Decisions in Sport

In sport, as in life, we tend to see everything from our viewpoint. Victories are our doing, and the result of great decisions. Defeats are our fault, and down to one or more poor decisions.

After one of the more unlikely wins in the long history of Test Cricket (319 runs after being 122-8 on the first afternoon), let’s turn the telescope round, and analyse where it went wrong for India.

Where do we start? It’s hard to criticise MS Dhoni for putting us into bat on a tricky wicket. Even after the heroics of Broad and Swann, we only made 221. But little went right for him thereafter. His wicket keeping was distinctly average. He was out cheaply in the first innings and shouldered arms to his first ball in the second. His handling of the bowling attack was shambolic towards the end of the England second innings. But he did make the magnanimous  decision to reinstate Bell, which made him a lot of friends (except perhaps in India!).

This though was not the plan I had in mind. The plan that has failed totally was the BCCI’s plan to keep the #1 spot and defeat England. Injuries to Sehwag, Zahir Khan and Gambir have not helped. But India has one and a half billion people, which should provide a few reserves, and England won a huge victory without Trott, Tremlett, and a fully fit Swann.

Where was the faulty decision making?

  • Schedule planning: too little time between the West Indies tour and coming to England. Only one warm-up match in England before the Tests.
  • Over confidence in the durability of the older players: Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Khan, Harbhajan. Maybe this was born out of over-confidence engendered by winning the World Cup – a form of the game which requires much less in the way of stamina
  • The appointment of Fletcher as coach. Is such a taciturn and crusty individual the right guy to motivate a struggling team of prima donnas?

Perhaps India will surprise the world of cricket and win at both Edgbaston and The Oval. I wouldn’t bet on it. Nor would a late flourish justify the faulty decision making. Two heavy defeats have already destroyed the credibility of a side supposed to be #1.

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It was the FSF (Football Supporters’ Federation) who last week came up with the idea that the FA (we all know who they are!) should be held accountable for all the money they have spent, and all the decisions they have made.

This is a degree of accountability normally only applied to public bodies. It is also a reminder that as decision makers there is a third judge and jury: not just how we evaluate the success of our decisions, and not just how the decision turns out on an objective assessment. We also have to be prepared to be accountable to any body or individual whose job it is to analyse what we decided, and importantly how we decided.

Accountability is another reason, if another reason is needed, for making sure we don’t just make better decisions. We must make them in a better way.

Thanks for the reminder, FSF. What’s the betting the FA will take heed? I wouldn’t put your life savings on it.

And how about FSF putting FIFA under the same pressure? Sepp, are you listening?

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There was a remarkable response to my suggestion (Friday 15th July) that CEOs would get more benefit from being like the tournament  golfer – employing a caddy and coach – rather than relying on “support” from the traditional retinue of executive reports. The piece suggested that a CEO (or anyone else who has to make important decisions) would be a better decision maker with inputs from one adviser and one constant companion, than relying on the normal diet of meetings, presentations and documents. A number of people said to me “I could do with a caddy”.

Actually I seem to have been guilty of a bit of a solecism in the spelling. You can use either, but if the Rules of Golf say “caddie” for the singular of the species, I will go for that. After all a singular caddie is what you want, not what we golfers call a “bag puller”. Cynics would say there are enough bag pullers in the corporate world, as it is.

But let’s look at the coach aspect. All the top golfers use a coach either all the time or from time to time. Why? Because there are faults or involuntary changes in the basics (grip, stance, alignment, tempo) that you simply can’t see for yourself. An expert watching you swing a club, and importantly comparing what they see now with what they remember from before, is going to provide far superior counsel to anything you can work out for yourself.

That is important, because most CEOs, while acknowledging corporate democracy and listening to what their executives tell them, still value their own opinion more highly. If you believe in personality profiles, you know that most CEOs are ‘Drivers’. According to, Drivers are:



problem solver




risk taker






I put the ‘self-reliant’ characteristics in italics. To take just a few of them, if as a CEO you are independent, assertive, determined and forceful, are you going to take a great deal of notice of those below you in the hierarchy? 

But you might listen to your coach! With an expert to call upon, why wouldn’t you listen and take their advice on a strategic decision? As well as coaching on the physical / technical side, the Darren Clarkes of this world also work with sports psychologists to make sure their heads are in gear. Think of the pressures faced by business leaders. That might work for them too. 

