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SHL 1600: Psychosocial perspectives of sport, leisure and practical activities.


The significance of perception and decision making in relation to skilled performance.

By Richard Gardner

For a sportsperson to be judged an accomplished performer in their selected field they must demonstrate a superior capacity to process the information they obtain from the environment. They must also demonstrate the capability to act appropriately and decisively upon receipt of this information (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000, pp55-56). The speed and accuracy by which someone separates relevance from non-relevance, in a fast paced competitive situation is likely to be one of the key contributors to a skilled performance.

The rationale for this document is to examine the principal concepts that lie behind the perceptual decision making process in sporting activity. It will make sense to look foremost at the various stimuli that influence perception within the sporting field. Following this various decision making models will be examined to establish how the information processed is evaluated and put into action. Finally, the influences of stress and experience upon perception and decision-making will also be looked into. Where applicable, realistic sporting examples will be given in an attempt to outline a working relationship between theory and application.

The scope for perception within the sporting environment is far ranging or broad in nature. Multidimensional internal and external factors can influence how the situation at hand is perceived (Martens, Vealey & Burton, 1990, p120). These factors can be further influenced by either present or past experience or behaviour. In addition to this, perception can be modified considerably through arousal and anxiety (although these influences, along with experience will be looked at in greater detail further on). Given then the extent of influence upon perception, it seems logical to categorise these elements by way of relevance. For this purpose primary, secondary and tertiary sources of influence will be referred to in the subsequent paragraphs.

Primary influences for the main part will include stimuli within the immediate vicinity or of high risk to the individual or team. Although the amount of stimuli present may be substantial in number, the likelihood is that in most situations the individual will focus only on what is relevant for that specific time (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000, p57). This direct or central process of vision is called the focal vision system. An example of this would be the batsman awaiting delivery in a cricket match whereby he would primarily be focused on the opposition bowler facing him. There could also be multiple external and also internal sources. For instance, a defending player in a basketball match could be aware of several oppositional attacking options at once. The focus of his perception would primarily be the attacking player in possession of the ball along with any other likely attacking alternatives.

Underlying the immediate issues that portray how a situation is perceived would be the secondary sources of influence. Whereas the focal vision system would chiefly be employed to track primary sources, secondary sources would largely be picked out by the ambient system. This system is utilized as a general awareness, tracking the entire visual field and monitoring movement (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000, p110). For example whilst a goalkeeper would be using focal vision to consciously track offensive players, his ambient system would unconsciously pick up other information, defensive positioning and general movement. The more experienced players perception is also likely to be strongly influenced by tactical awareness. A strong example of this would be an American football game where tactical knowledge is frequently influencing how the players' percept their current environment (Weinberg & Gould, 1995, p335).

Tertiary sources influencing perception would generally lie in the background. Factors such as crowd intensity, importance of occasion or level of self-confidence should be considered here. These factors would not be as perceptible, in the physical sense, as primary and secondary influences but can still notably affect the perceptual process. A hostile and excited crowd for instance could influence or distract an individual's perception.

Another point to be taken into account when assessing the intensity of perceptual involvement in sport would be the degree of environmental predictability (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000, pp8-9). Free flowing, unpredictable sports performed in an unstable, open environment require a different form of perception than those performed in relative stability. Sports such as rugby, ice hockey and basketball carry a high information load as the environmental situation is continually developing. In contrast, the closed environmental stability in sports such as golf, snooker and gymnastics allows a more focused perceptual approach. The open-closed continuum, used to differentiate between skills used in open and closed environments, is demonstrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Open-Closed Continuum

Once all relevant information from the environment has been collected, the process of making decisions can commence. The sporting field presents each performer with an array of choices, the nature of which can range from relatively simple to decisions of immense complexity. Various decision making theories have been brought about to gain a better understanding of the decision making processes employed in sporting activity.

Hick discovered that a stable relationship existed between the number of stimulus response alternatives available and the amount of time taken to react to them. This became commonly known as Hick's Law. In a performance related sporting capacity this meant that the more information the performer had to process, the greater the length of time taken to act upon the information (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000, p62). This would signify that soccer players playing a five-a-side match would arrive upon judgment earlier than those playing in a full team.

