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11 Apr 2012

Emergent decision making: implications for coach education

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Coach Education in Australia has been administered and delivered according to a bureaucratically controlled hierarchical arrangement. A conventional feature of this hierarchical arrangement is the ‘Levels of Accreditation’ education system.

Autor(es): Wharton, Lee
Entidades(es):Queensland University of Technology
Congreso: VII congreso de la asociación internacional de escuelas superiores de educación física (AIESEP)
Úbeda A Coruña, 26-29 de Octubre de 2010
ISBN: 9788461499465
Palabras claves:coach education, analysis

Emergent decision making: implications for coach education


Coach Education in Australia has been administered and delivered according to a bureaucratically controlled hierarchical arrangement. A conventional feature of this hierarchical arrangement is the ‘Levels of Accreditation’ education system. Research suggests that this system of coach education has been bound by an unqualified belief in the dissemination of declarative knowledge (Ford, Coughlan & Williams, 2009; Werthner & Trudel, 2006; Lemyre, Trudel, & Durand-Bush, 2007) and equally unqualified formations, and identification, of coaching expertise (Horton, Baker & Deakin, 2005; Cote & Gilbert, 2009). As a consequence of this questionable framework underpinning coach education Gilbert and Trudel, (2001) suggest that current schematic approaches are failing to create new knowledge or enhance coaching expertise.

This pilot study was conducted to provide a preliminary analysis of how interceptive sports coaches acquire knowledge and develop expertise in their chosen discipline. The aim of this study was to discover if there are common themes in the processes coaches use to expand their knowledge of their game and in the course of this action develop expertise. Consequently, Wharton (2010) has offered the ‘Emergent Decision Making Model’ as a means for reconsidering coaching education and as a mechanism for determining expertise in coaching practice.


The study of expertise has become a fashionable area of academic research for sports psychologists, scientists and academics alike. From the fields of cognitive and behavioural psychology, the concepts of expertise and the acquisition of expert knowledge have intrigued researchers concerned with the noticeable disparity between individual levels of human performance and individual rates of skill acquisition. This perceptible imbalance among human beings for acquiring complex skills indicates a variable aptitude for the structure, storing and recall of complex skills and abilities. It is this diversity that has provided a serviceable cornerstone for a research focus addressing optimal levels of human performance, and more recently, research that examines intervention mechanisms that are designed to enhance the acquisition of expertise.

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While studies concerning enhanced skill acquisition have been conducted since the turn of the twentieth century (see Bryan and Harter, 1899), the notion of expert performance in a sporting context didn’t take-off until the involvement of Cognitive Psychology in the 1970s. Abraham, Collins and Martindale (2006) suggest that professional inquiry regarding expertise in sport has only reached prominence in the last thirty-five years. Furthermore, expertise in coaching, as an off-shoot of the expert sports performance paradigm, has only recently moved to the forefront of this research agenda. However, a new research vein targeting the analysis of abstract notions such as mental constructs, perceptual cognition and the coupling of perception with action and the decision making process has ensured that the notion of expertise in a coaching context has received significant attention of late (see Ericsson and Lehman 1996; Abraham, Collins and Martindale 2006; Farrar and Trorey 2008).

Research Trends in Sports and Coaching Expertise

In light of this relatively short time span defining the examination of expertise in sport, four distinct research phases have contributed to our current understanding of expertise in a sporting and coaching context. The first of these phases occurred prior to the 1960’s, a period that is easily defined by Behavioural Psychologists championing the notion of ‘Motor Behaviour’ theory (Schmidt and Wrisberg 2004). Motor Behaviour theory advocated an Information Processing model that explained expertise as a tangible reduction in the time taken to complete a stimulus – response selection task (reaction time) and or a stimulus – response initiation task (movement time).

Preliminary behavioural research studies within this field involved calculating the time expired in completing vocational skills such as telegraphing and typing. It was inferred that the results from these vocational research tasks would have a positive transfer into the realm of sports performance. The impetus for the second phase of research targeting expert performance in sport stems from a professional concern by cognitive psychologists regarding the capabilities of the Information Processing model to cope with the sheer volume of possible motor programs or even generalised motor programs that are associated with an information processing theory. Hodge, Starkes and MacMahon (2006) suggest that much of the research that examined the role and contribution of such models on sporting expertise of the 1970’s relied on experimental and cognitive psychology.

