Decision making, pressure & learning

Learn about what the OODA loop is, how is can explain good and bad decision making, how it can help fast track your coaching or learning, and how to expose the opposition by short circuiting their decision making process.

What is it?

Widely regarded as one of the greatest and least known military strategists of all time, John Boyd is a fighter pilot turned combat-philosopher. After revolutionising air combat, he turned his attention to conflict situations and desired to understand the mental processes that led to some individuals to perform well under pressure and others to crack. His theory developed around a mental process he termed the OODA loop – Observe, Orient, Decide & Act. This concept is still being used to this day by military all around the world, and, given its relevance across fields, has been picked up by savvy businesses and sporting teams as well. This article will reference basketball, but the concepts are relevant to all sports.

Elite sports is high pressure and requires lightning fast decision making. Very often, it is the ability to make correct decisions, and handle pressure, which is the limiting factor to successful performance. An athletes skill and athletic ability doesn’t change between training and competition, or between a good game and a bad game, and yet performance often fluctuates. More often than not, decision making under pressure is the ability which is responsible for inconsistent performance. If you can improve an athletes ability to consistently make good decisions, you uncap their skill and athletic potential. And when it comes to high pressure environments, the military are in a class of their own – making them an excellent recourse to learn from. Boyds OODA loop proves to be amazingly useful for sports and I’m surprised it hasn’t been utilised to a greater extent. It can explain performance, both allowing teams to improve their own and to hurt the opponents. Not only this but the model also provides valuable insight to how learning occurs and how to optimise your training to see real learning and transfer occur.

Mental Models

In order to better understand the relevance of Boyds OODA loop, it is important to understand that as we go through life we each develop certain mental models, or observation-expectation links, which help us work through life more efficiently while allowing us to be more attentive to important details. There is so much going on around us at any time that we cannot take it all in, consciously anyway. We tune out things going on around us that we deem irrelevant, in order to focus on what we see as important. That’s not to say we ignore them entirely, we tune them out, but only because we assume a certain event will play out, or will not. As long as the result is as we predicted it, we don’t worry about the details, often assuming them to have been exactly the same as every other time we’ve seen that event unfold. These events could be anything, from where a car traveling past us will be in a moments time, or what the stranger walking towards us on the street might do as they pass, or how a sporting team might balance and organise their defensive position. We make assumptions as to what will occur and then very often fail to notice any details which might prove different to previous experience.

Here’s an example many people are familiar with.

Inattentional Blindness – The Monkey Business Illusion

Most people when they first watch this fail to notice the Gorilla that walks through the middle of the video, something that becomes obvious once it’s been pointed out to you. Those who know to expect the gorilla often miss the other unexpected changes as well, emphasizing just how much we don’t pick up even in moments of concentration. Researchers call this inattentional blindness. We get so caught up on the task at hand, counting the passes, that we tune out the rest. Certainly that’s not a setting that anyone would expect a gorilla to appear in, and so we don’t notice it. Most people are shocked by their ability to miss this seemingly obvious appearance. But scary thing is, how much do we miss in everyday life? With such a focus on increasing efficiency and productivity we are spending more and more of our days engaging in ingrained habits, cycling through life, not stopping to appreciate the details. In sports this might be focusing so intently on the offensive set being run that we miss an opportunity to beat our opponent in a moment that they make themselves vulnerable. Oversights of this nature become even more damaging when considering learning and how it occurs. Missing an opportunity to beat an opponent is one thing, but hitting a learning road block that stalls your development can end careers before they’re made. We learn through experience but only when we notice and process important variables which are linked to outcomes. In basketball, better defenders will figure out what are fakes and what are real indicators of movement, allowing them to react and move earlier than a lesser skilled defender. Players that aren’t as engaged with the details going on in events around them are less likely to correctly discern between fakes and real indicators, will repeatedly make the same mistakes, and will fail to learn and adapt.

Value for Training Time

In Via Negativa the value of removing negative components in order to achieve a net benefit is described with regards to basketball training. This becomes relevant once again to this article when considering maximising value of available training time. Coaches are notoriously time poor, and certainly do need to develop skills of their players. However we tend to emphasise improving skills inside training and often neglect to spend time, or are unsure exactly how, to reduce the drop off in performance between performance in training and games. As was mentioned earlier, you don’t lose your skills overnight. Players often wonder how they can have a bad game after training so well the night before. Your ability to take in and process information before making a decision is the variable impacting performance. Something begins to cloud your ability to pick up information, relate it to your situation, and make a good decision access your physical abilities. Improving your ability to clearly pick up and use this information consistently is the real key to performance and learning/development. The OODA cycle helps present how and why these errors in judgement and learning can occur.

