positive or suggest an area for evolution), how to say it (question, direction, feedback etc.), tone of voice, depth of explanation and so on. Contextual constraints like stage of competition, or the club vision, or the specific team focus (learning and development vs. performance), as well as individual characteristics like personal goals, how they respond to feedback, how confident they feel as a coach all play a part in this decision-making process – it is complex to say the least! Practitioners need to use their judgement to determine what action is best to take in each situation and why?


Performance support staff (in particular skill acquisition specialists) could view themselves like coaches (Burns et al., 2024). A quote from this paper which really resonates: "The true expertise in a practitioner (skill acquisition specialist) is in navigating the context, culture, politics, timing, and conversations that dictate the level of success they have in working with a coach." Burns goes on to highlight that while professional knowledge is clearly important (in a skill acquisition case, professional knowledge = knowledge of skill acquisition), it is interpersonal knowledge or the “soft skills” that really determines the success in a working relationship between support staff and a coach. However, I am interested in the third body of knowledge that Côté and Gilbert (2009) discuss, which is intrapersonal knowledge. Intrapersonal knowledge refers to the understanding of oneself and the ability for introspection and reflection (Côté & Gilbert, 2009). To be clear – professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge are all important, and success is unlikely to happen without an element of all three. But how can I, or anyone, develop the necessary intrapersonal knowledge to ensure growth and continuous learning and the ability to deal with such complex environments?


Professional Judgement and Decision-Making (PJDM) and Evidence Informed Practice (EIP)

One option for this could potentially be in the understanding of PJDM. To paraphrase from Collins et al. (2022): "the ability to decide on what skill acquisition tool to use, and in what context, becomes a core skill for the skill acquisition specialist, operationalising the Professional judgment and Decision-Making (PJDM) approach to optimise skill acquisition impact." This notion of a skill acquisition practitioner using their judgement on how to engage with a problem also aligns with the concept of EIP (Nevo & Slonim-Nevo, 2011):

the wise practitioner, while taking account of evidence, will also rely on other factors, including her own judgement, as well as on her client’s perspectives, regarding the appropriate goal to reach, the acceptable means to employ and the ways these could be adjusted as intervention proceeds


PJDM has been applied to numerous disciplines in sport, including applied sports psychology (Martindale, 2011), sport coaching (Abraham & Collins, 2015; Collins & Collins, 2016a), and S&C (Till et al., 2020). PJDM, and the development of it (Collins & Collins, 2021), can support coaches and support staff (including skill acquisition specialists) to deal with the “swampy lowlands of practice” (Schön, 1992). Swampy lowlands are described as confusing messes which are troublesome to the positivist epistemology of practice. The real world is hard and difficult to muddle through sometimes.


Regarding this judgement and decision-making approach to skill acquisition, two reasons why I think it is important to deliberately focus on the intrapersonal body of knowledge, and possibly why I have bought into it:

  • The development of expertise in any complex domain is not just a matter of experience. Are the best teachers or coaches the most experienced, for example? Experience does not equal expertise, and expertise does not naturally emerge as a by-product of experience. Therefore, to develop expert judgements or make professional decisions, then a practitioner needs to be deliberate about their development. I think a PJDM approach facilitates this.

  • I don’t necessarily think there is a right or a wrong answer in any situation (barring anything that is not within the law or borders on abuse). This is especially true in skill acquisition (maybe I am being naïve). There currently are no professional standards, only personal ones. Two skill acquisition practitioners can look at the same situation and identify different practices. If they both use their PJDM, it doesn’t mean they should come up with the same solution. As discussed, practice is hard, complex and messy.


Considerations under s PJDM approach

A paper by Till et al. (2020) details a “conceptual toolbox” that strength and conditioning coaches can use in their sense-making journey. This “who, what, how” model (see below) emanates from the coaching schematic I have previously discussed when looking at where skill acquisition fits within the coaching landscape. To add further detail, Till and colleagues detailed what each tool in the conceptual toolbox means for S&C practitioners. Below I have adapted to provide meaning to me as a skill acquisition specialist.