Typical research of this period involved engaging the Expert Performance Approach (see Ericsson and Smith 1991; Tuffiash, Roring and Ericsson 2007) as a mechanism for comparing the performances of skilled athletes with less skilled athletes (novices). Research of this period was domain specific and generally involved the recall and recognition of visual information. A primary research objective that characterises this phase of research was a preoccupation with knowledge structures – as a means of determining if such a concept could be used as a parameter for determining expertise. The third phase of the research agenda defining expert performance in sport is characterised by the introduction of equipment capable of tracking and recording eye movements. Vickers (1992) suggests that technological developments have contributed towards the consolidation of a perceptual-cognitive research agenda.

Technological developments in recording equipment have enabled researchers to analyse data that derives from a linking of retinal movement patterns with verbal-response recordings. Similar to the preceding research phase, this chapter of research was driven by a focus for determining the differences between expert and novice performers within specific sport domains. However, unlike the preceding phase, this research period was posthumously beleaguered by professional contention regarding the parameters used for identifying and selecting domain specific experts to be studied. However, in spite of concerns regarding the locating of expertise, this period of research is strongly attributed with giving rise to the notion of ‘Deliberate Practice’ (see Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer, 1993). The most recent, and still evolving, field of research to examine and analyse the notion of expertise in a sporting context is an amalgamation of methodologies and concepts that hail from Ecological Psychology (see Davids, Button and Bennett 2008) and Dynamic Systems Theory (see Schmidt and Wrisberg 2004; see also Nonlinear Systems Theory, Bogartz 1994). Hodge, Starkes and MacMahon (2006) concur with such an opinion by suggesting the recent emergence of associated techniques from alternate paradigms have added considerably to our understanding of influential performances in sport. A major advantage associated with the nonlinear paradigms is that they view perception and action as a coupled response to task instability rather than separate entities.

This notion of emergent actions evolving from a perception-action exchange is the first indication of research which simultaneously acknowledges the interaction of both perceptual-cognitive and perceptual-motor skills. A most interesting feature to the Ecological Psychologists perspective is the suggestion that perception is not only a determining component of sports performance but one that can be trained. An appealing and unifying aspect of this specialist research agenda is the consideration that through a greater understanding of how it is that an expert produces and reproduces a desirable behaviour pattern, educators would be better positioned to elicit similar behaviours in less experienced performers.

While this overly simplistic hypothesis has been the purposeful objective of much of the research endeavours that examine expertise, some academics are inclined to disagree with the initial supposition. Klein and Hoffman (1993) for example suggest that as tempting as the idea of functional education for fast-tracking expertise may be, there certainly isn’t yet a tangible case to support such a position. In a coaching context the Klein and Hoffman viewpoint is well supported by academic generalisations such as maxims of practice (see Farrar and Trorey 2008), tacit knowledge structures (see Saury and Durand 1998; Berman, Down and Hill 2002) and experiential knowledge development (see Lyle 2002; Mallett, Rossi and Tinning 2007; Erickson, Cote and Fraser-Thomas 2007), each of which have appeared to hinder the investigative process of analysing expertise in sports coaching.

As a consequence there remains academic and professional belief, albeit a contested belief, that expertise is best developed through years of exposure to rich learning episodes that derive from extensive practice experiences that inturn are conducted in contextually appropriate environments. However, while congruent research to that of Klein and Hoffman is well supported, it would be naïve to suggest experience equates to expertise or that appropriately constructed coach education programs could not enhance the opportunity to acquire, develop or display attributes that define expert coaching behaviour.

