Factors Triggering Pressure on Basketball Coaches’ In-Game Decision-Making

Authors: E. Nicole McCluney, Bryan A. McCullick, Paul G. Schempp

Corresponding Author: Bryan A. McCullick, Ph. D.
355 Ramsey Center
Department of Kinesiology
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602
bamccull@uga.edu
706-542-3621

E. Nicole McCluney is a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia. Bryan A. McCullick is a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia. Paul G. Schempp is a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia.

Factors Triggering Pressure on Basketball Coaches’ In-Game Decision-Making 

ABSTRACT
High-stakes decision-making has been long studied in psychology and business, however, scholars have only recently begun to focus attention towards this type of decision-making in the coaching field. Coaches make a multitude of decisions many of which may be high-stakes (22), but there has yet to be an empirical investigation of coaches’ in-game decision-making under pressure. The purpose of this study was to determine which performance-related factors (stressors) create the greatest pressure (strain) on basketball coaches’ in-game decision-making. Male and female basketball coaches (N=205) with an average of 19.77 years’ experience were asked to separately rate 14 stressors based on whether it caused intense (1), moderate (2), or low (3) pressure on in-game decision making. Descriptive statistics were calculated to determine which stressors caused intense, moderate, and low pressure on coaches’ in-game decision making for the entire sample and based on gender, years of experience, current coaching position, educational level, gender of athletes coaching, and level of athletes coaching. Stressors rated as creating the most intense pressure on these coaches’ in-game decision-making were Expectations of Self, Importance of Eventual Outcome, and Quality of Preparation. The stressors rated as creating low pressure were Others’ Expectations, Venue, and Your Physical Well-Being. Coaching position, gender of coach, years of experience, and the gender of athletes coaching, all rated Expectations of Self, Quality of Preparation and Importance of Eventual Outcome as the stressors creating the most intense pressure. The level of athletes being coached yielded a minor difference as more high-school level coaches rated Amount of Preparation as creating intense pressure as opposed to college coaches who rated Importance of Eventual Outcome as creating intense pressure in their in-game decision-making. The results provide some of the first data regarding which factors create the most pressure on coaches’ in-game decision-making. Differences between high-school and college coaches may be indicative that the type of decision, whether high-stakes or not, significantly impacts the level of pressure experienced by coaches during competition. These data are important as they can provide guidance to researchers in how to design studies of coaches’ pressurized, in-game decision-making processes.

Keywords: Decision-making, high-stakes, coaching, competition, pressure, basketball coaches

INTRODUCTION
It seems that no matter the context, the concept of pressure (i.e., strain) is pervasive in and permeates any discussion about sport. Conversations about sport performance are incomplete without the consideration of pressure and its effects on the performer. Athletes are revered for their ability to perform when experiencing vast amounts of it or their ability to ignore or compartmentalize it. Similarly, when exchanges about the performance of coaches take place, inevitably, the dialogue contains a mention of his or her ability to execute while ‘under pressure.’ Even scrutiny of officials and referees cannot be complete without an evaluation of how they make calls with the ‘pressure is on.’

It should come as no surprise that when the term ‘pressure’ is mentioned it is usually accompanied by ‘decision-making.’ Abraham and Collins (1) astutely noted that “coaching environments encompass pedagogical, social, and sociopolitical contexts that require decisions to be made, where possible against ‘external criteria,’ on how to interact with and influence (and be influenced by) various stakeholders” (p. 378). Given that coaching is an act whereby (a) decisions are made in an unpredictable and ever-changing environment, and (b) occurs in many contexts which can be considered high-stakes, one’s ability to make ‘good’ decisions while under pressure is viewed as a desirable trait in a coach. Since coaches are charged with making a majority of decisions during competition where time constraints and other factors might not allow for carefully considered decision-making it makes sense that learning about the nature of how coaches experience ‘pressure’ when making decisions in-competition is a worthwhile endeavor in the study of coaching performance. However, before studies of how coaches make decisions under pressure, it is essential to analyze what factors (i.e., stressors) create the most pressure on coaches’ decision-making during competition.

One of the many memorable examples of a coach’s decision-making during a high-stakes game was the 1992 NCAA Basketball Tournament quarter-final game between Duke University and the University of Kentucky which has been labeled by many as the greatest NCAA basketball game in history. Tied at the end of regulation, the game went to overtime whereby Kentucky held a one-point lead with only 2.1 seconds remaining. Duke’s Grant Hill in-bounded the ball by throwing a nearly court-length pass to Christian Laettner who made an astounding, buzzer-beating shot to win. Kentucky’s coach, Rick Pitino, made a decision to leave the player inbounding the ball unguarded. Since there was no one defending Hill, he was able to make a difficult pass uncontested which, ultimately, cost Kentucky the game. Pitino later explained that his decision-making process included incorrectly believing that the inbound would occur from the sideline opposed to the baseline which led to his decision to double-teaming Laettner, Duke’s best shooter. Not wanting to foul anyone and give Duke a chance to win at the free-throw line, Kentucky players were directed not to foul at any cost. In the end, the decision made by Pitino under intense pressure proved to be disastrous for his team. Which factor(s) triggered the most pressure on Pitino during his decision-making in this scenario is uncertain. If it was inaccurate information, one wonders why he came to it and, moreover, failed to check its’ accuracy.