The caddie? He or she (don’t let us forget famous Fanny or the beautiful Brenda Calcavecchia) may not be the best choice as strategic counsellor, but for practical advice in the execution of a decision – none better.

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My apologies to regular readers: no blog posts this last couple of days. I have been on my annual pilgrimage to The Open Championship. This year the tournament has returned to the enchanting small town of Sandwich – half as old as time, and England’s premier port in the Dark Ages, before the sea receded.

Apart from huge enjoyment and fun, what have I gained from this year’s Open? Two principal learnings of particular interest to the decisionomane:

  • That even the world’s finest golfers need to make constant changes of tack as they plot their way around testing links like Royal St George’s
  • That the tournament pro’s dynamic duo of coach and caddy would almost certainly work beyond the realms of golf

Let’s start with the relentless sequence of decision making that confronts each competitor, whether they have shot 65 (lowest yesterday) or 82 – the highest score. As ever, sport is a valuable analogue to life. For each shot, you have to:

  • Work out the maximum upside outcome, and then go down the scale from perfect to adequate
  • Work out maximum downside outcome, and scale from catastrophic to livable-with
  • Do the reward/risk analysis, and settle on your strategy
  • Select a club
  • Aim it
  • Decide how hard to hit it
  • Grip club and take stance
  • Backswing + Downswing -> Impact

Obviously short putts don’t require as much thought as a drive at a Par 5 hole with out of bounds on the right (like the 14th at Royal St George’s). But the pressure is on the brain all the way round, just as you are being tested in terms of physicality, dexterity and stamina.

Life’s like that. Every day requires endless decision making. Not all these decisions are equally difficult. But some need more effort and technique than others. In life, as in golf, you also have to adjust for luck and competitive action.

Now for what I think is an even more important thought. Top golfers, like all professional athletes, need coaches (psychological as well as technical). But the golfer has the priceless asset of a friend, counsellor and gofer – namely the caddy. A round in the Open at Sandwich is nothing like as lonely as, say, that of a tennis player. Batsmen have partners. Footballers and rugby players have team mates. But the latter also have to be primarily out for themselves. The caddy is for you. To help in every way. At the minimum a second opinion. At best a crucial line on a putt or the counsel to play a safe shot with a seven iron, rather than trying to hack a wood from deep clag. Even more important: someone there, someone to talk to.

Wouldn’t CEO’s and other business leaders do better with caddy or Man Friday constantly at hand? And regular coaching?

If I was the CEO of a big outfit, I’d far rather rely on a great coach and a good caddy, than all the direct and indirect reports in a matrix organisation. And think of the thinking and deciding time you would have, freed up from all those meetings!

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 I  had a sobering experience this morning. I was invited to attend a demonstration workshop on leadership skills devised and run by a clever company called ProfitAbility, who specialise in business simulations. I have been a fan of the company since I went to one of their courses for Guinness in Kenya in the late 1990’s.

The simulation today (and it was effectively a simulation of a simulation) is called Magnetic Leadership. It is extremely sophisticated – and very hard work, because no one sleeps at a ProfitAbility event. I am a big believer in learning by doing. For some time I have been eager to explore how decision making skills could be enhanced in a simulation.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I was seriously embarrassed by how ineptly I performed. There were only two of us in our team who really didn’t understand how the game worked. And my fellow struggler was an infinitely superior poker player. He used some good questions and an inscrutable expression to get by to the extent that he actually became a practical contributor.

I was reduced to observer status, not least by the realisation that if I persisted in wanting everything explained, I would slow down the whole team and jeopardising their chances of winning.

So………..I admitted failure, having been hugely impressed by how quick on the uptake the rest of my team was, and what co-operative team workers they turned out to be.

The lesson for me? Learn some humility!

It only took one session on an open course to reduce me to a gibbering dysfunctional wreck. The day was gorgeous, the venue splendid, and my fellow delegates delightful. But I was as much use as an ice lolly on a barbecue. I couldn’t contribute to group decision making because I didn’t understand enough about the task.

Even all those years taking briefs, a decent understanding of decision making and the gift of the gab were to no avail. Never believe you can take any challenge in your stride. We are all as good as we were yesterday – or not.

That’s why sport is such a tough school. Federer was two sets up on Tsonga this afternoon, yet he lost. Tsonga might have been inspired, and playing way above his ranking. But Federer lost. He’s out. He won’t win a seventh title this year.