The Involvement of Ecological Psychology

While acknowledging the role that both behavioural and cognitive psychology has played, there is a growing concern that a lack of conceptual clarity has restricted our understanding of expertise in coaching practice. Hodges, Starkes, and MacMahon, (2006), have suggested that a narrow appreciation of the complexities that constitute expertise has stifled the development of a professional consensus regarding expertise. Jones Armour and Potrac (2003) concur with such a perspective by declaring that research which targets coaching practice can no longer maintain innocence by taking no notice of the magnitude of dynamic variables that comprise high performance coaching practice. A review of the literature indicates that many of the professional canons defining expertise in coaching practice and consequently those that frame our understanding of expert coaching practice, have unintentionally distorted the boundaries for determining expert coaching practice (see Ford, Coughlan and Williams 2000). This issue is clearly illustrated by research, and research outcomes that present efficient or organised coaching practice as expert practice (see Saury and Durand 1998).

Again acknowledging the seminal findings of early research that examines the functional aspects of expertise in coaching practice, this review of the literature indicates that much of these endeavours – while providing the framework for better understanding general coaching practice, have failed to locate the key knowledge structures underpinning expertise in coaching practice. Lyle (2002) suggests that such shortcomings are the direct result of an academic propensity for conflation and micro-analysis. Lyle’s criticism of academic conflation is grounded in a body of research that has tried to locate expertise in coaching practice by comparing coaching practice with other well established domain specific fields of knowledge. As a consequence, it is argued that our current understanding of the coaching process – particularly at the high performance end, is incomplete as the dominant research framework is bound in isolated interpretations of a complex process (Lyle 2002). Similar to the ‘piece-meal approach’ (see Chen Rovegno and Iran-Nejad, 2002) used to acquire mastery of complex skills in sports coaching and physical education, Lyle (2002) suggests that engaging such a method has resulted in little more than fragmented interpretations of a highly interactive process.

Rather than struggle for lucidity in a body of research that is already stifled by a lack of conceptual clarity, researchers aligned with Ecological Dynamics suggest that an alternate model for locating expertise in coaching practice is required (see Renshaw, Chow, Davids & Hammond, 2010). This same body of researchers suggest that expertise in coaching may be determined by an individual’s ability to receive and utilise informational cues through established knowledge structures that ultimately empower an emergent action or response.

Consequently the Ecological Dynamics perspective suggests that rather than attempting to extrapolate coaching expertise from other domain specific performance areas, coaching expertise in interceptive sports is more effectively demonstrated by a coaching practitioner’s ability to use information and knowledge structures to inform future actions (decision making) that are performed under pressure of time constraints and as such propose an Emergent Decision Making Model (Wharton 2010).



6 coaches (all male) from 3 separate interceptive sports (3 Development Coaches and 3 Performance Coaches: see Lyle 2002) were recruited and gave their informed consent prior to participating in this study. The participants were purposefully chosen based on a number of criteria. First, they must be able to claim longevity of career which boasts experience with high performance coaching practice. Second, they must have demonstrated evidence of extensive use of both domain specific and domain general knowledge structures. Third, they must have made some contribution to the coached education system within their chosen field. Fourth, they have a demonstrated record of contextually determined success. Collectively, these criteria are congruent with Cote et al., (1995) and Cote et al., (2009) definition of an expert coach.

Interview Technique

Each member of the research cohort was asked to complete two semi-structured interviews. The first interview was conducted over a period of approximately 120 minutes. Subsequent interviews were conducted over a period of time varying from thirty to ninety minutes. Each semi-structured, open ended interview was carried out using a consistent framework that involved a sectional guide of three individual components. The first section involved questions regarding the individuals coaching education and coaching practice histories. The second section was designed to extract information regarding evidence of expert practice (knowledge structures as evidenced by decision making). The final section was designed to draw sections one and two together to identify how and where such knowledge structures were acquired.

Data Analysis

The raw data were examined according to Strauss and Corbin’s (1998: 181) ‘Conditional Matrix’; a highly structured method of data analysis. Strauss and Corbin’s Conditional Matrix involves a systematic approach to data analysis that engages three phases of coding. Open Coding, for disaggregating raw data into units; Axial Coding, for identifying relationships between categories of units; and Selective Coding, for the integration of categories to produce a theory. The purpose behind such an exhausting method of analysis was to enable a system of themes to emerge from the unstructured data. These themes would be representative of the coaching histories of these coaches and would enable the researcher to ‘tell a story’ of how expert coaches acquire the necessary knowledge structures to compete in high performance environments. This inductive approach follows the guidelines set forth by Cote and his colleagues (Cote, Salmela, Trudel, Baria and Russell, 1995).


