Player Decision Making: The Holy Grail? (Part One)

Player Decision Making: The Holy Grail? (Part One)
September 26, 2013 Tony Mckenna (Macattack)

By ToDecisionny Mckenna & Lee Mooney.

Football detractors once termed the beautiful game as “twenty two men chasing a bag of wind”. Clearly, they could not have envisaged the future. Now you can add ‘twenty two women’ to the equation.  And the incidence of football analysts, theorists and scientists – together with the explosion of statistics and metrics – renders the disaffected as myopic philistines.  Interest has proliferated. But whilst analysts have gone much deeper we still may only be scratching the surface.

The concept of ‘Decision Making’ has secreted a foray into the football literature being slowly absorbed; and then, as we shall see, gathering momentum to the point of being revered as possibly the Holy Grail.  It does warrant close attention if we are to look to building Talent Factories and Academies.

Because it’s now accepted that players will spend less than two minutes per game, in possession of the ball, the most employed skill will indeed be that of ‘Decision Making’; figuring out how to exploit space, for optimum advantage, in real time.  In truth, football is a game of ‘Decision Making’ in space and time.

The concept is complex; that is a warning.  However, the complexity can be overcome and understood if we apply the less is more mantra. Get to grips with the subject matter and maybe we can recruit better players; make the poor ones, better; the average ones good; and the good ones, great.  You decide.


The Old School:

We talk about the ‘Modern Game’; but it should not necessarily be to the detriment of historic figures who enjoyed success in a different era.  The game has changed, yes; but not to the point that it has become wholly divorced from ‘football thinkers’ like Shankly and Clough. If you accept that both were ahead of their time, then the future was unlikely to antiquate their respective philosophies; or their player recruitment strategies.

Was Shankly consciously aware about the concept of ‘Decision Making’? This is surely too modern an aspect, considering it’s only a relatively recent focus for football analysts.  Not necessarily so.  Admittedly, it’s difficult to find clues. Unlike Brendan Rodgers, or Mourinho, he had not written copious dossiers illustrating his coaching methods and tactical approach.  However, obscure beacons can flash for attention offering to illuminate the darkness; if only one assigns a significance it deserves.   Shankly did, in fact, allude to ‘Decision Making’, as a prime attribute; not just in football, but in life itself:

“If you can’t make decisions in this game…If you can’t make decisions in life, you’re a bloody menace.  You’d be better to go and become an MP.”(Bill Shankly).

That is difficult to ignore.  The comment is also vehemently stated; accentuating the relevance Shankly apportioned to ‘Decision Making’; and his contempt for those, bereft of the skill, is clear.  It would be churlish, therefore, to dismiss the notion that Shankly had not assessed players in this way. To go further: did Shankly ever contextualise football as players making decisions, in space and time, on where to position themselves?  A smart rebuttal, defending one of his players, seems to impart some credence:

“Yes Roger Hunt misses a few, but he gets in the right place to miss them.” (Bill Shankly).

Shankly seemed more attentive to a player’s ability to exploit space in the first instance; and less inclined by the expectation that a goal should result on each and every occasion.  On that note, he manifests intelligent consideration of human fallibility; no striker can convert every chance that comes his way during his career; shooting accuracy will eventually display a regression to the mean.  But as long a player can continue to adopt intelligent positions he will, over time, yield a significant goal tally.

The New School:

Players run and kick the ball.  For most of football’s history, this seemingly sufficed to describe the actions of players engaged in playing football; or, to be pedantic, they may ‘chest’, ‘head’ or even ‘knee’ the ball –  whilst the goal keeper also gets to ‘handle’ the ball.  Such analysis, however, omits an important pre-amble: the action is the outcome of the ‘thought’.  And we all know where the ‘thought’ occurs.

Decision making MAIN IMAGE

In the same way we claim to ‘see’ with our eyes; when, in fact, it is the brain that actually does the ‘seeing’; ultimately, everything a player does; every pass, everywhere he positions himself – in the case of the goal keeper, every ball he attempts to save – all originate in the seat of the brain:  in short, it is about making a decision.  Moreover, this skill is purportedly more valuable than any other:

“…the technical, tactical and physical difference between elite players is often minimal; the thing that separates the best from the rest is that the best players consistently make better decisions while under pressure.”  Jason Davos, (Day Three of The UEFA ‘A’ License In Belfast), quoting Kevin McGreskin, (Technical Director of SoccerEye Q).