By spending time learning about and then addressing decision making under pressure in training, decision making under pressure, you are able to better tap into your skills and increase consistency of game performance.

OODA Overview

The beauty of his work is that it is quite simple to understand, yet the amount of detail that has gone into developing it and truly understanding how it works and impacts decisions is remarkable. This article will present what the OODA loop is on a basic level, and then will begin to ‘add’ to it increasing it’s complexity while providing insight on how to get more and more out of what it can offer.

The above image shows the basic version of the OODA loop. An individual observes what’s going on around them, orients the information to them, makes a decision based on the orientation phase and then acts to execute the decision.

This process is going on non-stop. As long as you are conscious then you are taking in information, you are observing. How you relate what you observe, to you and your spatial location in your surroundings, is the orientation phase. This is the key to learning, making sense of what you are seeing. Based on how you interpret this, with regards to the clarity of your goals, you make a decision. Following the decision comes the physical action. This action will cause a change, perhaps in your position or where the basketball is, and will require a response from the opposition player or team. Since the 10 players on the court are constantly moving both on their own accord and in response to your action, as soon as you begin executing an action your brain is already repeating the cycle ready to make adjustments ‘on the fly’ with following decisions and actions based on what’s observed and how your orient it to your situation.

When allowed enough time, this process runs smoothly and effectively and you can execute good decisions. However if this process is rushed or short-circuited then problems occur. Understanding the possible errors in this process provides valuable insight to how learning occurs, how to make good decisions under pressure and how to force the opposition into making poor decisions.

Observation Error

An observation error is to do with a lack of information input. Orientation is responsible for what you do with the information you have, but if you’re not getting enough information then you have an observation error. Observation comes from your senses and they are all quite important. The most important in basketball is your vision. Seeing the position of your team mates and opponent and yourself in relation to the basket is vital in order to predict future movements and make decisions. This is why so much time is spent trying to get junior basketballers to dribble with their head up. Early vision allows you to see early reactions from the opposition or see opportunities to exploit, such as gaps in the defense. It is a basic skill but it’s surprising just how often even professional players lose vision at pivotal times. To emphasise the value, consider the amount of intense training and work that goes into making players faster, all for but a centimetres improvement in actual performance. Early vision allowing an earlier reaction is enough to easily see the same or greater performance improvement. Here are a few moments you tend to see it happen, all are simply habits that can be changed, but can be tough to develop to the point of consistency given how ingrained they are.

  • On the catch: players often receive a pass, whether it be on the wing or in the post and fail to see the floor, often consumed by their individual defender. Better players will already be aware of both their individual defender and any help defense and the moment they catch the ball their eyes are up continuing to take it in. Gaps open and close in a fraction of a second and if a players eyes are down or focused on the wrong area they’re not going to see them.

  • First dribble: This one is seen frequently on rip through drives to the basket. A player makes a decision to beat their opponent and put the ball on the floor to blow by them, often with their head down. This removes all vision of help defense. Seeing a help defenders early reaction, or lack there of, can influence their move to the basket or a pass to a team mate, often preventing them from dribbling into trouble or putting up a tough contested shot.

  • Help defense: An obvious one, players get caught up ball watching and next minute they’re getting back door cut. Or the reverse is true, they might be overly concerned with their own player scoring and aren’t in a position to provide a defensive rotation to help out their teammates.

Early vision allows early decisions leading to early movement. Every effort should be made to prioritise a players vision.

Orientation Error

An orientation error is to do with an inability to properly relate what is going on around you, to your individual situation. How you interpret what you see will impact the following decision making process. This phase is of course dependant on the information provided from the observation stage. However, better players will be able to do more with less, better relating the information they have to their current situation and doing so in a shorter amount of time. This allows them to make better decisions, quicker. This phase is also a key to learning. Players who make an error, but take in information in this phase, absorbing it like a sponge, are more likely to learn from that moment and not make the same mistake next time. Players who rush through this stage are less likely to learn from each moment and will repeat the same errors under pressure.

Really this stage is overlapping the observation stage rather than being an entirely different ‘phase’, the quicker you can begin orienting yourself to what you’re actually seeing the more likely you are to reach a good decision. Players who take longer to start processing what they are seeing will have less time to properly orient themselves to the environment and are more likely to reach a poor decision.

Here’s a revised model of the OODA process considering the overlap between Observation and Orientation with the delay shown between where experts and novices might start processing what they are seeing. Earlier processing allows more time to reach a better decision.

