What Was He Thinking? Decision Theory in Sports

Previously, I outlined the core framework of sports skills. Over time, my intention is to dive deep into each of those areas and present research that will be useful to you in understanding the brain-body connection. Again, the goal of my ramblings here is to examine the foundation of skills necessary to perform well across the continuum of most sports. Ongoing posts will use this framework to organize this information into categories that are easy to search and focus on what you are interested in that day.

In addition to the core skills, there seems to be another equally significant side of sports cognition known as "decision theory". There is a deep research base in this area, not only specific to sports, but across other platforms (i.e. business, medicine, etc.) Basically, the application in sports looks at how athletes make thousands of split-second decisions during a game, some which will go unnoticed, but some that will affect the outcome. While most of these decisions appear instant and somewhat random, are there layers of "conditioning" that trigger one response versus another? Let's look at some examples:
Situation 1: Mike brings the basketball up the floor during a game and makes a pass to Tom. How many factors affected Mike's decision about that pass?
- Tom appeared to be "open".
- The play that the coach called dictated that Mike pass first to Tom.
- The game was tied and time was running out, and Mike knew Tom was the best option to score.
- Mike knew that Jack, another teammate, had missed his last 5 shots and wanted to avoid giving him the ball.
- Mike had missed his last 5 shots and was afraid to shoot.
- Mike and Tom are friends and feel the rest of the team is not at their skill level.
- Mike's choice was completely random
- Is there a "correct" answer, and if not, how do we judge effectiveness of the decision?

Situation 2: Mary is playing centerfield for her softball team. There are runners on 1st and 2nd base and there is 1 out. A ground ball is hit to her, she fields the ball and now needs to make a throw to a base. How does she decide where to throw?
- What is her "pre-pitch" analysis of the game situation? Does she have a plan of where to throw?
- What is the score of the game? Does she need to prevent a run from scoring?
- What is her self-assessment of her throwing ability? Does she have confidence in her throw to any base?
- What does her visual information give her during the play? When she fields the ball and looks up, what are her eyes telling her about the changing position of the runners?
- What are her teammates and coaches instructing (yelling at) her to do?
- Is there a "correct" answer?

To me, this side of the "80% mental" equation is just as important to success in sports. It deserves alot of attention and understanding, before we can coach athletes on how to improve these decision making skills. We will add this to our outline of research.