How ‘chance’ affects decision-making in sport

Posted on October 22, 2020 by

Do you often correctly guess the outcome of the next shot, drive, steal, pass, or goal in a game?

In everyday life we’re constantly making predictions based on the information available and develop ways to make better decisions in the future. That’s true in sport, too.

Performance Analysts, like the ones here at the NSW Institute of Sport, are tasked with finding ways to produce a better outcome for the team. This may include:

  • Identifying a game plan against a fast opponent
  • Player selection to match a physically strong adversary
  • Scouting report on an opposition player’s strengths and weaknesses

Statistics and data are used along with video and computer vision to analyse and predict outcomes in sport. Where this is most easily seen and explained in sport is a closed skill such as penalties.




Consider the following scenario.

After a thrilling game, a penalty has been awarded after a video review of the last play. Time has expired on the clock and the teams are locked in a draw. One shot will decide the fate of the teams.

The attacking player chooses a target, aims, and executes the skill versing an opposing goalkeeper who is also making calculated decisions.

The opposing goalkeeper knows a few things about the player taking the penalty that might come in handy – information provided in a scouting report by the team’s performance analyst or coaching staff. Previously the attacking player has:

  • Scored 70% of their penalty shots in the top right corner
  • Never attempted to chip the goalkeeper
  • Always taken the shot quickly, as soon as the whistle is blown

Already in the game, the player taking the penalty has scored twice, both times to the right.

The attacking player has also been given advice from their performance analyst or coaching staff. This goalkeeper:

  • Generally stays low
  • Blocks 90% of shots along the ground

In the game so far, the goalkeeper has made two airborne saves to the left.

There are two things being considered in this scenario: recent history and preferences.

Where would you shoot if you were the attacking player? Where would you focus your save if you were the goalkeeper?

On one hand, as the attacking player you know your best chance is to avoid shooting along the ground. But do you shoot where you score 70% of the time, knowing that the goalkeeper has already saved a shot in this location, and may know top right is your preference?

On the other hand, as the goalkeeper you’re aware the player is likely to shoot top right, and has scored twice this way already. Do you dive to cover the right, or is this the time the shooter will mix things up?

The sport science is suggesting the most probable outcome involves the attacking player following their strength and aiming their shot top right. Armed with this knowledge, the goalkeeper will be given the advice from the side-line to dive high to cover the right.

It’s then up to the individual players to make up their mind. The shooter might determine they have more chance if they surprise the goalkeeper with something different, and the goalkeeper might use their experience and intuition to make a different decision.

Have you ever been in a similar situation where you are trying to outsmart an opponent? Next time you’re playing, think about what you might do in your next big moment.

Will you stick to your strengths, will you change a decision because of the opponent, or will you take a chance based on your experience & intuition?

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