DECISION-MAKING IN RUGBY – COACHING ISSUES
When it comes to sport performance, many of us have used the old
analogy of a four-legged stool to help explain to players what makes
up a complete sporting performance. The usual “legs”
are the technical, tactical, physical and psychological aspects
of performance. Some people add things like character, team dynamics,
leadership – but whatever, we all know that players need to
be strong across all aspects of the sport performance spectrum.
Decision-making is at the heart of the tactical “leg”
and many coaches have had difficulties over the years trying to
get players to take better options, both strategic decisions regarding
the sort of game plan to follow or when to implement different moves;
and also “during-play” decisions (the more instinctive
or intuitive type), like when to kick, when to take a man on, when
to pass etc.
Improving skills, which is largely about the application of biomechanical
and rugby skill knowledge, is a tough enough job at times, but it’s
one that many coaches feel they have got a handle on – that’s
if they have the time to carry out effective skill error and detection
amongst all the other tasks they have to carry out. I think you
would all agree however, that teaching decision-making is a tougher
nut to crack. These days, players have not only to make split-second
decisions in the heat of battle (as has always been the case), but
they also need to cope with increasingly complex pre-sequencing
of moves and the shouted commands of players around them, who may
be “calling” something different than what was expected.
While moves and sequences are pre-planned, players are also expected
to respond to the ever-changing situations of the game. If a sequence
is instigated and unexpected space opens up or a mismatch is created,
players are expected to take advantage of it. From a decision-making
point of view, I think things have become more demanding for players
of recent times, and I think we need to do some careful thinking
as to how, as coaches, we can best help our players to become better
Declarative & Procedural knowledge
To start with, I’ll give you a tiny introduction to memory
and knowledge acquisition. Not to turn you into a cognitive psychologist,
but because I believe understanding this goes some way to understanding
how to improve decision-making in your players. Simply speaking,
there are two different types of knowledge that we learn as we grow
up. One is declarative knowledge and the other procedural knowledge.
Some theorists also refer to strategic (or conditional) knowledge,
but I won’t go into that for the purposes of the exercise.
Declarative knowledge refers to knowledge that you can access from
a fact-oriented “database” about rugby (or any) situations.
Declarative knowledge is knowledge about facts and things. For example:
• understanding that it’s normally better to keep the
ball in hand when playing into the wind
• knowing that if the opposition has huge, lumbering forwards
and your pack is smaller, your team is best to play it out wider
and try to run them around
• knowing that Colin Meads is a New Zealand rugby legend
• knowing that if you’ve got an attacking scrum five
metres out, on the left hand side of the field and your number eight
is very quick, then a “Lefto” move will have a high
probability of success.
Procedural knowledge is processed by a different system and in
a different part of the brain. If you ask Christian Cullen when
(under what conditions) he would run the ball back out of defence
and when he would pass or kick it, he would probably struggle to
tell you. And he wouldn’t be alone, because this information
is stored in his procedural memory and is accessed primarily through
actions and reactions rather than words. Procedural knowledge is
knowledge about how/when to perform activities. It is filed away
as a series of cues (or stimuli) and responses. For example:
• Knowing that when we put our shoes on, we need to tie our
shoe laces (and how to do it)
• If we are driving and a dog runs from the side of the road,
we swerve to avoid it
• When a halfback hears the referee say “crouch and
hold, engage” he feeds the ball into the scrum
• When a fly-half receives the ball from the scrum half standing
in his own in-goal area, he kicks for touch.
Analytical and intuitive decision-making
Following on from this, we can make a link between the two different
kinds of knowledge and two different kinds of decision-making (DM).
There is a range of theories on DM and different theorists use different
words, but for the purposes of this article let’s say that
there are basically two different kinds of decisions that we need
to make when playing rugby. We will call the first one analytical
decision-making. This is a strategic or tactical type of decision
where a player has time to weigh up the situation, consider the
various options open to him or her, perhaps even talk to someone
else about it, then make the decision and act on it. An example
of this would be a captain deciding (while there was a break in
play) whether the team should stick with the game plan decided pre-game,
or make a change because of the prevailing match conditions. Another
example would be a fly half deciding what move to call when waiting
for an attacking scrum to form.
The other kind of decision-making is intuitive decision-making.
These decisions are made when a quick reaction is required, when
there is no time to think about things, but when the player just
reacts to what he sees/hears or feels. For example, when a flyhalf
intends to run and sees the defence is holding back out wide, he
passes the ball. Another example would be when a centre, intending
to pass the ball on, sees the defence is up-flat and impenetrable,
and he chip kicks for the goal line for his wing to run on to.
Some researchers have suggested that analytical and intuitive DM
are not different concepts but that they exist on either end of
and that many decisions are not either one or the other, but more
or less of both. Regardless of that, I do believe that considering
them as being rather different may be helpful for coaches.
Implications for coaching
I’m sure that you’ve already figured out that analytical
decisions are made using declarative knowledge and that intuitive
decisions are made using procedural knowledge. Analytical decision-making
is a rational, calculating activity – it is essentially scientific
in nature. Intuitive decision-making is an arational (but definitely
not irrational) sensing activity which is more artistic than scientific
in nature. So what are the implications for coaches when it comes
to improving the decisions that players make.
