A Perspective on Decision Making During Interactive Behaviour in Sport

Mark Upton
Aug 21, 2015

Like many of my posts, the stimulus for this has been recent conversation & content that I have engaged with. This post provides a perspective that can be considered in relation to a couple of themes…

  • perpetual debate and discussion regarding “technique” & “decision making” – the training & progression of each, understanding how they relate to each other.
  • “decision making”/“brain training”/“cognition” becoming hot topics in sport with plenty of suggestions for testing and training it – usually off the pitch/court.

Ok, on with the show. Watch the video below from about 0:55 onwards….

The clips you see are good examples of decisions having to be made rapidly (on and off the ball) in a dynamic environment with continuous interactions between players and the ball. I would argue players/teams who can function well in these situations are most valuable/successful.

These situations provide context for the text below – some theory & research from Paul Cisek on decision making during interactive behaviour (this is inclusive of, but not specific to, sporting contexts). You will see that the distinction between technique and decision making, in terms of a discrete serial process of a decision first being made and then a “technique” executed to carry out the decision, is brought into question. Instead Paul suggests they are interconnected… which prompts a thought about learning design needing to cater for this (“simplification, not decomposition”). Paul writes…

With respect to decision-making, the evolutionary perspective
motivates us to build theories of decision-making
that are fundamentally aimed at addressing the challenges
of the kinds of decisions faced by our very distant ancestors,
whose behaviour was primarily interactive and not deliberative.
Here, we will take this approach and focus on what may
be called ‘embodied decisions’ — decisions between actions
during ongoing activity.
For example, an animal escaping from a predator is continuously
making decisions about the direction to run,
ways of avoiding obstacles, and even foot placement on
uneven terrain. Of course, humans also engage in such
embodied decision-making during our daily lives, whether
we are walking through a crowd or playing a sport.
Importantly, embodied decisions have properties that are dramatically
different from the economic choices that have
dominated decision theories. First, the options themselves are
potential action opportunities that are directly specified by
the environment — what Gibson called ‘affordances’.
The variables relevant to evaluating these options are overwhelmed
by geometric and biomechanical contingencies and
not merely related to offer values. Consequently, evaluation
of the sensorimotor contingencies becomes the major challenge
for the neural mechanism, whereas pure offer value estimation
is computationally relatively trivial. Second, the options themselves
are not categorical, like button presses in a psychology
experiment. Instead, they are specified by spatio-temporal
information, highly dependent on geometry, and even their
identity is extended and blurry at the edges. Third, embodied
decisions are perhaps the primary and archetypical kind of
simultaneous decision. Animals encounter goods sequentially,
but they are always surrounded by simultaneous action
opportunities between which they must select.
Finally, embodied decisions are highly dynamic. As an
animal moves through its world, available actions themselves
are constantly changing, some are vanishing while others
appear, and all the relevant variables (outcome values, success
probability, action cost) are always in flux. This precludes
any mechanism relying on careful deliberation about static
quantities or estimation of probabilities from similar examples,
because each embodied decision is a single-trial situation
with unique settings. Consequently, the mechanisms that
serve embodied decisions must process sensory information
rapidly and continuously, specifying and re-specifying available
actions in parallel while at the same time evaluating the
options and deciding whether to persist in a given activity or
switch to a new one. Thus, the temporal distinction between
thinking about the choice and then implementing the response,
so central to economic theory and laboratory experiments on
decisions, simply does not apply to decisions made during
interactive behaviour.

(I have used footage from a football match in a previous post that reinforces this last point)

Even at the neural level, where in the past there has been a tendency to allocate decision making to certain regions of the brain and execution/action to others, Paul reveals things are far more interconnected than previously believed…

Decision making does not appear to be localized within particular higher cognitive centers. Instead, there is growing evidence that decisions, at least those reported through action, are made within the same sensorimotor circuits that are responsible for planning and executing the associated actions.

Perhaps the most practical value for sports and coaches will come from furthering our understanding of decision making at the scale of the “brain-body-environment” system as a whole, more so than looking at components of this system in isolation. Resultant insights will hopefully lead to more effective learning design/spaces that enhance players ability in time-constrained & dynamic situations.


Cisek P, Pastor-Bernier A. 2014 On the challenges and mechanisms of embodied decisions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369: 20130479.

Cisek P, Kalaska JF. 2010 Neural mechanisms for interacting with a world full of action choices. Annu.Rev. Neurosci. 33, 269–298.