Art or science? Decision-making in rugby

New Zealand defeated Tonga in the opening game of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. AFP Photo/Franck Fife

RUGBY WORLD CUP – In the latest of The Conversation’s series on the Rugby World Cup, former Wallabies player, James Holbeck and Professor of Sport Science at Victoria University, Damian Farrow, discuss their research into how players make good decisions on the rugby field.

Making a decision on the rugby field is much like making a decision when driving a car or playing a game of chess.

In fact, the skilled rugby players are often the ones directing the plays, like chess masters moving their pieces anticpating many moves further on.

Indeed, rugby can be defined as a series of constantly evolving patterns, some more clearly structured than others but each phase of play requiring players to recognise, read and respond.

The 2011 Rugby World Cup provides an excellent opportunity to observe whether player decisions are instinctive or more process-driven, and how players perception relates to action.

Australian Wallabies training before the Rugby World Cup. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

James Holbeck: Two critical incidents from my early years playing rugby inspired me to further understand how players make decisions in sport.

On the first occasion, I was 14 years old when a ball was thrown behind me and as I turned to look at the defence moving towards me, I found a solution that allowed me to navigate through the traffic.

The second incident occurred the next year when I returned to the game after a back injury. I was about to pass the ball but my body reacted to the opposition moving out of the defensive line. Before I was consciously aware what had happened, I had dodged past them with an abrupt change of direction.

But post-injury this was more of an exception than a rule. Solutions still popped into my head but the ensuing message was somehow corrupted by a nervous system unable to physically execute the plan anymore.

Over time my perceptual system didn’t seem to even care for such ambitious options.

Both of these moments are examples of decision making without conscious thought, and this is the goal for players, to have complex solutions just appear instinctively.

Research has demonstrated that players recognise specific parts of a pattern in rugby, these elements signal how the pattern is likely to evolve and ultimately assist in generating a solution.

The more skilled the player, the better he is able to anticipate more quickly and accurately the outcome of a pattern.

In rugby, critical parts of a pattern that provide key clues might be a player racing up out of the defensive line or differences in the distance between defenders who are typically trying to maintain an equal spacing.

Damian Farrow: The traditional laboratory-based approach to examining pattern recognition has typically removed the distractions of catching and passing a rugby ball or interacting with other players.

We now simply ask participants to watch typical patterns of play presented on a computer screen and select the best option available with the click of a mouse or verbal response.

In rugby this might be where to pass the ball or move to based on the defensive structure.

Despite the separation of the decision process from acting out the resultant movement it has been demonstrated that more skilled players typically only generate one or two options, with the first more often being the most accurate.

In contrast, less skilled players generate more options, but perhaps overwhelmed by choice, invariably place the correct decision down the list.

Reconsidering James’ recollections, the decision in the first scenario was based on a conscious set of computations whereas in the second instance the defensive player racing out of the line triggered a more instinctive response.

Experimental evidence suggests that as performers respond to repeating patterns of visual stimuli this process evolves into a strongly coupled relationship between perception and action.

In essence movements become linked to perceptual information in the environment and when under time pressure players can “read the play” and react without the need to consciously think about finding a motor solution.

Former Australian rugby union player, David Campese after the Wallabies won the 1991 Rugby World Cup. AAP

This is illustrated by star of the 1991 Rugby World Cup, David Campese saying that he didn’t know what his feet were going to do next but he just followed them.

While David Campese’s dancing feet provided him opportunities, motor limitations can also restrict what opportunities are actually perceived and attended to by a player making a decision.

For instance, our research examines how perceived opportunities are dependent on a player’s passing proficiency.

Using video editing software we have horizontally flipped typical patterns of play to create the same elements in a spatially reversed order.

Put simply, the exact same pattern is shown evolving from left to right and right to left.

Consequently, the best passing option in a horizontally reversed pattern requires the opposite side of the body to be used relative to the un-flipped pattern.

Such a design allows direct consideration of whether pattern recognition and decision making are influenced by whether the required movement response is on the player’s preferred or non-preferred passing hand.

If passing proficiency is found to limit the options that are perceived then improving decision making might be as simple as improving this motor skill.

The difficult trick it would seem is to then make the motor response, such as the pass, automatically linked to the opportunity in the pattern that is recognised by the player.

With the Rugby World Cup upon us, we can now watch skilled rugby decision makers in action and they are able to find the best solutions to patterns of play.

A good practice strategy in your armchair during the World Cup is to test your decision making skills by attempting to predict what a player should do next, before it happens.

Like all grandstand experts, however, we do have the benefit of both hindsight and replays which diminishes the true essence of what it is to be an expert on the field – recognising in advance how the play will change and having the skills to make the right decision.

This is the third part of our Rugby World Cup series. To read the other parts, follow these links:

- Part one: Rugby World Cup: All Blacks, New Zealand Maori and the politics of the pitch

- Part two: What will the Rugby World Cup be worth to New Zealand

- Part three: Art or science? Decision making in rugby

- Part four: Rugby World Cup: Are cheats prospering?

- Part five: Rugby World Cup: The Australian situation

- Part six: Selling the Rugby World Cup

- Part seven: Rugby World Cup injuries: That’s gotta hurt

- Part eight: Rugby World Cup a lottery amid refereeing chaos

- Part nine: All Blacks’ proud tradition of the haka insulted in Rugby World Cup