In this latest Football DNA blog we look at how to create effective decision makers to improve footballers performance.

“Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking” – Malcolm Gladwell

The ability to make effective decisions is something that all football coaches strive for in their teams and players. Since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, our game has continuously become quicker and more physically demanding. Players are covering greater distances and the ball is moving at higher speeds than ever before, which means that our players are being forced into making rapid split second decisions at a faster rate than ever.

What is Decision Making?

If we are constantly striving to support and improve our player’s decision making, it is of crucial importance that we at first, fully understand what is meant by the term itself. We can think of decision making as a concept of selecting a specific football action, technical movement or tactical aspect which in turn provides positive value for the individual and team in a selective moment.

In 1967, American psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner created a three stage model to show how individuals progress through the phases of psychomotor development:

  1. Cognitive stage – here, movements and actions are seen as awkward, uncoordinated and slow as the individual begins to understand and learn the requirements of the movement.
  2. Associative stage – in this phase, the individual spends a reduced amount of time actively thinking about the mechanics of the movement even though there is not yet a permanent imprint on the brain.
  3. Autonomous stage – this is when the movement is automatic with the person able to refine the skill even further through practice without having to consider the complexities required.

This theory of skill development suggests that top level players reach this 3rd stage of learning with an ability to display quick, instinctive decisions seemingly without conscious thought.

The players that we work with in youth football generally have not yet experienced a sufficient amount of ‘football patterns’ to place in their memory bank which would allow them to recall what’s required when put in decision making situations.

As coaches therefore, how can we create an environment that is conducive to developing effective decision making delivered in a fast and timely fashion?

The 3P Learning Model

I have developed a 3 stage model which coaches can follow to build a learning environment to heighten player’s ability to make instinctive football decisions:

Provoke

In this initial stage, we aim to provoke an emotional response from our players by placing them in realistic, game like situations which force them to assess strategically and solve problems for the benefit of their team. Examples include constraint based directional games where certain incentives are placed on individuals or the team to try and achieve. This may include particular types of finishing to score bonus points and pressing within a certain time frame to win points. These constraints elicit an emotional reaction from players and provoke feelings associated with desire and determination to achieve whatever is the aim of the session. Another good example would be scenario based training where the coach places a particular match relevant situation into the practice in which the teams are required to formulate a specific game plan. For example, Team 1 is leading Team 2 by 1-0 in the last 10 minutes of the Champions League Final (see blog dated 1st November 2021 on The Use of Scenario Based Learning in Youth Football Coaching).

Prompt

Here, players are encouraged to think for themselves and simply prompted to find solutions to solve match relevant problems. The coach needs to really consider the type of questions used in order to support and facilitate learning from their players. Questions with starter words such as “How” and “Why” open up effective dialogue with individuals and require them to elaborate on whichever theme they are working on within the session. Getting players to actively discuss ideas with each other either in pairs or small groups alongside the coach floating amongst the conversations and drip-feeding his or her’s thoughts, encourages ownership and football specific thinking to match realistic problems.

Praise

This 3rd stage of the model is fundamental to long term player adherence and internal feelings of confidence and motivation. Positive reinforcement of effective decision making and good practice either through specific verbal feedback and/or non-verbal praise (eg clapping, thumbs up, smiling, eye contact) is crucial when promoting good practice and recognising players for their intentions. This may even be when technically, the player in question hasn’t been able to execute the required football action but their decision was an effective one (eg they’ve ‘seen’ the right pass to play but not carried out the action efficiently).

Summary

This problem solving player approach provides individuals with ownership, responsibility and autonomy which may initially have a detrimental effect on performance in the short term but over time, will aid long term retention of both adherence to learning and motivation to succeed. Through this games based approach, players will naturally have to make many similar and often different informed decisions in match realistic context.

Sports Psychologist Dan Abrahams talks about 2 ‘dials’ – the stretch dial and the support dial. In the Provoking stage of the model, we turn up the stretch dial to high by placing players in real life game context situations which puts them in natural but implicit decision making scenarios.

In turn, the Prompting stage involves increasing the support dial as well but albeit with subtle questioning to try and tease the answers out of our players as opposed to directly and explicitly telling them to how to solve strategic problems. The Praise stage in turn reinforces positive behaviours and promotes good practice whether that be technical proficiency or as discussed and often more beneficial, effective decision making and effort levels.

Movements and football actions will start to become more automatic with decisions over time becoming more autonomous and delivered at a quicker rate more consistently. By not offering players immediate solutions, coaches will help to develop independent thinkers and strong communicators with timely based feedback to aid motivation, encouragement and long term enhancement of player’s decision making abilities. For more information on decision making check out this blog from Ben Garner: https://footballdna.co.uk/improving-decision-making-awareness/