Till et al, 2020 - redefining S&C as a PJDM process.

  1. The ‘who’ - the coach (or athlete) I am working with.

  2. The ‘what’ - the key principles of skill acquisition, and to a lesser extent a knowledge and understanding of the sport. I don’t necessarily think a skill acquisition specialist has to be an expert in any sport. By having a high-quality working relationship, the knowledge that a skill acquisition specialist can be pooled with the coach’s knowledge of the sport to make informed decisions (EIP) about practice.

  3. The ‘how’ - how can skill acquisition specialists support coaches. Two potential strategies come to mind:

    1. Development of a learning environment for the coach, which can consider three golden rules: personal relevance, promote understanding, and having a clear goal, for more see Abraham and Collins (2011).

    2. Design thinking framework: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test (Askew et al., 2023).

  4. The ‘context’ - the context, culture, and politics within which they operate - useful to conduct a historical contextual analysis - see O'Sullivan (2023).

  5. Their ‘self’ - my own existing knowledge, beliefs, values, and behaviours. An autoethnographic study can be a valuable tool for reflexivity (Koopman et al., 2020). Having critical friends can also support.

  6. The ‘skill acquisition process’ - from a skill acquisition support perspective: what is the (learning) intention for the coach, how will the skill acquisition specialist act (action), and how will the skill acquisition specialist reflect on their experiences (reflection). Action research can support this process – one such framework being the learning in development research framework (O'Sullivan et al., 2021).

    1. Planning the support: How do they discover what a coach needs support on (e.g., coaching behaviours, practice design etc.) - pre intervention interview with the coach.

    2. Delivering the support: How can they subsequently support the learning of coaches in this area? Field notes.

    3. Reflecting on the support: How do they reflect on their experiences working with the coach? Field notes and mentor guidance and reflection.


As this conceptual framework highlights, practice is hard and complex, with many interacting parts. And at times there will be competing needs with conflicting evidence and contrasting experiences. So how can practitioners develop their ability to make expert judgements and decisions to deal with such complexity and uncertainty?


How to develop PJDM

Skill acquisition is complex (non-linear), leading to a lot of uncertainty. Developing expertise in such an uncertain and complex environment, or a swampy lowland needs to be a deliberate process. According to Kahneman and Klein (2009), some key strategies to deal with uncertainty include: challenging assumptions, seeking more information, developing alternative understanding and solutions, and creating future contingencies. In other words, the development of metacognitive and metareflective skills is critical to develop one’s expertise to inform their PJDM. These metacognitive strategies underpin three practices that can support the development of a practitioner’s expert judgement, on this case the judgement of a skill acquisition practitioner.


“Thinking on your feet” is one way to describe reflection-in-action. Think of a team unlocking their opponents defence, or a combat sport athlete “figuring out” their opponent. From a coach perspective, it might be the identification that their original plan isn’t achieving the predetermined learning intention, so they have had to make an adjustment on the spot. Here, coaches will have to utilize faster decision-making processes.


From a skill acquisition perspective, this strategy may need to be applied in the session debrief (i.e., during the coach’s reflection-on-action). Here, a skill acquisition specialist has a range of tools at their disposal – ask a question, give some feedback, show a training clip. Given that the coach may only have a 5-minute window, it is important that a skill acquisition specialist identifies a clear learning intention for the coach and responds to the conversation as it flows.



Reflection-on-action might be seen as the more common reflective practice. From a coaching perspective, this could happen at the conclusion of an activity (while players have a drinks break) and a coach reflects on the previous activity and uses the reflection to make adjustments to the next activity (this could also be classed as reflection-in-action), after a session to inform future session designs, or after a season. Coaches can engage in more deliberate and slow decision making, which can in turn support their fast-decision-making processes (reflection-in-action).


