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Vol. 42 No. 24 • Issue 1382 JULY 25 – 31, 2012 • $A 5.95 inc GST • $NZ 6.95 inc GST




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g n i k a m n o i s i c e art & science of d

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Inside features


DECISIONS! Picking the right play at the right time is an elite skill, writes DR JODI RICHARDSON.


SK fans what they consider to be the essential skills of an expert AFL player you’d expect a long list of physical abilities. The general consensus of what makes a truly skilled player focuses on what his hands, feet and legs can do. But this is only part of the picture. One skill is demonstrated hundreds of times more during a game than a good tackle, a great mark or a brilliant kick, and is the single skill that can be the difference between winning and losing. It’s decision making. Decisions by players, umpires, coaching staff, sport scientists and doctors all contribute to the game. Some even lead to a player being suspended, as was the case for Chris Judd. In fact Round 16 revealed the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of decision making. Players are making hundreds of decisions in every game, both on and off the ball. Take one of the all-time greats of the game, for example, James Hird. His ability to read the play, position himself and

consistently and accurately dispose of the ball exemplified his exceptional decision making. He always looked as though he had plenty of time in which to operate. Current players like Jobe Watson and Scott Pendlebury often similarly demonstrate their skill at decision making under pressure. Collingwood’s game against Geelong marked the return of Pendlebury from injury and it didn’t take long for him to show why he’s one of the best. At one point, even though everything about his body language suggested he was about to launch a long kick for goal, he instead slipped a handpass to Ben Sinclair, who passed to Dayne Beams, who then slotted an easy goal. This passage of play showed all the hallmarks of an excellent decision maker. The skill of being able to read the play, anticipate what an opponent is going to do and using this information to make a decision gives expert AFL footballers advantages over

MITCHELL: A clear thinker in traffic.

their opponents. Damian Farrow, Professor of Sports Science at Victoria University and the Australian Institute of Sport, says that

HIRD: Exemplary decision maker.

decision making is the ability to select the appropriate option from an array of choices. In general, players have 2 to 2.5 seconds between picking up the ball to disposal in which to make the best decision. “A classic example is the kick in to the forward 50 where a player has multiple team-mates wanting the ball, maybe running a set pattern and with opponents on them, and the player has to determine which decision is best,” Professor Farrow said. “One of the qualities of the best decision makers is that they seem to have this time that others don’t. One of the reasons for that is that they have probably already made some sort of decision before they even have the ball. “Good players recognise the situation, they already have a visual snapshot of where their team-mates are supporting them and any weaknesses in the defence, and so when they get the ball it’s just a matter of pulling the trigger as Inside Football

PENDLEBURY: Great advertisement for junior basketball.

‘Better skilled decision makers see the game as patterns.’ – PROFESSOR DAMIAN FARROW

they have already made their decision. “With the best decision makers it might not be a selection of choices, there might be only one option because it is so obvious to them.” Professor Farrow also highlights that while making decisions, expert decision makers “sell” misleading information to the opposition. Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Whether a decision is being made under pressure or not, the process is essentially the same. “There will be a contested possession in a stoppage, a quick handball that might be a conscious decision but often I don’t think there is a selection of choice, it’s more stimulusresponse,” Professor Farrow said. Sport scientists like Professor Farrow and his colleagues have discovered the reasons why X expert decision makers are just

that, compared to amateurs. “Better skilled decision makers see the game as patterns,” he said. “So whereas you or I might look at a game and see 10 players randomly running around nearby, an expert might see that as a six versus four defensive structure, or it might be a five on five, man on man situation where there is an attacking space to be used. “They see the game as a structured pattern. Lesser skilled players don’t see it as

well in that respect. That’s one of the advantages straight away. “Because the expert has seen a pattern, they can typically forecast where the players will and won’t run.” The visual search patterns of expert decision makers in AFL are examined by monitoring where they are looking using their centra l vision (not to say that peripheral vision isn’t important, it’s just not measured in this test). Typically the better decision makers know what the critical pieces of information are in a particular pattern or who the critical players are that will determine the outcome of the pattern. They will search around that area to assist their decision making and won’t get caught looking at movement that isn’t important to the outcome of the situation. Also, better decision makers fix their vision on whoever they think is important when faced with a selection of choices, whereas lesser skilled decision makers might be more erratic in their fixations as they don’t necessarily know where to look. Professor Farrow explained that more often than not experts are validating their choices rather than disregarding poorer choices. “Because of their knowledge of patterns, they are more at that point of just confirming the decision they are going to make,” Professor Farrow said. “One of the key things is that good decision makers might not be making too many decisions, they already know the answer and so it’s just confirmation. “It keeps it simple but it’s through a lot of training and experience that their ensuing expertise allows them to do that.” Professor Farrow likens it to the skill of a radiographer reading an x-ray. “They know how to read an x-ray, they know where to look to see if there is a fracture or not. They don’t have to look at the rest of the x-ray they just hone in on that critical element. “I think that physical skill is the biggest influence on decision making expertise; all the great decision makers typically have great fundamental skills. “If they do have great skills, they have the attentional capacity to devote to the decision making task. They’re not caught up in the process of having to kick the ball.” In order to understand how expert decision making skills are developed in AFL players, the AFL Research Board funded a comprehensive study conducted by Professor Bruce Abernethy from the University of Queensland and Dr Jason Berry, now at Victoria University. The research firstly revealed that expert AFL decision