As a consequence of applying Strauss and Corbin’s (1998: 181) Conditional Matrix and comprehensive coding process, two distinct themes emerged regarding the use of existing knowledge structures by expert coaching practitioners. These themes have not been addressed in any other research of this nature. These themes: ‘Eminent Awareness’ and ‘Forward Reasoning’, while unique and informative in their own right, combine to provide the underpinning concepts for an ‘Emergent Decision Making Model’ and in the process deliver clear performance indicators for the determination of expert practice in coaching. It is this notion of ‘Emergent Decision Making’ and its underlying concepts that will contribute the most towards answering the research question of determining whether or not formal coach education is contributing towards the development of expert coaching practice.

Eminent Awareness

‘Eminent Awareness’ as the instantaneous coupling of perceptual information with experiential and functional knowledge structures to inform the coaching practitioner of the intentions of, or flaws within, an opposing player or team’s actions. It is this instantaneous coupling of perceptual cues with experiential knowledge structures that separates ‘Eminent Awareness’ from the likes of Chunk Theory (see Chase and Simon 1973). Where Chase and Simon (1973) use a precise information processing language to propose a model for expertise in the domain of chess, the Emergent Decision Making model likens this instantaneous coupling action to that of a monosynaptic reflex that engages the peripheral nervous system to circumvent the involvement of higher order mechanisms of the central nervous system when producing rapid-fire automated responses.

Calvo-Merino et al., (2010) supports this recognition of such non-conscious neural associations by labelling actions such as the instantaneous coupling of perceptually identified cues with experiential and functional knowledge structures as act of ‘intelligent unconsciousness’. The ‘Eminent Awareness’ domain is deeply dependent on a coaching practitioner’s ability to store and access experiential knowledge. As is the case with the monosynaptic reflex analogy, the Emergent Decision Making Model acknowledges that for an automated decision to emerge from a dynamic and contested environment, an investment of significant cognitive engagement in similar contextual environments must have been made prior to this action – the decision, emerging. This significant cognitive engagement involves years of lived experiences, learned knowledge structures and reflective analysis of both portals in the context of unique interceptive competition.

Once a coaching practitioner has built a library of experiences and knowledge structures and stored these in the LTWM, the perceptual cues act as trigger mechanisms that accesses larger volumes of information (with automated responses attached) from domains on the lower rung of the hierarchical arrangement. It is this process that will enable decisions to emerge from the contest. The notion of ‘Eminent Awareness’ is similar to earlier research endeavours that have attempted to explain the abstract processes that coaches use to make informed decisions. For example, Saury and Durand (1998) have described this process as the engagement of ‘Implicit knowledge’, while Cote et.al, (1995) have proposed the concept of ‘mental models’ as a means of constructing an informed ‘decision making process’. Like these earlier concepts the Emergent Decision Making Model suggests that ‘Eminent Awareness’ is the product of many years of lived experiences that are evaluated, reflected and catalogued according to the constraints associated with each unique piece of interceptive play.

However, the Emergent Decision Making Model suggests that ‘Eminent Awareness’ can only be achieved when live interceptive play is perceptually encoded and coupled to experiential knowledge with the purpose of producing a ‘meaning for action’ response. Abraham, Collins and Martindale (2006) and Farrar and Trorey (2008) support such a unique view by proposing the use of ‘conceptions’ as a mechanism for making sense of interceptive action.

Forward Reasoning

Like ‘Eminent Awareness’, ‘Forward Reasoning’ is also an attempt to describe an abstract concept that coaches, and academics alike, have often yet ambiguously, describe as ‘intuitive practice’ (see Lyle, 2002). From an analogical perspective ‘Forward Reasoning’ can be describe as a conceptualisation that operates in a similar fashion to the cognitive ability displayed by strong mathematicians when dealing with complicated number patterns. Capable mathematicians automatically register the numerical relationships between numbers by a subliminal recognition of the underlying features that constitute the pattern, for example numerical relationships, factors and square roots. Forward Reasoning, as a domain, is very much dependent upon a symbiotic relationship existing between two underlying concepts: perceptual ‘attunement’ (see Davids, Button and Bennett, 2008) and ‘configural processing’ (see Calvo-Merino, Ehrenberg, Leung and Haggard, 2009). Although the notion of perceptual attunement has been discussed earlier it is further situated in this domain by the research of Ferrari, Didierjean and Marmeche, (2008) which implies that experts display a perceptual advantage.