If you were to watch a junior basketball game you’ll see a lot of horrible passes out of pressure moments, such as a double team. If you were to ask these players what they could see or what they were thinking when they made that pass, very often the players aren’t aware of much at all, that moment is a blur. They can’t remember open players up the floor, or where the defender in the passing lane came from, because they get so consumed with the defender immediately in front of them. This is a difficult situation to learn from, and the game moves so quickly that very often players are right onto the next play without time to properly reflect on the error even at a subconscious level making it less likely that they’ll learn from it. Assuming these players heads are up allowing vision (not an observation error), then they are rushing through the orientation phase at lightning speed, getting very little out of it. Better players are able to learn more from each moment subconsciously without needing time to pause afterwards. The key is for players to relax and see these moments as learning opportunities. Errors aren’t intrinsically bad, at least at training, if you learn from them. You have far greater learning potential from errors than you do from successful plays. Successful plays often mean a player is playing within their limits, whereas an error generally means the player is pushing their boundaries. If instead of seeing a turnover as a negative, something that will get them benched or yelled at or look silly in font of parents and friends, players see them as opportunity to learn, then their attitude towards these moments is completely different. For one, the amount of stress they feel when in these moments decreases significantly. The military has done research into this area and found that negative emotions actually reduce available working memory, reducing how much you can process at any one time. If we consistently enforce to players that turnovers and mistakes are bad, and things that should be avoided, and things that they should feel bad for, then they will in fact feel bad for making them, will be less likely to learn from them and will either continue to make the mistake or will avoid that situation all together, restricting their development. Interestingly, positive emotions, particularly ones like gratitude, perhaps for a team mate making an extra pass, actually free up working memory increasing how much you can take in from each moment. Paying attention to emotions throughout a basketball game might just hold some keys to increasing learning and performance. This information contrasts with many players tendencies to swear or drop their head after making an error – a response conditioned by an assumption that they need to prove to their coach, or team mates, or parents that they feel badly for making an error on the court.

Often it’s said that better players see the game in slow motion. Of course the game is being played at the same speed for everyone, but if an expert player is entering the orientation phase earlier than another player, then they are able to better process that information allowing them to make a better decision faster, and learn more from each moment. So there are two ways an expert might have an advantage over a novice with regards to the orientation phase.

  1. Experts begin orienting to their environment earlier than a novice, allowing them to start processing the information earlier

Enter the orientation phase earlier

  1. Experts are more efficient at orienting to what they are observing and need less time to make a decision

Reach the decide phase earlier and therefor have a smaller and faster OODA circle compared to a novice. This allows them to act earlier and make subsequent decisions sooner.

  1. Super-experts are probably better at both

Decision Making Error

Players might take in all the information they need, orient their environment to their own situation quite well and still make an incorrect decision. This is generally a lack of experience, they just haven’t seen that situation or similar ones unfold enough times to know what works and what doesn’t in that moment. The good news is that if they are getting enough information in, and they have a clear idea of what their intention/goal is in that moment, then they should learn very quickly, remembering that moment, the decision and the result to make an improved decision next time.

Remember, a good decision is often choosing not to act. If a decision to not act is made, players continue to cycle through the observation-orientation phases until a decision to act is made.

Action Error

The action is dependant on the decision, you can’t separate the two. This is why it is so important to train skills with elements of decision making specific to competition. As soon as a player makes a decision to act, the player has an intention. This starts firing in the brain which sends a signal to the required muscles. The action is how the player attempts to execute the intention. The decision might be to cut off another player defensively, or to dribble past a player offensively. The action is how this is achieved. It’s important to know that the body doesn’t intrinsically care about technique when learning the best way to achieve the intention. Through trial and error, players learn the quickest and most efficient means of achieving the desire intent. Bad habits that might be learnt early in the players development can become hindrances to this natural learning process and are often still seen in older players. These habits might be learnt for a variety of reasons. Perhaps a player has recently experienced a growth spurt and lacks the core strength at that stage of their junior development to get into ideal sprinting positions, instead adopting taller, slower positions which don’t stress the players back as much. A player might have a coach who consistency plays them full games and runs long training sessions, thus the player learns to conserve energy in expectation of long sessions and learns to avoid over exerting themselves in game moments, often turning them into a less explosive, lazier player.  Natural movement tendencies can also be overrode by coaches drilling certain techniques. Slower defensive players sliding when they should be hip turning and running is a residual habit from the strong emphasis coaching has on teaching that defense = sliding. Better defensive players, who ironically often get coached in defense less given they already excel at it, have figured out that they are better to start in a quick movement and revert to a slide if suitable, rather than starting in a slide then realising they need to be on the run. These bad habits often require ‘prompting’ in which drills or situations are constructed which encourage the player to move in more efficient or effective movement patterns. If the player feels comfortable with these and they truly are more efficient or effective, the player will begin to adopt these changes, similar to a hermit crab moving out of a tight fitting shell to a new more suitable one. It does this for no reason other than it is more comfortable and suits it better.