We all have to learn that lesson. However great our publicity, it means little if you lose. I’m determined to be back on form the next time I have to grasp a tough brief in very little time, and in a pressured situation.

Federer will be distraught now.  But he’ll be back too.

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I fervently believe that ‘making decisions better’ (ie using a rigorous process) is the way to shorten the odds on making a good decision. To judge by comments posted on this blog, and conversations with experts and seasoned decision makers, I am on the right lines.

But now it’s ‘prove it’ time. I am about to embark on a second interview programme with decision makers in a wide range of callings. This list will start in home territory – business people, marketers, advertising – but will also extend to:

  • Politicians
  • Civil servants
  • Diplomats
  • The forces
  • The emergency services
  • Transport
  • The law
  • Medicine
  • Entertainment
  • The gambling industry
  • The dating industry
  • Sport –
    • Professionals
    • Umpires/referees
    • Administrators

I have a good list to be going on with, but I would very much welcome volunteers and suggestions as to people whom I might approach, and indeed categories I have not thought to include..

From the interviews I conducted a few years ago I drew a rich vein of wisdom and some marvellous anecdotes. I look forward to a lot more. Your help would be hugely appreciated.


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We have concentrated almost entirely on considered decisions. But there are so many decisions which have to be made with little or no premeditation. In my research I have taken particular interest in decision making in medicine, the forces, the emergency services, flying and driving.

But it is sport which enables us to study short order decision making in a very public context.

This past weekend provided some good opportunities. Let’s start with tennis – a game which mixes proactivity and reaction, with very little time to think. From a wonderful vantage point on Centre Court on Saturday I was able to wonder at Roger Federer’s remarkable ability to control a match. His approach was so different from that of Novak Djokovic who followed Federer on court.  Federer has had a lean time of late in the Grand Slams by his standards, whereas Djokovic enjoyed a remarkable 43 match winning streak until Federer beat him in the semi finals at Roland Garros.

Yet from the knock-up onwards, it was obvious that Federer had a game plan. He exudes confidence, but also has a serenity about him. Under pressure he has an uncanny ability to narrow the eyes and secure crucial points. Nalbandian is past his peak, but good enough to reach the third round. Federer’s decision making ensured that he would progress no further. It was not just his technique and stroke making, which are both awesome. It was his mental strength. It was his determination, in defiance of the seeding, to win a seventh Wimbledon title this year.

Watching Djokovic later it was hard to believe he has only lost once this year. Crushing serve – yes. All the shots – yes. But against Baghdatis (another awkward opponent like Nalbandian) he didn’t exhibit Federer’s confidence and cool. You just didn’t feel he was in control in the same way.

Yesterday I watched two sporting cameos on TV. Both from highly gifted, but flawed performers: Sergio Garcia (BMW International Golf from Munich), and Marcus Trescothick (T20 cricket for Somerset against Glamorgan).

Garcia birdied the 18th in the final round to earn a play-off against his compatriot Pablo Larrazabal. In doing so he secured entry into the Open Championship, having missed a short putt to qualify at Sunningdale earlier this month. You couldn’t help feeling that qualifying was his real goal. During what turned into a five hole play off, the killer instinct was not much in evidence, and it was not a huge surprise when he missed a putt on the 18th (the fourth time he had played it in a day), for Larrazabal to win. His putting is an acknowledged weakness, a serious handicap for a top golfer.

Trescothick hit a typically masterful 50. It looked as if he was in complete control. Then inexplicably on 58 he played all round a ball from a part-time medium pacer and was bowled. It was a flat pitch. He was seeing it like a football. Like Garcia, he had achieved his intermediate goal (to see his side into a winning position). But he showed no inclination to bat through the innings.

I am convinced that decision making in sport deserves close analysis. Without exceptional talent, and endless training and practice, a professional sportsperson cannot get to the starting gate. But to be a winner – a champion – you need more. Mental application is crucial. We looked at Sir Matthew Pinsent’s advice “Quieten the negative thought in your head” on 18th June. Goal-setting, game plans, and steely resolve are the X Factors. The theatre of sport dramatises the difference between winning and losing, and importantly between winning and coming close.

There is a lesson in sport for considered decision making in business and politics. Sporting champions do not have long to wait before they have won or not. Hence the ruthless execution of game plans. There is not much room for the ‘big idea’ in sport. If it works, it works.