This perceptual advantage is described as an ability whereby coaching practitioner’s can maximise their visual exploration strategies to focus more swiftly on the most strategic patterns of a wider spectrum of interceptive play (see also Ericsson and Lehmann, 1996). Davids, Button and Bennett (2008) add further support to this suggestion of advanced exploration strategies by proposing that perception can be heightened when the practitioner is attuned to the contextual affordances (Gibson 1979 in Davids et al., 2008) offered by the task, environment and or the individuals involved. The notion of ‘Configural Processing’ is not a completely revolutionary concept. Applied Psychologists have recently expanded on the principles of encoding and recognition mechanisms as a means of examining expert performance in complex domains (see Calvo- Merino, Ehrenberg, Leung and Haggard, 2009). This research identifies a practitioner’s ability to subliminally focus on, and comprehend, whole configurations or patterns of information as opposed to local features – a trait of the less experienced practitioner.

When applied to expertise in coaching, this suggests that expert coaching practitioners scan interceptive play to perceptually identify configurations or patterns of indicators that have been empirically encoded according to a system of contextual features. These configurations are used to draw only on the most salient information stored in the coaching practitioner’s LTWM (see Staszewski, 1988; Lehmann & Gruber, 2006). Clearly a coaching practitioner that has a heightened sense of perceptual attunement to the contextual affordances offered by the task, environment and or the organismic cues will be more equipped to scan, identify and process the ‘Configural’ features on offer in any given moment of interceptive play.

The notion of a ‘Configural Processing’ skill, like the underlying principle of encoding and recognition mechanism is empirically developed. As a practitioner becomes more familiar with the interceptive play they observe, their ability for detecting and interpreting configurations is enhanced. These heightened recognition mechanisms are the instantaneous links to accessing the most relevant information – from any number of lower knowledge domains, that inform the coaching practitioner about the intentions of their opponents. In layman terms ‘Forward Reasoning’ is a predetermined calculated process that enables the expert coaching practitioner to prepare for change before change is required.


Clearly, expertise in a dynamic activity such as coaching interceptive sports requires adeptness in a wide-ranging spectrum of knowledge structures (see Allen 2007). This need for proficiency in multiple streams of domain specific knowledge would suggest that coaching is dissimilar to many other domains of expertise (Norman, Eva, Brooks and Hamstra, 2006). Although some authority areas of the coaching sciences may give emphasis to one branch of knowledge ahead of others, most expert coaches should be able to demonstrate proficiency in all domain specific knowledge areas that are associated with the coaching process (Hodges, Starkes, and MacMahon, 2006).

Obviously however, to conduct a study of analysis that examines a coaching practitioner’s ability to use and manipulate the information structures of each and every specific knowledge domain would not only prove too complicated but would also suggest that there is no interplay between domain specific knowledge areas – two issues that have hindered traditional research in this area of study. With this in mind a need exists to identify more appropriate indicators of expertise, benchmarks that will be more reflective of the processes that separate exemplars of expertise, from well ordered (efficient) practice. For the purposes of locating key performance indicators of expert coaching it is the suggestion of researchers aligned with Ecological Dynamics that academics should be directing more attention towards the environmentally driven emergent actions of coaches – such as the decision making process involved in coaching practice.

I tends to agree with such a viewpoint. This research study adopted the ‘Emergent Decision Making Model’ as a means for determine how expert coaches acquire the knowledge structures. This research asserts that expert coaching practitioners acquire knowledge structures externally to the programs offered by formal coach education providers. It is the suggestion of this research that if formal coach education programs are to contribute to the development of expert coaching practice than they need to cease programs that simply reproduces isolated knowledge structures and commence with assisting coaching practitioners with acquiring skills that will help establish forward reasoning and eminent awareness skills.


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