So there are 3 possible action errors

  1. Incorrect movement option – for example choosing to slide when they should be hip turning and running. This could perhaps be argued to be a decision making error but if the decision was to cut off the offensive players drive, then the action chosen follows that initial decision and it was a movement error. This is why it is so important to avoid separating skills training and decision making whenever possible, you can’t and should not be separating decision making and actions.

  2. Correct movement option but incorrect execution – a technique problem, they might be trying to run but their foot position or body angle isn’t conducive to an explosive movement.

  3. Correct movement option and execution but a lack of physical ability (strength/speed/power etc) – This is generally the field of strength and conditioning to improve, but as you’ll see it is only one part of 3 noted errors in the action phase, which is only one part of the greater OODA cycle. Yes it is very important to target physical improvements, but is important to keep it in perspective and ensure that we are not over-investing in any one area when perhaps the weak link is somewhere else in the process.

Cycle Speed

As mentioned, one action leads to a change in the environment which results in more observation, orientation, another decision and generally another action. However to think of this cycle completing a loop, an action starting and finishing (such as deciding and executing a jump shot), then cycling through again after the ball leaves the hands would be too simple. The cycle is working through at a much faster rate. Think about a player beginning to make a pass, or shoot a shot, and adjusting at the last moment in response to a defenders hand to perform a different action. While they were still executing the initial decision, they were simultaneously processing new information and were able to make a new decision in response to change their initial action. Better players will repeat these OODA cycles faster, allowing them to refine their actions based on their oppositions movements very quickly, taking advantage of any errors they might have made. Poorer players will commit to their original decision despite changes to the environment and are unable to adapt ‘on the fly’ like experts. They often appear to have ‘premeditated’ their action, when in reality they probably did make their decision in response to the opposition, based on the information they had, and it was either the incorrect decision to begin with, or between when they made the decision and when they executed the action, the situation changed and it was no longer the correct decision giving the appearance of ‘premeditation’ irrespective of the opposition. The latter caused by a slow OODA cycle speed.

Short Circuit the Opposition

Here’s where you can take what you’ve learnt about decision making under pressure and use it against the opposition. Picture an offensive player with the ball with a defensive player in front of them. Both players are going through this OODA cycle in their heads, over and over again. Both players are going through the OODA cycle trying to beat the other. The offensive player will be both aware of the defender in front of them, perhaps ready to exploit any poor movements they might make, while paying attention to their team mates who are running the offense. If no pressure is applied, the offensive player can comfortably go through their decision making process, perhaps picking off a team mate with a pass as they run off a planned screen. If no pressure is applied then the defense is reactive to the offense, since the offense has the ball. The offensive player has the advantage, since they have the ball and the defender must react to anything they might do. A reactive moment occurs much faster and doesn’t allow as much time to be spent in the orientation phase before a decision has to be reached, as such these moments are more prone to error. So a passive defender who is simply standing between their player and the basket isn’t interfering at all with their opponents OODA and is often allowing them to run through the offensive set they have practiced over and over again, or perhaps plan their individual attacking move. However, if the defender were to jab in and out at the ball, really to do anything which bothers or distracts the offensive player, they will disrupt the offensive players OODA cycle, creating a change, and forcing the offensive player to analyse the change and return to the start of the decision making process. They have short-circuited the OODA loop. This becomes particularly advantageous when you think about how much time each week teams spend refining their offensive sets, all designed to set up, and catch out the defense. The best way to reduce their advantage is to take them out of their offense. They might run the offense perfectly, getting a player wide open under the basket, but if in that brief moment that the cutter is open the ball carrier is bothered by the on ball defense jabbing in and out then it doesn’t matter how good the offensive set was – the ball didn’t get to the open player.

