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Understanding Naturalistic Decision Making in Coaching

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How do individuals in high-profile or high-pressure environments make decisions at key moments? Is it purely intuition, or is there a more advanced cognitive process taking place that others in similar roles could learn from?

 New research from a team of academics in America and the UK argues that in high-performance sports coaching, the latter view is true. Decision making is a cognitive process that coaches can develop their understanding of in order to enhance their expertise. This summary explains how the researchers examined high-performance sports coaches’ decision making using the Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM) framework.


NDM is a framework for understanding how people make decisions in real-life settings. Rather than seeing decision making as a purely intuitive process, NDM suggests it is cognitive, involving drawing on previous experiences to make decisions when challenged by time constraints and/or a lack of information to call on.

Experts are able to store previous decision-making experiences in the mind and recall them when faced with similar situations in future. By designing ‘attractors’ (ie things that alert the coaches’ attention) for situations, they can rapidly guide their mental thoughts – once these attractors are identified – towards decisions and actions, with an idea of what the outcome will be due to having experienced something similar in the past.

And if the outcome is not as expected, they can reconsider their strategy based on how they tackled the problem previously.

While there is a significant amount of NDM-based research available (eg focusing on how military officers and firefighters fare when faced with making decisions in high-pressure, uncertain situations), there is very little that focuses on sports coaches.

The researchers recognised this and, highlighting similarities with the high-pressure situations coaches find themselves in, often with little time to consider the information available and needing to make a speedy decision, set about exploring whether the NDM framework is a suitable approach for describing high-performance coaches’ decision making. They also aimed to identify the different variables that can inform coaches’ decisions.

Exploring NDM in high-performance coaching

After reviewing existing NDM literature and coach decision-making research, the team used their interpretations to develop a conceptual framework that identified some key decision-making attractors. They then tested the content of the framework against the accounts of three high-performance coaches using a stimulated recall technique.

This combines video recording coaching sessions with in-depth interviewing (the interview should take place as soon after the coaching event as possible). The aim is to identify decision-making incidents and ask coaches to identify when they were making conscious decisions. Three training sessions and three matches were recorded for each coach, and from within these, six key decisions were identified per individual. These were then reviewed at length with the coaches to understand how and why they arrived at their decisions, with particular attention paid to how the coaches monitored and acted on the attractors they had designed.

The three coaches included in the study had between four and 15 years’ coaching experience and were the head coach and development director of their respective sports (basketball, hockey and volleyball) within a UK university.

What attracts coaches to the point of making a decision?

The researchers noted that the key attractors identified were formed by coaches before the training sessions or matches took place.

These attractors shaped and influenced coaches’ decision-making behaviour. They were linked to what the coach had planned for the session or match, what was emerging in front of them as it played out, and how that compared to what they had experienced in the past.

Examples of attractors included a crisis event such as a major injury, goals being threatened (ie losing during a match), the coaches’ own personal status being questioned (ie their knowledge is challenged) or planned activities not being achieved (ie the team not meeting the outcomes identified by the coach).

Once the coaches’ attention had been drawn to one of these attractors, they subconsciously looked for patterns that aligned to what they had experienced before. If the pattern identified passed a mental threshold, the likelihood of them taking action (by making a decision) increased significantly. A decision would then be made in order to help the coach regain control of the situation.

In many cases, the researchers identified a theme within these patterns – coach expectations not being met. Coaches had a mental model of what their expectations for the training session or match were. They knew when these expectations were not matched, and when that reached a level they could no longer allow (ie it passed the threshold), they took action and made a decision.

To provide a working example of this NDM theory in practice, two accounts from two coaches included in the study follow.

Taking a decision in basketball when goals are being threatened

The basketball coach featured in the research recalled an in-match example of making a decision in a time-pressured situation, without the ability to consider other information.

The decision was to take a timeout. In his own words, he felt he had been slow to process the information in front of him, ie that the pattern was showing him the goal the team were trying to achieve was under threat (this goal achievement was the attractor – to win the match).

‘I don’t know if I was slow in processing the information that I’d seen, but I was like “We need a timeout.” Wanted a timeout, wanted to solve the problem.’

The threat to the achievement of the goal had become so severe that it passed the threshold, and the coach had to take action to try to regain control of the situation, or ‘solve the problem’, as he phrased it.

The quote suggests the coach knew subconsciously, based on his knowledge of his own team and past experiences, that they needed his input during a timeout in order to get the match back on track and the team working towards their shared goal.

Another example from the study shows how a hockey coach implemented the theory when drawn to a different attractor.

Making a decision during hockey training when the session isn’t running to plan

The hockey coach involved in the study explained how the players were not giving 100% effort during a training session, causing him to step in and take action.

 ‘The attitude of some players last night was that they were in third gear. It was very laid-back.’

While the attractor he was drawn towards was the negative atmosphere within the session and the lack of application from players, it is worth noting the opposite could have also led to a decision from the coach. For example, if players were putting in extra effort and creating a positive atmosphere, the coach could have been moved to praise their work if it passed his expectation threshold.

But in this example, the atmosphere was poor, and the coach subconsciously recognised a pattern that this would lead to the outcomes of the session not being met. A decision was taken to regain control of the situation and ensure the outcomes could be achieved.

Learning from the research

While these two examples may appear relatively straightforward at first glance – the coaches recognised when something was going wrong and stepped in to take action – there is actually a far more complex cognitive process underpinning their actions.

Prior to the start of the activities, the coaches have formulated a series of attractors in their minds. They watch the action and continuously subconsciously scan what is happening, looking for patterns that compare to what they have experienced before, and assessing whether the patterns breach their expectation threshold of what they want to happen.

When the threshold is breached, they step in and take action by making a decision, often informed by decisions they have taken in the past that resulted in specific outcomes.

While much of this process is subconscious and mental, coaches can learn from this study by firstly understanding the theory and secondly reflecting on it in relation to their own coaching. The following questions may help guide coaches’ reflection: 

  • What attractors could you develop and consider for your coaching? In other words, what would grab your attention during training or a match if it was threatening the expectations you had set out?
  • Reflecting on your previous experiences, what patterns in these attractors would tell you that your expectations are not being met? Where would you set the threshold for taking action for each attractor?
  • Consider a situation where you have taken a decision as the training session or match was not progressing in the way you expected or required. What decision did you take? What were the outcomes? Would this be a positive decision to recall if you were faced with a similar situation again, particularly in a time-pressured situation?

The researchers in this new study found NDM is a useful framework for considering coaches’ decision making as they face similar time-pressured situations where rapid decisions are required to have a positive effect.

The more coaches can understand the cognitive decision-making process, the more likely they are to make better decisions in future.

 Download Research Summary:Understanding Naturalistic Decision Making in Coaching.


 If you are interested in finding out more about this area, this summary is based on the article below:

 Harvey, S., Lyle, J. and Muir, B. (2015) ‘Naturalistic decision making in high performance team sport coaching’, International Sport Coaching Journal, 2 (2): 152–168.


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