For a skill acquisition specialist, reflection-on-action is an opportunity to reflect on how a particular session went from a coach’s perspective – what did the coach learn from that session, particularly about learning design? Can a skill acquisition specialist be deliberate about reflecting on the interactions they have with a coach during a session, or if they set the coach challenges during the session? Recording conversations might become a powerful tool to support reflection-on-action.


Consideration of alternatives

The consideration of alternatives could fit into either of the previous categories, but it is worth considering separately. This can illustrate how coaches can develop their reflection-in-action metacognitive skills, through reflection-on action. In other words, coaches can learn to coach fast by reflecting slowly. A question I have asked coaches regularly is “how else could you have done that?” Irrespective if the activity or session went well or achieved what was intended, it is useful for coaches to consider alternative ways of achieving the same thing, and understanding why they may choose one or the other.


A skill acquisition specialist may consider alternative ways of supporting coaches. Broadly, a skill acquisition specialist can consider whether it is better to be a guide by the side during training (to support the coach’s reflection-in-action), or a critical friend (to support the coach’s reflection-on-action). If they supported through an instruction (“avoid choosing this player to be the joker”), could they support through delivering of stats, or through questioning (“what impact do you think this player had as joker?”).


"the shift toward PJDM enables learners (skill acquisition specialists) to construct meaning, make judgments and produce multiple solutions to new or unique problems and to challenge doctrine and dogmatism; all promoted perhaps by a greater tolerance, acceptance or even pursuit of productive ambiguity." - (Collins & Collins, 2016b)

As always, there may be people who agree or disagree. Happy and keen to discuss any alternative or more well-informed perspectives.



Abraham, A., & Collins, D. (2011). Effective skill development: how should athletes' skills be developed? In D. Collins, A. Button, & H. Richards (Eds.), Performance Psychology (pp. 207-229). Churchill Livingstone.

Abraham, A., & Collins, D. M. (2015). Professional Judgement and Decision Making in Sport Coaching: To Jump Or Not To Jump.

Askew, G. A., Pinder, R. A., Renshaw, I., & Gorman, A. D. (2023). Supporting Coach Learning in Paralympic Sport: Rich Environments for Innovation. International Sport Coaching Journal, 1-8.

Burns, A., Collins, D., & Nolte, L. (2024). Coaches’ experiences of performance support teams. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 0(0), 17479541241228814.

Collins, D., & Collins, L. (2021). Developing coaches’ professional judgement and decision making: Using the ‘Big 5’. Journal of Sports Sciences, 39(1), 115-119.

Collins, D., Taylor, J., Ashford, M., & Collins, L. (2022). It depends coaching – The most fundamental, simple and complex principle or a mere copout? Sports Coaching Review, 1-21.

Collins, L., & Collins, D. (2016a). Professional judgement and decision-making in adventure sports coaching: the role of interaction. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(13), 1231-1239.

Collins, L., & Collins, D. (2016b). Professional judgement and decision-making in the planning process of high-level adventure sports coaching practice. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 16(3), 256-268.

Côté, J., & Gilbert, W. (2009). An Integrative Definition of Coaching Effectiveness and Expertise. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching - INT J SPORTS SCI COACH, 4, 307-323.

Koopman, W. J., Watling, C. J., & LaDonna, K. A. (2020). Autoethnography as a Strategy for Engaging in Reflexivity. Glob Qual Nurs Res, 7, 2333393620970508.

Martindale, A. (2011). Developing professional judgment and decision making expertise in applied sport psychology University of Edinburgh].

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.

O'Sullivan, M. (2023). Learning in Deveopment Research Framework for Athlete Development and Sports Science Support Sheffield Hallam University].

O'Sullivan, M., Vaughan, J., Rumbold, J., & Davids, K. (2021). The Learning in Development Research Framework for Sports Organizations. Sport Education and Society, 27.

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

Till, K., Muir, B., Abraham, A., & Ashford, M. (2020). A framework for professional judgement and decision-making in S&C coaching. March, 7-18.



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