expert decision making in invasion game team sports

Motor skill proficiency, tactical decision making and physical fitness distinguish the elite from the sub elite and recreational player. In my work I see a lot of sport coaching and teaching and while physical conditioning and motor skill training are present in just about every coaching session the less obvious quality of game sense or game intelligence is not. Game intelligence, tactical decision making, reading the play, game sense - whatever you call it, it doesn't develop by osmosis by simply being 'on the traning track', it requires teaching and development like any other 'skill'.

Reading the play is the skill of identifying and understanding patterns of play. Pattern recognition is a skill and as such, it can be taught and conditioned. Elite decision makers recognition and memory of patterns of play is more detailed and therefore recall is quicker (as the detail is more familiar) and more complete (as the pattern has been remembered in more detail). The additional detail and familiarisation means that the elite player can anticipate (read) what team-mates and opponents are likley to do. Often the biography of these elite players reveals substantial time invested in adaptive and deliberate play outside of the junior training programs and physical education most children and youths engage in.
Coaches and sport teachers can assist player development of the cognitive structures (depth and detail) that enhance the players ability to anticipate (read) the (pattern of) play by incorporating 'game like' play into the training plan. Specifically - play with purpose:
Situational complexity - develop a model of the situation and the decision making possibilities confrontng players. The initial run-throughs may need to be with inactive defense before progressively introducing active defence and more variables to the model depending on the complexity of the model and the stage of development of the players.
Option generation - After the warm-up, move away from having players run in lines and ball movement patterns to the 'marker', to game simulations that use the same strategy but with more than one option available to the on-the-ball player. For example, in an Australian Football game simulation practice the defender peels off their player to take the defensive mark in the left forward pocket, then looks to switch (the strategy) the ball to the opposite side of the ground to the one the ball came in from and is presented with players who 'split' to provide options for the pass laterally to the right side pocket and at 45degrees to the mark.
Make it 'real' - develop game simulations (designer games or play practices) that incorporate tactical decision making, execution of motor skills under pressure and fitness conditioning rather than treating each component as necessarily seperate parts of the training session.
Develop 'If-then' thinking - couple decision making with specific game conditions to create action rules. For example, IF you have the ball and you are accelerating away from your defender AND your teammate further afield is closely guarded THEN run and carry the ball.
Teach cue recognition - use pre-determined cues to help players focus on the information in the environment that is 'important' to enable faster decision making. For example, football players are taught to 'watch the hips' to get early information about opposition players movement intentions and not to 'watch the ball' when moving in to tackle a player.

"Instead of just doing your traditional skill-based stuff, it allows players to work through different games to help with decisions and assist with decision-making. It’s about getting them in a game-like situation and challenging their decisions and leadership when out on the ground. At the end of the day, coaches are stationed on the sidelines in a box and they have to be able to trust their players can make the right decisions to get the outcomes they want" (Neale Daniher)
"Nowadays apart from a bit of skills, it is all game-plan and strategy-based," Barry says. "It gives players an opportunity to make decisions on the ground and really focus on the opposition team you are playing.... In training, we try to replicate both the time and space pressures the game demands so they have the ability to make the right decisions, Richardson says.There has been a strong shift. The biggest difference is we hardly ever have witch's hats or cones out on the ground now because they don't allow players to train with instinct. We need them to work in movement patterns like they are going to do in a game, Richardson argues. It is called game-based training or game-sense training and it has been used in European soccer for the past few decades"
Further Reading:
Raab, M. (2003) Decision making in sports: Influence of complexity on implicit and explicit learning. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1, 406-433
Raab, M., Masters, R., & Maxwell, J. (2005) Improving the how and what of elite table tennis players, Human Movement Sciences, 24, 326-344.
Williams, A. & Hodges, N. (2004) Skill acquisition in sport: Research, theory and practice. London, Routledge.

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