Teaching analytical decision-making can be achieved by talking
about the issues, explaining what are the best options in a range
of situations and why, and by asking the players questions to test
awareness and to ensure that they understand what you’ve been
teaching them (using a questioning approach to coaching). It is
important to also teach players how to make these decisions –
that is, what factors should they consider, and how should they
go about making their decision. As the players test this knowledge
in game situations, it will become more deeply understood and their
effectiveness at making these analytical sorts of decisions will
improve. The more the players carry out these decisions during a
game or in practise, the more experienced, and more expert they
will become – guided and assisted, of course, by expert coaching.
How, then, do you improve players’ ability to make intuitive
decisions? Well, it may come as no surprise to you that you can’t
effectively teach intuitive decisions by talking about them or by
showing the players what to do. Simply put, players tend to learn
how to make intuitive decisions by actually making them in match
situations and simulated match situations. In other words, they
learn by experience. You could argue that intuitive decision-making
is a skill that cannot in fact be taught as such (as in provided
by the coach to the player), but rather that it can only be learned
(as in gained by the player by his or her own effort). The late,
great Italian educator Maria Montessori believed that children learnt
most effectively if directors/directresses (she would not use the
word teacher) created a rich environment and guided the children
to self-discovery. This is how intuitive decision-making is best
learnt. Just substitute player for child and coach for directress,
and you can use the Montessori approach as a model for rugby coaches
to teach intuitive DM. As coach, you could consider yourself a guide
to player self-discovery.
The speed and accuracy with which each decision is made is influenced
by several factors including:
• the number of decisions that need to be made;
• the number of responses players have to choose from;
• the time available to made the decision, and finally;
• the costs associated with making incorrect decisions.
There has been some interesting thinking about DM coming out of
the US army of recent times, provoked by US psychologist Gary Klein’s
naturalistic decision-making theory. The following is a piece from
a thought-provoking article written by Major John F. Schmitt, USMCR,
writing about DM in the US military:
The essential factor in intuitive decision making is experience.
This is an extremely important point. Experience is the thing that
allows for the situation assessment that is at the heart of intuitive
decision making. Experience allows us to recognize a situation as
typical--that is, within our range of understanding. Although each
situation is unique, experience allows us to recognize similarities
or patterns and to understand what those patterns typically mean.
If we have sufficient experience (and have learned by it) we do
not need to reason our way through a situation, but instead simply
know how to act appropriately. In general, the greater the experience,
the greater the understanding--like the chess master who (studies
show) can understand the "logic" of up to 100,000 different
meaningful board positions. It is this experience factor which,
more than any other, facilitates the pattern recognition skills
or coup d'oeil that are the hallmark of brilliant military minds.
There is little conceptual difference between a soldier making
an intuitive decision in battle and a rugby player making an intuitive
decision on the field. For the soldier, the stakes are more than
somewhat higher than for the cricketer – if he gets it wrong
he may die, whereas rugby seldom involves life or death (although
at times one could be mistaken!). Nevertheless the conceptual similarities
remain. Clearly, performers that can predetermine what event will
happen and when it will happen will respond faster, and therefore
coaches need to teach learners effective visual search strategies.
There is a large body of research out there that shows that experts
are much better and picking up early cues that trigger their response
than are less skilled performers. Often, the experts’ skills
are not any better or quicker, they just pick up the cues earlier
and are therefore able to get cracking with their response earlier.
I don’t intend to go into this here, but you ought to be able
to give your players clear indications as to what to look for in
order for them to respond to cues more quickly.
So how can coaches provide this experience which is so important?
Clearly the answer is through match simulations – using a
“game sense” approach. Small-sided games, leading up
to fully opposed sessions, should be the order of the day. The more
pressure that can be created the better, as this is what happens
in a game. Obviously it is essential to ensure that the skills of
the players are well enough developed to carry out the options selected.
The coach should guide the players during these sessions, again
by taking a “guided discovery” approach and questioning
players to demand understanding. While it is true that players will
learn simply by their own experience and that words are of secondary
effectiveness, the learning curve will be higher if wise guidance
is provided by the coach. Questions such as “What were you
trying to do when you kicked the ball in that situation? How might
you have manipulated the defence in order to create space? What
else could you have done to get ”go forward”? How might
you have put the winger into space? What would have been a better
option to take then and why? How can we prevent the opposition from
getting to our ball when we take it into contact” will give
you a double whammy effect. It will improve the self-awareness of
the player and give you an indication as to the player’s conceptual
understanding of the correct response to the ball (cue) provided
– so you get feedback all the time from the players.
For those coaches who have access to computer video analysis technology,
it may well be useful to sit with players and review their decisions,
or to cue the machine to a certain point and ask “what did
you do and why (or what would you do and why)? What other options
were available to you and what would likely have happened had you
taken another option” etc. The development of virtual reality
also offers intriguing possibilities in the developing of decision-making
skills. At the moment though, for most coaches, the bottom line
is reasonably clear. If you want your players to improve their intuitive
decision-making ability, you have to give them every opportunity
to learn by doing, using some sort of match simulation which enables
them to build their DM experience base.
Good luck with it.