In the worlds of government and management it is easy to take comfort in the brilliance of the thinking, and hope it is going to work out. Yet executing decisions is equally important there.

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As golf fans and the whole population of Northern Ireland struggle into work this morning (or not) having sat up to all hours watching Rory McIlroy, it is worth asking what lessons there are to be learned from his extraordinary performance at the US Open golf.

Most important must be the vivid demonstration of the strength of his character, finishing off in such style having collapsed from a strong third round position both at the Open last July and the Masters in April. It is axiomatic in decision theory to learn from previous episodes, and feed the learning back into future opportunities.

It will be interesting to see whether Dustin Johnson (US Open 2010) and Nick Watney (US PGA 2010) are capable of emulating McIlroy the next time they are in the lead at a Major, having squandered apparently winning positions. Interviews this weekend with McIlroy, Watney and Johnson were revealing. All three players admitted to ‘speeding up’ under pressure. “It all happened so quickly”, said Johnson, “I was walking faster, playing faster, and didn’t leave myself time to think”.

The interviewer said that all three golfers admitted their mistake was not “staying in the moment”

There is a lesson for all of us there. Pressure can disrupt equilibrium and thought patterns. Decision makers in the ‘reflex / instinctive’ category – soldiers, pilots, firefighters, police, nurses in triage, referees etc – know that their only chance of taking good decisions in a nanosecond is to think straight, breathe deeply and let their training click them into autopilot.

If we don’t stay in the moment, disaster awaits. The language we use says it all:

  • Don’t get ahead of yourself
  • Focus on one thing at a time
  • Concentrate / keep in the zone

Frustration, impatience, annoyance, even panic – these are natural reactions to pressure, crisis or looming disaster. But all emergency service workers and combatants are trained to rely on what their training has taught them. Programmed response is as much a part of short order decision taking, as is weighing up options and factoring in more data when you have time to take a considered decision.

Sport – and particularly individual games like golf – can teach us a lot about pressure and the best way to react to it. McIlroy’s triumph yesterday tells us as much about his mental toughness as his phenomenal ball striking.

Sports fans know that the moment a player gives into pressure, technique will falter, with the result that first consistency and then victory will be lost.

That’s just as true in the day job.

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It’s tricky in Bahrain just now

They call it Arabian Spring.

There’ll be a helluva row

If we go ahead with the motor racing.

Let’s wait till glorious June

With other names in the news

Like Libya, Syria and Yemen. Soon

We’ll have nothing whatever to lose.

Jean Todt and little bad Bernie

Will announce an October date.

We’ll make just as much money

In Arabian Fall: not a moment too late

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It has not been a great few weeks for the administrative giants who manage our sport. 

How could the Rugby Football Union believe that downgrading the job specification for the new supremo would be a good idea? Is it any wonder that Sir Clive Woodward put temptation behind him and stayed with the British Olympic Association? 

After being roundly outsmarted by their enemies in FIFA at the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the Football Association has achieved the remarkable feat of abstaining at the Presidential elections. 

No surprise I suppose that Sir Alex Ferguson is on another FA charge. But for praising one of the referees on the FA panel? Ridiculous, surely? 

The already vulnerable world of football management has been made to look even more hazardous by Chelsea’s firing of Carlo Ancelotti. So winning the Double and coming second in the Premiership the next season smacks of failure? The autocratic Mr Abramovich could have pulled the trigger once too often as he searches for his seventh manager in seven years. 

With Birmingham set to join West Ham in the Championship next season, the Gold/Sullivan/Brady team have landed a notable double. What a capture Ms Brady has been for Lord Sugar as a mentor in The Apprentice!

The England & Wales Cricket Board are looking confidently forward to victory this summer in Test Matches against two of the world’s strongest sides, despite subjecting their long-suffering players to a winter programme which makes Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow look like a ski break. 

The Lawn Tennis Association seem to have neatly sidestepped any possible legacy from the successes of Henman and Murray. Expensive talent-spotting and coaching programmes have signally failed to produce anyone apart from Elena Baltacha with a top 100 ranking.

With unparalleled riches passing down from the broadcasters and sponsors, how tragic it is that our sporting administrators appear to lack ability in both problem-solving and decision making. 

Why? Does anyone know?

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