Five seconds left and a basketball team has the ball, down by one point. The coach has set a play for the team to execute and so far it is running smoothly. An athlete catches the ball, wide open for a three-point shot (three-pointer), but he also sees a teammate wide open, very close to the basket. What decision should be made? Should he take the three-pointer or pass to the teammate?

Decision Making

Individual performance and team success are heavily dependent on the decisions made within the competition. More times than none, the team which makes the most amount of ‘correct’ decisions, usually wins the match (Cotterill & Discombe, 2016).

Decision-making is defined as the cognitive process resulting in the selection of actions among several possibilities (Chamberlain & Coelho, 1993).  Effective decision making requires the integration of perception and knowledge of previous experiences, to produce the desired action (Cotterill & Discombe, 2016; Klein & Calderwood, 1991; Perrig & Wippich, 1995).

Decision making in sports is of high importance due to the sporting environment and the pressurised demands placed on athletes. For example, the sport of tennis requires a constant transition from offence to defence. For this reason, decisions need to be made quickly and accurately. This is in order to hit the ball to the desired spot and defend against the opposition. Researchers have investigated decision making in multiple individual and team sports, with results suggesting a positive correlation with the speed and success of a made decision and multiple sport demands. These demands are pattern recognition, anticipation and reactive agility (Hepler, 2015; Paull & Glencross, 1997; Scanlan, Humphries, Tucker & Dalbo, 2014).

In addition to research, decision making theory has been established, dividing decision making into three categories. These are decision quality (the success of the made decision), decision speed (time taken to execute the decision) and decision efficacy (the belief that the decision made was the right one) (Hepler, 2016; Hepler & Feltz, 2012). More specifically, theories have been established, providing potential explanations of this decision making process; with its implication to sports. These include classic decision making, where it is suggested that decision making can only be correct through rational analysis. Another model is naturalistic decision making. It is suggested that in a time-pressured situation, a correct decision is conducted through recognition, holistic evaluation and satisfying the decision-making criteria placed on the task (e.g. finding the target, correctly positioning the body) (Abraham & Collins, 2011; Balague, Hristovski & Vazquez, 2008; Beach & Lipshitz, 1993; Collins & Collins, 2013; Klein & Calderwood, 1991).

These theories bring into focus a different aspect of decision making, emphasising the diversity of the decision-making process. Furthermore, it is evident that these theories require the athlete to be in a psychological state where they can focus and have belief in their ability to make a correct decision. Relating this back to the previous basketball scenario, if the athlete undergoes the decision-making process and decides to attempt a three-pointer, he needs to have belief in his ability. This belief should not only in the decision he made being the correct one, but also in his ability to successfully perform a three-pointer. This self-belief is referred to as self-efficacy.


Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s judgement of their capabilities to execute the desired actions (Bandura, 1977). It is not concerned with the skills an individual possesses, but rather the judgements one makes with whatever skills he or she possesses (Moritz, Feltz, Fahrbach, & Mack, 2000).

High self-efficacy is produced and enhanced from four sources:

    • Mastery Experiences: Previously successfully completing a task gives an individual self-efficacy in their subsequent performance. An athlete is more likely to perform a skill in competition if they have previously executed it successfully in training.

    • Vicarious Experiences: A combination of using models and observing yourself (recording or mental imagery) to facilitate positive change in the mind and body (Dowrick, 1999; Keller & Carlson, 1974; Maibach & Flora, 1993).

    • Verbal Persuasion: Receiving compliments about individuals performance ability. For example, a coach congratulating an athlete on their improvement (Tod, Thatcher, & Rahman, 2010; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2007).

    • Physiological and Emotional states:  Used to gauge whether the individual is compatible with the task demands (Britner & Pajares, 2006; Maddux & Gosselin, 2003; Tod et al., 2010).

These four sources do not work separately, but rather they operate together to influence self-efficacy. For example, verbal persuasion can increase persistence when experiencing setbacks, mastery experiences can increase this further; with an indication of progression evident through physiological and emotional states.

Self-Efficacy and Decision Making

The relationship between decision-making and self-efficacy is evident, as effective decision making requires the integration of perception and knowledge of previous experiences to produce the desired action. This action would not be successful unless the athlete has a belief in their ability to perform the desired action (self-efficacy) (Cotterill & Discombe, 2016; Perrig & Wippich, 1995; Wood & Bandura, 1989). In addition, knowledge of previous experiences is evident through mastery experiences, aiding in an accurately produced action.

Looking into this relationship in more detail, high levels of self-efficacy positively correlate to performing the desired action quickly (decision speed), accurately (decision quality) and with the belief that it will be successful (decision efficacy); with decision efficacy being produced through the four sources of self-efficacy (Hepler, 2016). For example, if a basketball player had previously executed a jump shot successfully (mastery experience), levels of self-efficacy would elevate. A subsequent increase would occur in athletes levels of decision-making speed, efficacy in the decision made and decision quality. This is supported through studies in the sport of basketball and baseball, with the results indicating that high levels of self-efficacy were a positive predictor of participants decision making quality, efficacy and speed (Hepler & Chase, 2008; Hepler, 2016).

In relation to decision-making theory, this is congruent with naturalistic decision making. As this theory suggests that decision making in experts is conducted through recognition (Collins & Collins, 2013), if an athlete has conducted mastery or vicarious experiences (producing higher levels of self-efficacy), when placed in a time-pressured situation, satisfying the decision-making criteria would be easier (due to the previous successful experience), resulting in performing a fast and successful decision (Hepler & Feltz, 2012).

Applied Implications

Research has found positive results in participants level of self-efficacy and decision making abilities. It can therefore be suggested that by practitioners and coaches applying techniques to increase athletes self-efficacy, an indirect effect on their decision making ability could occur.

Applied implications for practitioners would be that when working with athletes who are aiming to increase their decision-making abilities, psychological techniques which have been shown to enhance self-efficacy (imagery and self-talk) can be used (Callow, Hardy & Hall, 2001; Tod, Hardy, & Oliver, 2011). This can then be integrated with decision-making exercises related to the demands of the athletes’ sport. This would increase the likelihood of a quick, accurate and successful decision being made. It would also increase the likelihood of this performance level being maintained, due to the increased level of self-efficacy.

Applied implications for coaches would be that through using coaching techniques to increase self-efficacy, an indirect effect could occur in athletes decision-making ability. For example, coaches could assess athletes physiological and emotional states to gauge what area of the task demands need to be improved. When this has been identified, training within this area can be conducted (mastery experiences). Words of encouragement can also be given to the athletes when improvements have been made (verbal persuasions). Once these skills have been consistently performed successfully, athletes should have high levels of self-efficacy and feel comfortable applying it within competition; performing the desired action quickly, accurately and successfully.


In conclusion, research within the field of decision making has shown that self-efficacy could play an influential role in the success and speed a decision is made (Hepler & Chase, 2008; Hepler, 2016, Hepler & Feltz, 2012). This is important in the context of sports due to the demands placed on athletes and the improvement of the possibility of winning if the ‘correct’ decisions are made. Although these results have been found, most of these studies have only been conducted in laboratory setting. To gain a deeper understanding of this relationship, field studies need to be conducted. In addition, as multiple variables influence an athlete, positive results cannot be certain. Never the less, the consistency of results found in previous research suggests that by applying techniques to increase athletes self-efficacy, a positive impact on athletes decision-making capabilities could occur; aiding athletes to perform more successfully in competition.