The running back takes the handoff and the hole that is supposed to be right in front of him isn’t there. He instantly darts to the right, squeezing between the tackles before shifting to the right to avoid the incoming linebacker. How did the running back decide to change his plan?
How does a runner in the middle of the pack decide to shift to his right and avoid being trapped on the inside just before the big surge occurs? Does our runner speed up or slow down, or int he words of Danny Mackey and Alex Hutchinson do they “feel and anticipate the move before it happens.”
Sport is about decision making in the moment.
We tend to think of decisions as a linear conscious process. We react; moving from point A to point B. From perception to action. Yet, if we dive into the complicated science of action, the picture is quite different.
Understanding How We Get to Action
In the 1940’s, psychologist J.J. Gibson began to question the cognitive approach of action, or what he called indirect perception; in which agents picked up information in the environment and needed cognition to interpret, before issuing an action[i]. Perception to cognitive interpretation to action– a linear and serial formula for handling our environment. To Gibson, it seemed like a painstakingly slow strategy to interact with the world, and the sheer time it would take to go through each step in serial meant that it logically was impossible. Instead, Gibson proposed that perception and action work in conjunction and parallel. This way perception of the environmental information and corresponding action are developed simultaneously, so that action selection and specification are defined as the same process[ii]. Gibson used the now classic example of what occurs when we see a chair. The chair invites sitting, standing on it, throwing, or perhaps even smashing it, depending on how we are interacting with the environment in that moment. If a person is in need of a place to sit versus if they are need of a way to reach the ceiling to change a light bulb, that same chair will invite different actions.
This parallel simultaneous processing means that multiple action possibilities are often prepared at once. In one theory, multiple potential actions are continuously prepared for and compete for selection[iii]. The ultimate selection of an action depends on the continual search for evidence that simultaneously occurs. As these biasing factors toward a particular decision accumulate, selection of a decision is refined. Ultimately, it is this interaction between what actions an environment affords, what biasing factors push us towards, and our own capabilities to perform such actions that influence our decision making. Gibson’s theory, though innovative, remained obscure and only caught on in the world of architecture and design (Think: Door design, whether a door invites a push or pull to open it). Gibson was wrestling with the same problem we face today, how in the world do we handle so much sensory information and act upon it in an efficient way.
Flash-forward to today and the spirit of Gibson’s work has been refined and built upon with the aid of a modern understanding of neuroscience. Our modern understanding is a mixture of a serial and parallel process and is best embodied by the Embodied Predictive Interoception Coding (EPIC) model proposed by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. Instead of having a stimulus-response paradigm, they contend that the brain works in a predict and learn manner. Instead of waiting for information from our environment and internal sensations to provide the brain with data, our brain is constantly predicting what will likely occur.
The interoceptive network does not wait for a sensory stimulus; instead, it anticipates what the input will likely be. It forms hormonal and neural predictions of what our senses will tell us a moment or two in the future. How? By utilizing the readily available information at hand, including; past experiences, any sensory data that’s already been processed, and a judgment of what our current resources allow. In other words, we take into account both what the anticipated demands are and what our current capabilities are to handle those demands.
On the latter, we can imagine our brain asking the questions: do we have the ability to utilize more glycogen, or are we running low? Do we have the resources to provide more energy to a particular organ, or activate the immune system, or are those resources depleted or insufficient for the predicted demands? We utilize a sort of predictive on the fly developed algorithm that takes into account past experiences, our current situation as best we know it, what we’re capable of, and what we might be demanded to do. Our brain revs it’s engine, preparing for multiple scenarios before honing in on the likely one, and then initiates a response in anticipation of what it expects to happen. There’s no trigger-shy general living in our head, it’s full steam ahead based on the best data we have in the moment.
Based on the issued predictions, our brain unleashes the tools of the body–hormones, neural signals, neurotransmitters– to deal with what it anticipates it’s about to encounter. In other words, the body gets a jump on the outside world, ensuring that it is ready for what is coming, instead of sitting back and waiting to respond. Predictions are the brain’s way of dealing with the world, and in turn, they color how we see that same world.
Predictions in Coaching
Step back into the world of coaching and what does all of this mean? We tend to teach following a cognitive model of action. Intuitively it makes sense. We give information to the individual so that he or she can make the action. Take the sage old advice of keeping your eye on the ball in baseball. The implication is that we need to track the ball the whole way so that we can decide if we swing or not. Yet, that decision is made as the pitcher begins to release the ball…
Instead of providing information based on a cognitive approach, we need to put athletes into a variety of situations where they are challenged to make decisions.
Take track practice for example. We often provide all of the answers for them. The pace is dictated, the course is known, the pack is formed, when athletes take the lead is a given. There are very few decisions to be made. The athlete doesn’t need to anticipate or understand anything besides hitting a split and maintaining his position. We aren’t linking any perception or action, beyond dealing with fatigue.
What happens if we give back some of that decision making, make it where athletes have to respond to surges or changes of positioning, etc?
The same idea can be translated over to just about any other sport. When designing drills for our soccer player, how many options does he have or are they dictated? What perceptual information is similar to games and what is so artificial that it does nothing to hone the athlete’s internal predictive ability?
In practice, are you creating artificial environments, limiting decision making? If so, you are likely inhibiting your athletes learning.
How we set up our practices can have a profound effect on the learning that takes place.
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[ii] Smits, B. L. M., Pepping, G.-J., & Hettinga, F. J. (2014). Pacing and Decision Making in Sport and Exercise: The Roles of Perception and Action in the Regulation of Exercise Intensity. Sports Medicine, 44(6), 763–775. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0163-0
[iii] Cisek, P. (2007). Cortical mechanisms of action selection: the affordance competition hypothesis. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362(1485), 1585–1599. doi:10.1098/rstb.2007.2054