Hick's law was demonstrated in an experiment performed at Trinity & All Saints College, (2002). Firstly a group of four people were given a shuffled set of playing cards. Each person then took it in turn to perform a series of three tasks labelled A-C, then the group mean for the time completion of each task was calculated. The tasks involved increasing the number of stimuli alternatives as follows; task A was simply to turn over the cards consecutively and place them onto a single pile, in task B cards were turned over consecutively and sorted into separate piles of red and black cards and in task C the cards were placed into a pile for each separate suit (4 piles). The results, which confirm the theory behind Hick's Law, are charted in Figure 2. Between task A and task B there is a slight increase, of just over 10 seconds, as the number of decisions is increased from zero to one. Between task B and task C though there is a significant increase, of greater than 2 minutes, as the number of decisions increases from one to two.

Figure 2: Mean time taken for group tasks in decision making experiment

Schmidt & Wrisberg, (2000), defined a basic information processing model using the concepts of input, stimulus identification, response selection, response programming and finally output (see Figure 3). Input and stimulus identification to a great extent apply to the perceptual processes discussed previously; identifying sources of input such as objects and sound. Response selection occurs when the performer has received all the relevant information and a response to the situation is made. In response programming, the motor system is employed to produce the desired movement and finally in the stage of output movement occurs (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000, pp56-59). In the application of practicality this could be taken as such; a boxer receives some visual stimulus input, the stimulus is identified as an incoming fist, the response selected is to duck, the motor control system programs the response and finally output forms when neck, back and leg muscles endeavour to avoid contact. The simple nature of this information processing model means that it is readily accessible and useful when applied to identify basic decision making processes.

Figure 3: Information Processing model adapted from Schmidt & Wrisberg (2000)

Townsend and Busemeyer (1993, 1995, cited in Raab, 2002) devised a more complicated model of the actual decision making process. The Decision Field Theory (see Figure 4) attempted to convey this through the use of three systems; the valence system, the decision system and the motor system. In the valance system a series of positive and negative motivational outcomes are evaluated and assigned a value. These are then sent to the decision system whereby the outcome with the highest preference is selected and as a result the motor system is programmed to initiate the chosen response. The dynamic nature of this model allows a more in depth look as to how the decision making process occurs. For example in most oppositional sports, positive and negative motivational outcomes could be associated with situations involving attack and defence. Whereby the nature of the decision reached would then be dependant upon the characteristics of the individual involved. An attack minded player for instance would be more prone to value an attacking outcome higher than a defensive one. The open character of the Decision Field Theory takes into account and allows to evaluate the dynamic nature of both individual and environment within the sporting field.

Figure 4: The Decision Field Theory, adapted from Raab, (2002)

Two other major factors influencing the way decisions are made in sport are stress and experience. Starting with stress, it is evident that the presence of anxiety can strongly affect the outcome of a sporting situation. Take for example the 1994 soccer world cup final. Given that the Italian player who took the crucial kick in a penalty shootout was at the time generally regarded as one of the most talented in the world, it seems unlikely that in the absence of stress they would have failed to hit the target goalmouth from a distance of twelve yards. There are numerous other circumstances whereby an elite performer has failed under high pressure demands, (Mullen & Hardy, 2000, p785).

"They were frightened of me and frightened of you. More important they were frightened of themselves. They were frightened of losing and there is nothing worse than that for a team…Fear makes you tighten up, your face goes rigid and you freeze." Brian Clough speaking on fear and of speaking to his players after his Nottingham Forest side had beaten Manchester United, (Clough, 2002, p208, p248).

Anxiety itself has been hypothesised to manifest itself in two forms. Speilberger (1966, cited in Martens, Vealey and Burton, 1990) first speculated about the existence of fleeting states of anxiety (named A-States) and longer lasting anxiety traits (named A-Traits). Further to this, Davidson and Schwartz (1976) and Berkovec (1976, all cited in Martens, Vealy & Burton, 1990, p120) put forward a multidimensional anxiety theory classifying separate cognitive and somatic elements to both A-state and A-trait anxiety states. In this theory, cognitive elements represent negative mental states such as worry about poor performance, disturbing visual images and negative self-evaluation. Somatic anxiety refers to physiological symptoms such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath and muscular tension.

