Soccer study gets a kick out of improving players' decisions

11 July 2014

Whether it's a coach substituting his first-choice goalkeeper in the last minute of extra-time or a nervy player stepping up to take a nation's fifth penalty kick, the value of good decision-making in soccer is never more clear than during a World Cup.

Now a University of Sydney study will help the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) better understand - and eventually improve - the decision-making abilities of professional soccer players, so that Australia can rise to the game's top echelons.

Just as maths skills can be developed by solving maths problems, the researchers suspect that decision-making on the pitch can be improved by training cognitive functions in game-like situations. To find out how, they are comparing how players perform on a video-based test that shows a game situation to how the same players score in a real game situation, evaluated through a decision-making score chart.

"It is of primary importance to the FFA to develop strategies that facilitate the more rapid development of the perceptual-cognitive skills that underpin anticipation and decision-making, not only to catch up with the levels of skill exhibited by other more successful countries in football, but to lead the way in research and its translation into practice in this area," says the study's chief investigator, University of Sydney Sports Coaching expert, Dr Donna O'Connor.

"It is anticipated that the development of processes for testing and tracking skill development allows deficits in training to be remedied earlier, promoting a more rapid rise to elite levels of the sport. The project will provide coaches with information in relation to their own behaviours and in future the coach education process will be informed through evidence-based practice rather than relying on processes of intuition, tradition and historical precedent," said Dr O'Connor.

"This University of Sydney research will help Football Federation Australia to build a stronger future for football, by providing key insights into how we can improve, and subsequently teach, better decision-making among players at all levels, " added Dr Jeff Steinweg, Head of Medical Services at the FFA, industry partner to the study.

Research assistant Jaime Araya, whose PhD work focuses on game intelligence in soccer, says the importance of understanding decision-making in soccer could be seen in the Dutch national side's two World Cup penalty shootouts, in which they used two different goalkeepers.

"A goalkeeper's ability to make split second decisions is key in a penalty shoot-out and Tim Krul, according to Frans Hoek, the Netherlands' goalkeeping coach, is an R-type (Reaction) goalkeeper where as Jasper Cillessen is an A-Type (anticipation) goalkeeper," he said.

The Dutch won the quarter-final shootout against Costa Rica while using their R-Type goalkeeper, but lost yesterday morning's semi-final against Argentina, with an A-Type goalkeeper between the posts.

Study co-investigators:Professor Peter Goodyear, Professor Michael Jacobson, and Dr Paul Larkin, of the University of Sydney; Professor Mark Williams, Brunel University.

Industry partner: Football Federation of Australia.

Funding: Australian Research Council Linkage Grant.

Media enquiries: Luke O'Neill: (02) 9114 1961, 0481 012 600,