Sometimes when reading your eyeballs suddenly perform a hand brake turn; they spin to re-take the information in – this was one such moment.  The first part seems like a revelation. Is there really a mere ‘minimal’ difference between say Messi – and lesser mortals – in technical, tactical and physical terms?   Or if that is too extreme an example, possibly unfair, is it superior decision making what separates Agger from say, Titus Bramble?  Another too extreme comparison perhaps; but, you could go on forever with this.

You can only take your lead from those whose job it is to study and analyse the game in depth. Since those people can allocate more time to the task, and indeed, have a superior knowledge in the field, then, all to do is to respect their work; and explore.

The issue of ‘better decision making’ is interesting for sure; thinking of a ‘pass’ or a ‘shot on goal’, in that context, is absolutely valid – if the action taken is first decided in the mind. But appraising the skill should be treated as a tentative walk through minefields; danger abounds; one foot wrong and the cost incurred can be deadly.  Whilst the human mind is a decision making tool it is, nonetheless, an imperfect one.  Potential minefields are infinite, amorphous entities; constantly shifting in terms of boundaries and dilemmas posed.   Each scenario can present different pieces of information; the spectre of Information Overload looms.  But then, just one piece of information can hinder rather than help.

Here, we can assume examples from life itself before translating the concept of Decision Making into football terms.  Extreme situations are valuable since those scenarios manifest the most tasking of dilemmas – from which we can learn more… and faster.  It is an example with many twists; illustrating how available information impairs, rather than increasing the ability to make a correct decision. But it is one which can only be understood… after the fact. In retrospect, it is shockingly incredulous.

Stressors & Information Overload:

The President exits the building.  Gunshots ring out. An explosion of chaos and pandemonium ensue. Secret Service Agents frantically bundle the President into the Car. The latter, seemingly ill, is rushed to the nearest Hospital.  Time is crucial.

Naturally, and obviously, the Doctors first course of action is to examine for gunshot wounds?

Our inclination to assess events, with hindsight, can never replicate the circumstance of stress, pressure and fear that existed in the original context; in such situations we over-estimate our own ability in terms of the athleticism – swiftness of thought and assessment – required to act appropriately.  Behold the middle-aged guy, ‘pregnant’ paunch beneath his replica shirt, as he berates a player following an ‘easy’ miss:  “Could have done f…ing better myself!”

Human fallibility, regarding decision making, is already a notable psychological trait – even when risk and danger are absent; and whereby celerity of thought is not essential.  Our middle-aged guy, like all of us, will incur problems even in the mundane occurrence of shopping in a store; the environment is rich in information – too rich – the conflict of choice requires thinking time expending copious amounts of energy:

Decision fatigue is perilous: as a consumer, you become more susceptible to advertising messages and impulse buys.  As a decision maker, you are more prone to erotic seduction”.  (The Art of Thinking Clearly: Rolf Dobelli).

Even decisions we make, with time at our disposal, are arrived at when allured to the rhythm of subliminal enticement and underlying psychological con tricks; we do not realise that we act on information impinging on our psyche; it`s an unseen menace.  No doubt most will recall a time they went shopping and returned with a purchase other than the one you set out to buy.  And thinking in terms of how we fare as market participants, consider that a brand does not necessarily have to be good, or an essential need, in order for you to buy into it; in fact, it can even be injurious to one`s health.

In an age, where concern about obesity and heart disease is prevalent, it remains a curious paradox that McDonalds, and Coco-Cola, are two of the globe`s leading brands.  Aggressive high profile advertisements shepherd many sheep. We may think we make choices; but we have been rounded up and guided into the fold.

How confident should we be making decisions where time becomes a constraint; when information needs to be gleaned fast; or, with 40,000 people baying raucously – when you get the ball in a scoring position? And, as with the President, when risk and danger are in attendance?