It has long since been established that a stable relationship also exists between the levels of arousal and anxiety when performing sports. This was first advocated by way of the inverted U hypothesis (Hebb, 1955; Yerkes and Dodson, 1908 cited in Hardy, Jones and Gould, 1996, p146). In this hypothesis, it was stated that as arousal increases, through anxiety, performance also increases but only to a certain point or peak thereafter performance levels drop (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000, pp67-70; Hardy, Jones and Gould, 1996, p146). The explanation for this eventuality has been described by the Cue Utilization Theory (Easterbrook, 1959 cited in Hardy, Jones and Gould, 1996, p120). This theory hypothesised that as arousal increased, the range of perception decreased. The range of cues to which a performer would pay attention to would diminish until a point of optimum perception (where only vital information is processed). If arousal levels continued to increase beyond this point then vital information would also be lost and performance would be weakened. This occurrence has been observed often in ball games when a play is caught 'ball-watching'. The stage by which the optimum performance point is reached differs from sport to sport; this is as the complexity of perceptual awareness required differs through the number of stimuli that must be attended to in different tasks or sports (Billing, 1980, p19).

The level to which the performer interprets vital cues from their environment is highly dependant upon their past experiences. For the decision making process, the main beneficial resource available to the experienced performer is the ability to anticipate (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000, p64). Through anticipation the cue utilisation process is narrowed allowing the expert to further concentrate upon what is relevant. Take for example the use of visual cues utilised by basketball players; to the novice in possession of the ball they might simply be trying to locate the easiest pass or shot available. The experienced basketball player however may reasonably accurately anticipate what would be the best tactical move after assessing the other players positioning on the court.

Anticipation itself occurs on two levels; spatial and temporal anticipation. Firstly, spatial or event anticipation refers to the persons capacity to predict how a situation is likely to develop. This could be a jockey whom anticipated which horses would run the fastest or a snooker player who anticipates where the other balls would end up after taking a shot. Secondly, temporal anticipation refers to the person's ability to predict when in time an event is likely to happen. This could apply to a bowler in cricket who anticipates when exactly to release the ball or to a sprinter who anticipates when the starters gun will shoot (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2000, p64-65). Although experience can be of great benefit to an individual, it can also have negative consequences. Experience of bad performances or experiences can generate anxiety as already discussed. This anxiety can make someone perform nervously or erratically.

To summarise, it is apparent that a wide range of skills and abilities are required for someone to successfully percept their environment and make correct decisions based upon this judgment. Perception is the amalgam of various forms of stimuli; vision, sound, crowd intensity, level of environmental predictability etcetera. Information processing and decision making occur by way of various stages that have been defined through decision making models. Arousal and anxiety also play a major function in this process and their relationship has been demonstrated through the inverted U hypothesis. Finally, experience and the capacity to anticipate both events and their timing can also influence the perceptual decision making process.

In conclusion, there are many skills that the underlie performance of a talented sportsperson. For any performer though, the capacity to percept, anticipate and read clues from the environment is a great advantage when playing competitive sport. Take for example former international strike partners Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham whom although now lack the pace possessed by many their peers, they are still able to read the game with great accuracy and position themselves skilfully enough to continue excelling at the highest level.

Word Count: 2,402 (Excluding figures and citation marks)



Clough, B. (2002). Cloughie, walking on water, London: Headline Book Publishing.
Hardy, L., Jones, G. & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport, Chichester: Wiley & Sons.
Martens, R., Vealey, R.S. & Burton, D. (1990). Competitive anxiety in sport, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Schmidt, R. A. & Wrisberg, C.A. (2000). Motor learning and performance (2nd Ed), Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Weinberg, R.S. & Gould, D. (1995). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


Billing, J. (1980) An overview of task complexity Motor skills: Theory into practice 4, 18
Mullen, R. & Hardy, L. (2000) State anxiety and motor performance: Testing the conscious processing hypothesis Journal of sport sciences 18
Raab, M. (2002) T-ECHO: model of decision making to explain behaviour in experiments under time pressure Psychology of Sport and Exercise 3