So how does the offense prevent the defense from short circuiting their decision making process? Retake the advantage. The offense has the ball and can dictate the terms. If on the very first catch, the offensive player throws an aggressive pass fake or perhaps a rip and jab fake, the defender must react. Straight away the defender is on the back-foot, their OODA has been short circuited and they are reacting to the offense, rather than sitting there planning the offensive players demise. This also provides the offensive player valuable information about how the defender will react, are they overly reactive to fakes or are they heavy footed and slow to react? A player better at maximising the orientation phase will be able to pick up more of this useful information while still engaging in the offense. This information might lead to a catch and rip through on the next set down the court. The offensive player can build this catch and rip/fake habit to be automatic and not distract them from seeing the rest of the floor. It becomes automatic and doesn’t consume concentration of the offensive player, but the defender has to respect it and react to it, consuming their concentration. This also gives them more time and space to make a good decision, they don’t feel as pressured by the defender, for one because they know that the defender is reacting to them – they are in control, and two because they actually have increased their separation from the defender (since the defender has jumped back or to the side slightly in response to the fake). By building this one habit, every offensive catch is now better value, providing information and reducing pressure. This also allows the offensive player to learn and get more out of each play, without needing to put the ball on the floor or shoot. They’re building and refining mental maps learning in which moments the defense was vulnerable and what it was in reaction to. Players that pick up this information throughout a game will learn more from each game and will develop faster than other players in their decision making and reaction time.

When you consider these two players, one offensive and the other defensive, and their OODA cycles, you’ll notice it’s almost a race or tug of war, to see who can influence and pressure the other to ‘take them out of their game’. You might hear of certain players getting in the heads of their opposition. For whatever reason, they’ve managed to consistently short circuit their oppositions OODA cycle. When you consider this, it becomes obvious that the best defense, is to attack. The best way to protect yourself from the opposition ramping up the pressure and bothering your OODA cycle, is to first do that to them. To do nothing, is not just to avoid pressuring them, but intrinsically leaves you vulnerable to them short circuiting your OODA cycle.

Momentum

Just as there is a OODA tug of war going on between two players, there is a tug of war going on between both teams. There are 5 players for each team on the court going through their own OODA cycles, but in the context of their teams offensive or defensive rules. The more in-sync the 5 players are the greater the synergy. If one team can consistently short circuit the opposition and have them reacting on the back foot, they develop momentum. Much the same as when one side in tug of war increase their effort at the same time and develop some momentum. Momentum becomes very difficult to stop and very often the worse thing you can do is play it safe in these moments and stop attacking. This is also seen towards the end of games when a team is up and they stop being aggressive in their offense, instead using up the clock. So frequently in these moments the losing team is able to make a run at the end of a game, perhaps because the passive offense of passing the ball around to use up the clock means there is no pressure to short circuit the defenders OODA cycles. They are able to sit in their defensive set, planning how best to take advantage of their opposition and disrupt their OODA cycles.

Part of the reason momentum and close games tend to produce consistent breakdowns in decision making might link back to the impact of emotions as touched on earlier. As negative emotions, such as the stress and fear of blowing a lead and losing, begin to build, it appears that available working memory (potential concentration levels) of the 5 players on the court will decrease, meaning they take in less information and make poorer decisions. On the flip side, as the losing team is given a glimmer of hope, they can play quite carefree since they are down and have nothing too lose from this point. Every positive event increases how good they feel and free’s up their working memory allowing them to better process events around them and capitalize on errors the opposition might make.

Making the most of your time on the bench or out injured

Before concluding this article, it is important to recognize the value Boyd’s OODA loop provides when considering the time a player might spend off the court when injured or on the bench. The first 3 phases, observation, orientation and decision making, all occur in the brain. None require physical action. Given that a hinderance to learning is the emotional involvement and the fact that the game moves so quickly from moment to moment, reflection or an ability to see the whole play is hard to do. However if you’re not involved in the play, you are in a great position to cycle through the first 3 phases and make great decisions while reflecting on the outcome. This seperation from the heat of the moment is often why coaches can see things that players on the floor cant. Players on the bench have the exact same vantage point. If you can learn more and refine your mental models or maps  in these moments, then you can give yourself a significant advantage and help increase the speed of your development in relation to those around you. Long term this would be improved learning and development, short term this might be better reaction times or decision making when you step on the court. There is strong evidence showing that if you can feel yourself involved in the play, your brain goes through the same neutral firings, and send the same signals to muscles, that it does when it actually performs the action itself. This is why mental visualization is such an effective tool for maintaining skills or strength while unable to physically train.

Understanding the OODA cycle and how it relates to both your ability to both make good decisions under pressure and learn and develop, can help illuminate ways to make the most of each training session and game, providing you a clear advantage over your opponents.