What Cognitive Mechanism, When, Where, and Why? Exploring the Decision Making of University and Professional Rugby Union Players During Competitive Matches

Frontiers in Psychology 12 (2021)
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Abstract

Over the past 50 years decision making research in team invasion sport has been dominated by three research perspectives, information processing, ecological dynamics, and naturalistic decision making. Recently, attempts have been made to integrate perspectives, as conceptual similarities demonstrate the decision making process as an interaction between a players perception of game information and the individual and collective capability to act on it. Despite this, no common ground has been found regarding what connects perception and action during performance. The differences between perspectives rest on the role of stored mental representations, that may, or may not facilitate the retrieval of appropriate responses in time pressured competitive environments. Additionally, in team invasion sports like rugby union, the time available to players to perceive, access memory and act, alters rapidly between specific game situations. Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine theoretical differences and the mechanisms that underpin them, through the vehicle of rugby union. Sixteen semi-elite rugby union players took part in two post-game procedures to explore the following research objectives; to consider how game situations influence players perception of information; to consider how game situations influence the application of cognitive mechanisms whilst making decisions; and to identify the influence of tactics and/or strategy on player decision making. Deductive content analysis and elementary units of meaning derived from self-confrontation elicitation interviews indicate that specific game situations such as; the lineout, scrum or open phases of play or the tackle situation in attack or defence all provide players with varying complexity of perceptual information, formed through game information and time available to make decisions. As time increased, players were more likely to engage with task-specific declarative knowledge-of the game, stored as mental representations. As time diminished, players tended to diagnose and update their knowledge-in the game in a rapid fashion. Occasionally, when players described having no time, they verbalised reacting on instinct through a direct connection between perception and action. From these findings, clear practical implications and directions for future research and dissemination are discussed.

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