Sports psychology: the theory of the decision training model in sport

Decision training is one way of developing intelligent athletes who can cut it in the chaotic sporting environment

Effective decision making in sport is vital. Nick Grantham explores a system of coaching in sport that brings the science of how we think, or cognition, to the fore in sport preparation

Joan Vickers is a scientist who has been conducting research into decision making, gaze control and motor behaviour in sport for more than 30 years. Vickers has applied her decision training model successfully to a wide range of sports, including table tennis, baseball, basketball, badminton, freestyle ski jumping, golf, swimming, biathlon skiing, cycling and speed skating. This concept of decision training is linked closely with the concept of ‘CHAOS training’ see (PP286) and when combined, these have the potential to produce intelligent athletes capable of making match winning decisions in an instant.

The learning paradox

Look at box 1 and try the self-test. How did you score? Joan Vickers argues that the traditional ‘behavioural’ model of blocked repetitive practice falls well short of preparing athletes to face the demands of the sporting arena. During blocked training, specific components and skills are isolated and repetitively practiced until perfect. Lots of feedback and specific guidance is offered throughout the learning process. Success is often immediate, and this type of training is therefore appealing to many coaches and athletes. The problems with this form of coaching begin when we start to look at long-term improvements, particularly when athletes are faced with challenging conditions. How many times have you seen a highly skilled player who just can’t reproduce performances under pressure?

Although decision training places the same level of emphasis on technical and physiological development, the key difference is that the decision training approach also focuses on the development of cognitive skills that underpin high performance whilst addressing the technical and physiological components of training.

It is important to note ‘blocked’ practice (practicing the same skill over and over again with little change) still has its place; it’s just not the only type of practice used (see table 1 for overview of the two coaching styles).

Joan Vickers believes that we can coach our athletes to make tough decisions; it shouldn’t simply be left to chance. In her book, Perception, Cognition, and Decision Training: The quiet eye in action she covers the intricacies of decision-training in sport over four chapters, it’s well worth taking the time to read in full but the essential points that form the decision training model are shown in figure 1.

Decision training in sport

To give you an understanding of how to apply the decision training model, let’s use the example of a football player who needs to work on his/her ability to track the ball effectively. The first step is to identify the decision(s) that need to be made in a competitive environment. In this case, the cognitive skill to be developed is attention (tracking the ball). Step two requires the coach to design a drill with a cognitive cue to train the decision identified in step one. A cognitive trigger allows both the coach and athlete to know if the correct decision has been made whilst performing the skill or tactic.

To improve a football player’s attention, an object cue will be used as the cognitive trigger, to see if the player can track the ball effectively.  The player will be asked to call out numbers or letters written on the ball before receiving a pass and taking a shot on goal. In step three, one or more of the decision training tools are used to train the decision highlighted in step one within the context of step two. In this example, the training session could be a random practice using smart combinations (the drills simulate conditions similar to those found during a match) of receiving a pass and taking the shot.


Coaching and learning go hand in hand and the best coaches have several tricks up their sleeves to assess and monitor learning. It’s easy to fall into the trap of producing athletes and players who are great at set plays, running patterns and drills but who can’t actually deliver where it counts – in competition under pressure. Decision training is one way of developing intelligent athletes who can cut it in the chaotic sporting environment.

Nick Grantham is a strength and conditioning coach who has worked with elite athletes for the past 10 years. He has trained many of the country’s elite athletes including Olympic and Paralympic finalists, and professionals in a multitude of sports.


1. Vickers, J.N., ‘Perception, Cognition, and Decision Training: The Quiet Eye in Action’, Human Kinetics 2007.

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