makers spent more time playing invasion games such as basketball, hockey and soccer during their development than non-experts. “Dr Berry’s research showed that, in particular, the perceptual decision making qualities in basketball seem to be transferring to AFL. So doing a lot of that as a kid growing up is advantageous,” Professor Farrow said. Pendlebury was originally an AIS basketball scholarship holder but chose to return to football where his vision, skills and poise as a player have earned him some of the game’s highest honours. It’s been recently reported that Richmond approached Boomers guard-forward Joe Ingles to switch codes to AFL. Other talented AFL players with a basketball history are Jack Watts (Melbourne), Todd Goldstein (North Melbourne) and Ricky Henderson (Adelaide). The AFL report recommended that early specialisation in AFL, younger than 14 years of age, was inadvisable as the strongest factor contributing to expert AFL decision making was broad exposure to invasion games. The report also identified a number of themes that characterised expert AFL decision makers including “dad coached”, suggesting that from a young age these players would have been influenced by a parent with Aussie rules knowledge, “early development of skills”, “decision-making roles in sport” and “early exposure to adult and older age-group competition”. Experts were also better able to read the play when tested using AFL specific video footage. A widely held belief has been that expert decision making is innate and not trainable. “Not true,” declares Professor Farrow. He says that decision


If I could click my fingers and we could be as physically good as those top teams I would. But we are not. You’ve got to take time to build your players and that’s what we do.  – James Hird on his fitness staff, on Crunch Time

‘All of a sudden he makes a decision where the people in the stand go, how did he do that?’ – NEIL CRAIG ON ANDREW McLEOD

making training should be approached from a training point of view in the same way strength and conditioning is trained, considering the core training principles of volume (how much), frequency (how often), intensity (how hard) and overload. “If you were training a muscle, you don’t use the same weight and do the same number of sets and reps for the whole year,” he said. “You keep increasing the weight and manipulating the number of reps but you do have to do a minimum amount of reps to get the improvement. “Unfortunately with decision

WATTS: Developing elite decision making.

Inside Football

making that’s not always how it’s regarded and so it’s not surprising that players don’t improve.” Neil Craig, who is now Melbourne’s Director of Sports Performance, worked closely with Professor Farrow for seven years while senior coach of Adelaide. Craig holds a sports science degree and worked for many years as a sports scientist with the AIS, the South Australian Institute of Sport and the Australian Cycling Federation. Craig recognises decision making as a “huge” part of the game where players are processing an enormous amount of information over the two hours of a game while becoming increasingly fatigued. Making the right decision is further challenged by the fact that “opposition players are trying to take away time for players to make decisions so hopefully they will make an error”, Craig said. A team’s game plan and positioning of players is a way in which coaches can increase the opportunity for their players to make the right decision. “If a group of team-mates are playing defence week after week after week, they get to know each other really well as players and begin to read the cues (physical signs) of what each team-mate is going to do,” Craig said. This is one of the reasons why injuries can be so destructive to teams because all of a sudden a new player is integrated into the line-up with whom their teammates are unfamiliar with their cues and positioning. Craig’s sports science Wednesday, July 25, 2012

experience, coaching experience and his work with Professor Farrow have enabled him to create tailored strategies and drills to improve decision making skills. It’s very much a case of “use it or lose it”, he says. “People say that a well drilled side makes good decisions; a lot of that is because they have great game knowledge,” Craig said.Under these circumstances the number of decisions to make is reduced as players are drilled on what to do in every situation. “Guys like Adelaide’s Andrew McLeod stand out when there are two or three right decisions to make,” Craig said. “He has a great capacity to pick up information about where players are on the ground and all of a sudden he makes a decision where the people in the stand go ‘How did he do that?’ These players just seem to have more time than anyone else.” The challenge for coaching staff is to design drills to overload each player according to their expertise as a decision maker. “When designing a drill you manipulate a whole range of variables depending on the level of decision making that you want,” Craig said. “If you want to overload the person, put them in a dense environment where there are a lot of players in a reasonably small area where they have a lot of information to process. You can overload players by manipulating the size of the field, the number of opposition players, number of team-mates, the shape of the ball and certain limitations on rules. “You might design a handball

game but players are not allowed to handball forward, only to the side and backwards. Players might have an option to handball forward but can’t do that so they have to make a different decision. They have to ignore that person and work out another solution. “That’s all about decision making on the run, solving problems.” In an era with ever increasing physical demands on players, the physical training demands on players are decreasing. Clubs can’t train harder so they are training smarter. Technology plays a big role in low-intensity decision making training which is particularly useful to maintain these skills in an injured player. Some clubs, such as Adelaide and Collingwood, have access to projected video footage onto a near life-size screen. Players can choose the best option and kick at the screen. Craig suggests that iPads, already popular among players, will be another tool useful for training decision making in players. For the amateur or grassroots player, bottom line is to play lots of invasion games and backyard sports. For coaches, ensure that the principles of volume, frequency, intensity and overload are considered. These are all critical for decision making development. n For more information a great resource is Professor Farrow’s book: Developing Sport Expertise: Researchers and coaches put theory into practice, Routledge: 2007.

Inside Football - The art and science of decision making