Rawhide is Ok:

On March 30th, 1981, John Hinckley fired 6 shots, in 1.7 seconds, during the attempted assassination of President Reagan.  Amidst the mayhem Reagan is ungracefully bundled into the Presidential Car as Agents try, frantically, to screen him from view.

Rawhide – codename for Reagan – is okay.  This is the initial message broadcast over Secret Service radio.  He was so `okay` that Agents deliberate whether hospital is necessary; a decision to go back to Crown, (The White House), is mooted.  But Rawhide is not okay.

Subtract just one element from the situation and the outcome is irrefutable: Reagan is still conscious and talking. If not, then the decision to go straight to hospital would not be in dispute.  One element sufficed to mislead.   It got worse; and all because Reagan was able to talk; a fact that seems to engender the spectre of confirmation bias.

Too much information, as we have seen, hinders rather than helps; it becomes a contaminant.  The increase in information heightens the dilemma of choice; decision fatigue is more likely when meandered in rushed mode; the risk of misinterpretation multiplies.  And Players, like Secret Service Agents, have to make numerous decisions, in real time; preferably, without a margin of error.  The challenge is tasking.

In pain, Reagan complains that he may have cracked a rib when being manhandled to safety.  Agents radio to confirm the President’s self-diagnosis; with cause and effect neatly established.  It seems like crucial and reassuring information…but it is crucially wrong. A decision to go to the hospital is made only when Reagan is having difficulty breathing and begins coughing up blood; still, however, no one assumes that he may have been shot.  Reagan’s own reportage is sanctioned by semblance of other assurances. Not only is he conscious; he was thrust into the car quickly. The President was also immediately surrounded; and 3 other people were definitely shot – suggestive of the fact that the brunt of ballistics had been absorbed.

To repeat the above posed question, but this time having revealed the context of an event that actually did occur:

Naturally, and obviously, the Doctors first course of action is to examine for gunshot wounds?

But the Doctors did not. Secret Service Agents persist with the account that the President eluded his would be assassin and that he may have merely cracked a rib.  You would think that the knowledge of gunfire taking place is now overwhelmingly pointing to one exploratory diagnosis – if only to eliminate one cause.  A failure to do so meant that valuable time was lost; Reagan’s condition had become critical.

Eventually, after futile investigation, and Reagan’s lung flooding with blood, desperate Doctors roll him over; they are finally looking for the obvious. And there it is: a small entry wound – into the left side of his back… x-rays reveal the bullet is close to his heart.

Conclusion: Taking A Bullet For The President

How could that have happened?  The thing is, it did.   Stand outside the above situation, without experiencing the events unfolding in real time – reflect and analyse – and conceivably, you may be aghast at the buffoonery of supposedly, highly trained, U.S. Government Agents. Then there was ineptitude of medical staff – again highly trained professionals.  You may even be tempted to declare that you would never have made the same mistake; after all, it was obvious – gunshots were fired.  You would have looked for gunshot wounds far earlier.  Here, our middle-aged man looms once more: “Could have done f….ing better myself”.

Since that historic event, the F.B.I. implemented a complete overall of the training on ‘Decision Making’, in stress situations; particularly looking at the concept of ‘Information over load’.

To be fair, training of Agents, up until that point, had already been updated to incorporate how human beings naturally react to gunfire: they recoil, and make themselves smaller: damn right!

But since Agents were needed to be in the firing line, by way of protecting the President, natural psychological inclinations had to be overcome.  Agents were re-trained and rehearsed in the ability to size up, and stretch out their body size; in theory, acting as a human shield.  If you watch the footage of Hinckley’s assassination attempt you can see one Agent who does exactly that.  Timothy McCarthy is still the only guy who actually did what many Agents are required to do: take a bullet for the President; fortunately, he survived.  Not many would apply for that job any time soon, but for now, can we detect a parallel with goal keepers in one to one situations?

This is a flavour of what will be discussed in Part Two of this project: the psychological inclinations of Players – under the umbrella concept of `Decision Making` – and how to overcome, and improve, upon them.  The art of deciding is valuable; but difficult to execute – because of the foibles of the human mind.  Just remember: the less is more mantra; it’s a mind game – in every sense of the word.

“Nothing is more difficult and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” (Napoleon Bonaparte).