Enhancing perceptual and decision-making abilities for field sport athletes

In field sports, athletes need to respond to the unpredictability of a game, therefore having effective perceptual and decision-making abilities will allow them to react to an unplanned stimulus. This is an open motor skill that requires action to be taken following the athlete’s perception of the environment. It is therefore vital that perceptual and decision-making abilities is enhanced via open skill learning. Open skill learning is the learning of a task in an unpredicted environment, such as, learning to quickly change direction due to the actions of an opponent. Whereas, closed skilled learning will not enhance perceptual and decision-making abilities since the athlete’s movements will be pre-determined, only allowing athletes to adapt to those pre-planned drills.

In most cases an athlete’s perception will be influenced by the context of the sporting environment, forcing them to make decisions based on their perception. The factors below are key to provide athletes with perceptual and decision-making abilities:

1)Knowledge of situations; the ability to determine probable movements

2)Pattern recognition; the ability to recognise patterns of play from the other players

3)Visual scanning; the ability to process visually the context of game play

4)Anticipation; to be able to predict an event in a game that may influence movement

Unplanned manoeuvre’s will happen instantaneously and require all 4 of these factors, and for practice to transfer, training needs to stimulate the physiological and technical demands of the sport. Fortunately, perceptual and decision-making abilities are trainable with adequate transfer to performance, as specified by Serpell et al (1) who witnessed significant improvements following reactive agility training. The reactive agility training protocol requires the athlete to respond to the actions of a life size opponent displayed on a video screen, requiring athletes to make decisions quickly in an unplanned manor.

Video based training methods can be categorised as intra-skill variability, i.e., they will only train one skill at a time, such as change of direction movements based on perception. Video based training also lacks the competitive environment that occurs in competition, limiting any transfer that requires the performance of skills such as dribbling a soccer ball while perceiving the actions of an opponent in the competitive environment. In contrast, inter-skill variability is achieved while practising skills collectively, such as dribbling a soccer ball while changing direction based on the competition environment. Inter-skill variability will increase the level of contextual interference, which can be defined as the interference in performance and learning that arises from practising more than one task in the context of other tasks. This counterintuitive effect is essential for skill acquisition and can see greater skill retention in more advanced athletes. Initially, performance during practise will deteriorate due to fatigue, but long-term performance will improve. It is important to remember that the experience of the athlete will depend on how much contextual interference is applied. Beginners will require very little, focusing on fundamental movements. For example, blocked practise is considered to have low levels of contextual interference and may be ideal for beginners to implement foundational movement patterns but will have limited transfer of perceptual and decision-making abilities. Random practise will have a greater level of contextual interference and allow the advanced athlete to improve various skills collectively and enhance perceptual and decision-making abilities due to cognitive demand (Table 1).

Table 1: Types of practice for skill development

Performing a single skill over and over with, repetition being key.The arrangement of a skill that contains more than one aspect of a skill.Performing several different skills in combination with each other.
Lower cognitive demand.Cognitive demands are slightly greater than blocked practice.Higher cognitive demand than serial practice.
Can rely on memory from previous repetitions.Allows athletes to adapt to the higher level of random practice that follows as skill develops.Requires problem solving to acquire appropriate motor patterns on demand to successfully perform the task.

Game based training such as small sided games are one way to increase the level of contextual interference. Small sided games will require athletes to respond to opponents while executing the skills of the sport, leading to improved perceptual and decision-making abilities (2). Small-sided games has been shown to improve performance by enhancing the speed of decision making rather than the speed of the movement (3). Smaller playing areas (23.2 x 20m) with fewer players (3 a side) has been shown to significantly improve unplanned movements in comparison to large areas with more players (3). This increase in unplanned movements will require a greater cognitive effort, something that we want to happen for enhanced performance. It is also important that the groups within the small sided games are rotated to ensure an equal allocation of playing levels. If this is over-looked, stronger players may out-perform weaker ones resulting in less cognitive training.

“Small sided games will require athletes to respond to opponents while executing the skills of the sport, leading to improved perceptual and decision-making abilities”

Shadow drills are another method to enhance perceptual and decision-making abilities. These drills are ideal in warm up activities and will work well during lateral movements. Working in pairs in a 1 on 1 scenario, one athlete performs as the attacker and tries to out-perform the defence, before the roles are reversed. Contextual interference can be increased in these drills, e.g., a Gaelic footballer can perform the drill with the football and follow normal playing rules. Since the athlete is forced to use skilful tactics using the football, this will force them to use perceptual and decision-making abilities to out-perform their opponent.

It is important that exercise selection is relevant to the chosen sport. So, based on the information that is presented above, small sided games are a great way to train skills as well as cognitive demands which will improve decision making in the competition environment. Basic skill levels are required if the training is to improve cognitive demands, therefore using the shadow drill in a warmup will be a quick way to add cognitive training. Since game play will improve perceptual and decision-making abilities, the skill level of the athlete will impact their performance as well as skill retention. If the basic skills are lacking, the training drill will quickly become a conditioning exercise, or athletes will quickly lose interest.  


1.         Serpell BG, Young WB, Ford M. Are the Perceptual and Decision-Making Components of Agility Trainable? A Preliminary Investigation: J Strength Cond Res. 2011 May;25(5):1240–8.

2.         Gabbett T, Jenkins D, Abernethy B. Game-Based Training for Improving Skill and Physical Fitness in Team Sport Athletes. Int J Sports Sci Coach. 2009 Jun;4(2):273–83.

3.         Davies MJ, Young WB, Farrow D, Bahnert A. Comparison of agility demands of small-sided games in elite Australian football. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013;8(2):139–47.

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