Are Athletes Better Decision Makers?

The most crucial element for any athlete is the ability to make good decisions. Your talent, size, speed, and strength are meaningless if you continually make the wrong decisions on the court. So how can you be sure you’re making good decisions in the game? The answer is pretty simple: practice.

What Science Says

There have actually been numerous studies done on decision-making by athletes. The question often raised is whether or not athletes are better decision-makers than non-athletes. A study published in 2011 in The Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine found that indeed the brains of athletes do a better job of focusing than those of non-athletes.

In the study, groups of college students (half athletes, the other half non-athletes), performed a virtual activity on treadmills where they walked across a busy street, much like the game Frogger. Cars moved across the screen between 40 and 55 miles per hour, and the students had to decide when to cross and when not to.

The findings showed that athletes performed much better in the study. From a surface-level, you may think this was because athletes are quicker and more agile. This wasn’t the reason for their superior performance, however. “They didn’t move faster,” said Art Kramer, the director of the Beckman Institute and a leader in the study of exercise and cognition, who oversaw the research. “But it looks like they thought faster.”

This perhaps debunks the notion some have that athletes aren’t smart. The fact is, because of the constant decisions to be made in the midst of any athletic competition, athletes who compete consistently and practice regularly not only strengthen their physical prowess, but their mental strength.

The Benefit of Playing Sports

Adem Kaya wrote a paper on decision making by athletes and coaches. In it, he notes that playing sports increases the opportunity to make decisions regularly and, in turn, succeed at making them. Kaya notes that “in the field of sports decision making, there are a number of different decision agents (coaches, referees, players, spectators, etc.), tasks such as play-calling and ball allocation, penalty kick, and circumstances during play, timeout, and switching players.”

Studies across the board note that the decision-making process improves greatly with consistent practice. They key to that practice is that it should involve competitive similarities to a real game environment, thus allowing players to mirror their decisions from practice into an actual game. Upward Stars believes every coach should provide practices where all drills are competitive and game-like. Short periods of intense practice will result in more learning and development than longer, drawn out practice sessions. This also creates more opportunity for quick decision-making.

The consistency of training and practice is important to making good decisions. Everyone who ever plays a sport will have to make decisions, and make them quickly. An athlete that practices consistently will not only have opportunity to make quick decisions, but the chance is greater that they will make the right decisions. Giving athletes opportunities to learn from their bad decisions and mistakes will help them in real game situations to make the right decision that will benefit their team in the short-term, and them individually in the long-term. The importance of learning proper decision-making will benefit young athletes off the court as well.