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Decision-making in athletes: conscious vs. unconscious.

Every individual action in sports is preceded by a decision-making process, whether at the technical, tactical, physiological, or psychological level. The goal is always to achieve a specific outcome (performance). Is there a greater reason for us to give the 'decision-making process' the attention it deserves?

We know that the decision-making process preceding the execution of any action can occur consciously or unconsciously. Let's discover which one is better for our athletes.


If we consult Wikipedia, we find this description:

"Decision-making is the process by which a choice is made between different options or possible forms to resolve different situations in life in different contexts."

Here's another one:

"Decision-making basically consists of choosing an option among those available, for the purpose of solving a current or potential problem."

Now, let's narrow down the decision-making process within sports practice and at an individual level. We could describe it as:

The decision-making of an individual athlete is the process by which a choice is made among different options to resolve various situations related to the game in different contexts.

I'll mention some examples of athletes facing a decision-making process:

  • My nine-year-old niece Ivet, a novice alpine skier, tackling her debut descent on a slope full of ice patches, battling strong winds and poor visibility.
  • Leo Messi receiving a ball at the edge of the opponent's area, surrounded by three expert defenders, tied at 1 in the score with 3 minutes left in the game.
  • Félix, my friend, who at 50 has taken up golf and faces the 5th hole out of 18; it's his third stroke on this hole, he's off the fairway, with a tree in front and a shot underneath his opponents. It's his first tournament.
  • Serena Williams volleying for "MatchPoint" in the final of a Grand Slam.

No one is exempt; everyone will have to choose which option to execute from all the possibilities.


The decision-making process of any athlete can be conscious or unconscious. The question is: which one is more suitable for each of them?

Remember that the options are a conscious process where they have more time, more information, thought, and greater attention, or, on the contrary, an unconscious process, disregarding information and proceeding with an instinctive reaction.

The correct answer depends on the type of athlete.


If we talk about an inexperienced athlete, a novice who is starting in sports practice like my niece Ivet or my friend Félix, they benefit from a conscious decision-making process. This provides them with time and information to think and pay more attention since they are not yet capable (due to their inexperience) of executing the best actions automatically.


On the contrary, if we talk about an experienced athlete like Serena Williams or Leo Messi, an unconscious decision-making process, an instinctive reaction, is more suitable.

Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Harding Center for Risk Assessment at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, tells us: If you are skilled and experienced, stop thinking.

Gigerenzer also explains that certain expert motor skills are executed by unconscious parts of the brain, and conscious thinking about the sequence of behaviors hinders performance. Hence, experienced athletes do not benefit from a conscious process.


My recommendation, if you work with inexperienced athletes, is to consider the requirements of time and information accompanied by a reflection process that will be of great help to them.

In training, create tasks with few objectives, based on a fundamental concept to work on. Help them reflect on this concept and provide them with time within the task to assimilate it.

Extrapolate the same to competition; don't forget they are in a formative process. Ensure that the competition is only the stage where they will put into practice what they are learning. Victory is the consolidation of the worked concept, not the goal difference with your rivals. Manage the environment of your athletes well so that the formative work you do is well understood.

Professor Josep Campos-Rius makes a very important clarification: initiation is not the same as young athletes. Many athletes start at very advanced ages (paddle, golf, 'moms and dads' in field hockey, etc.).


My recommendation, if you work with experienced athletes, is to consider that less is more. Create demanding tasks where they don't have time to think, and they face as many possible situations as they will encounter in competition. Don't give in, repeat and repeat all these situations as many times as possible. By the way, repeating situations does not mean repeating the same exercise; be creative and face each situation in various ways.

When it comes to competition, I recommend self-control. They are not inexperienced players; don't radiate the game from the bench. Your job is done. Now it's up to the athlete to take responsibility. Each shout with a new and improvised instruction to a player is an invitation to distraction and making them think in the middle of the competition, and remember, that's not beneficial at all. Let them execute their decisions, and if they make mistakes, a brief video analysis session and correct them in the next training session.

Thank you very much for reaching the end of the article. Below are some recommendations if you want to continue learning in this area of sports knowledge.

Xavi Guilà

Co-founder of Vibliotec

My recommendations for you on www.vibliotec.org:

Coaches of inexperienced athletes:

  • Pep Marí, course 'Techniques to Correct Your Athletes'

He will teach you the correct technique to correct inexperienced athletes, as your athletes are on the way to the first two phases of learning. The first phase of any learning is to notice what you do and not get it right, and the second phase is to keep noticing what you do, but now you get it right! This is where your athletes are.

  • Josep Campos-Rius, course 'Key Aspects of Sports Initiation'

He will teach you the key resources to optimize the sports initiation process from a broad perspective. You will learn how to program with methodological tools that will improve your athletes' learning, creating a favorable environment for their decision-making process. If you are involved in initiation, this course is a must-do.

  • Pep Marí, course 'There's Only One Messi. The World is Full of Messi's Parents'

You will learn the role of the environment of young athletes along with guidelines to regulate your relationship as a coach with the families of your athletes.

Coaches of experienced athletes:

  • Pep Marí, course 'Techniques to Correct Your Athletes'

He will teach you the correct technique to correct experienced athletes, which is very different from what we use for athletes in initiation.

  • Adolfo Abad, course 'Optimize Your Game Model Through Tasks'

He will teach you to get the most out of tasks, learn to give meaning to your tasks, organize them, and plan them to achieve the game proposal you intend. Without a doubt, you should take into account decision-making, and good task creation will allow you to train your athletes' decision-making.

Article bibliography

WIKIPEDIA: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toma_de_decisiones

Gigerenzer G. (2007) “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious”. PenguinBooks

Marí, Pep . Curso en Vibliotec Aprender de los campeones. Unidad 4: Saber Aprender. https://vibliotec.org/cursos/pep-mari-aprender-campeones

Campos-Rius, Josep. Curso en Vibliotec “Aspectos clave de la iniciación al deporte”. https://vibliotec.org/cursos/aspectos-clave-iniciacion-deporte