While the nature of pressure on high-stakes decision-making has been well studied in the psychology (17, 5), business (6), and law-enforcement (4) literature, it has surprisingly received little attention from scholars in coaching science (8). These efforts are somewhat astonishing since coaches make a multitude of decisions (16), many of which may be thought as having a high-stakes nature. Such decisions include but are not limited to: a) staff assembly, b) athlete recruitment c) practice planning, d) scheduling, e) off-season training, and f) in-game decision-making. Only recently has there been a modicum of scholarly efforts to examine pressure and decision-making in the coaching field. Those studies related to pressure and decision-making have been closely tied to how they contribute to coach burnout (21), factors that create pressure related to, but are not made during, competition (11), how those factors affect coaches’ ability to cope with the pressure (23), and how well coaches perform the decision-making process (10).

Further complicating our ability to know more about the nature of coaches’ decision-making during competition is that only a few studies have, peripherally, attempted to target coaches’ decision-making during a context resembling competition. Jones, Housner, and Kornspan (12) examined basketball coaches’ decision-making during practice and found that more experienced coaches were significantly more likely to stay with planned practice activities because of a higher tolerance of inadequate player behavior in planned practice activities whereas less-experienced coaches made immediate changes when player performance did not match what they had anticipated. Another study focused on coaches’ decision-making about a competition—but prior to starting, not during competition. In that investigation, Vergeer and Lyle (24) found that more experienced gymnastics coaches considered more factors than novice coaches when making decisions about athlete participation. Furthermore, experienced coaches were better able to focus on the root of the problem in the context of specific situations.

Despite the attention given thus far, there still have been no empirical attempts to understand which factors most stimulate pressure on coaches’ decision-making during a competition. Recently, Jones and Corsby (11) argued that scholars would best serve the field if more attempts to “better interpret coaches’ sense making—why and how they make their decisions” (p. 439). We contend that one small, yet essential, step toward building this understanding is to know what factors trigger the most intense pressure on coaches’ decision-making during competition, Therefore, the purpose of this study was to determine which performance-related factors (stressors) create the greatest pressure (strain) on basketball coaches’ in-game decision-making.

METHODS
This was an initial investigation into basketball coaches’ in-game decision-making. A review of research literature yielded similar high-stakes decision-making studies in other fields (4, 18, 5). From those studies, it was determined that a survey design was best suited to answer our research questions.

Questionnaire Development
Given that no previously used questionnaires regarding basketball coaches’ in-game decision-making were available, one was developed to meet the needs of this investigation. An extensive review of the literature regarding high-stakes decision-making revealed surprisingly few studies using sports coaches and the decision-making during games. However, studies on decision-making in the military (2), law enforcement (4) and in coaching as a profession (13, 22, 23) provided guidance on factors that influence decision-making in a scenario where time and high-stakes were a pressure-inducing influence.

Per the findings from those studies, a questionnaire was designed and pilot-tested with the coaching staff of a NCAA Division I men’s basketball team. The pilot test determined the feasibility as well as the amount of time needed to administer and complete the questionnaire. More importantly, the pilot-test assisted in confirming the usability and clarity of the questionnaire items as pilot test participants were asked to add any items that might not have initially been included.

Once the pilot test was complete, we calculated descriptive statistics using IBM SPSS Statistics Program (v. 24), a statistical software package, to help determine any irregularities in the items. The pilot test participants suggested only two additional items, but neither were deemed relevant to in-game decision-making. The questionnaire was estimated to take no more than 10 minutes to complete and all items were determined both appropriate and easily understood.

Participants
Participants were 205 male (n = 155) and female (n = 50) basketball coaches with an average of 19.27 (SD = 11.34) years’ experience. Of these coaches, 50.7% (n = 107) were currently coaching males, 43.1% (n = 91) coaching females, and 3.3% (n = 7) coached both. Respondents were predominantly Head Coaches (n = 139) while the remainder identified themselves as an “Assistant Coach” or “Other.” Coaches at the high school level (n = 124) represented 58.8% of the respondents while the balance coached at the college (n=80) and club (n=1) levels. The educational level of the coaches in this study varied. The majority had a college degree with 139 of the survey completers having a master’s degree or higher. Geographically, the coaches emanated from 37 states.

Data Collection
The participants were contacted for possible participation using two primary techniques. The first approach was to contact executive directors of existing state basketball coaches’ associations (Table 1) and ask if our survey could be distributed to their members. We identified 32 such organizations. If the association leadership agreed, a cover letter and link to the survey was emailed to the executive director who then forwarded the letter and link en masse to members. A follow-up email requesting the materials to be sent once more was sent two weeks after an executive director agreed to distribute the survey to the members.

Table 1

To increase the number of possible participants, email addresses of the men’s and women’s basketball coaching staff for all 31 Division I athletic conferences (Table 2) were collected from the school’s website. We obtained email addresses for the Head Coach (HC) and Assistant Coaches’ (AC) only. Other staff members such as “Director of Basketball Operations” and “Graduate Assistant” were excluded because of the variation in what the individuals in those positions were tasked with doing in relation to coaching basketball. Once an email list was compiled, the letter and link to the survey was mailed. After two weeks, a follow-up email was sent to coaches who had not responded asking once again for their participation.

Table 2

Data Analysis
Descriptive statistics were calculated to determine which stressors caused intense, moderate, and low pressure on coaches’ in-game decision-making. The lower the mean score, the more intense the pressure created by the stressor. Additionally, descriptive statistics for the entire sample and, then, sub-groups based on gender, years of experience, current coaching position, educational level, gender of athletes coaching, and level of athletes coaching were calculated.

RESULTS
The purpose of this study was to determine which performance-related factors (stressors) create the greatest pressure (strain) on basketball coaches’ in-game decision-making. To identify these factors, means and standard deviations were calculated to determine which factors caused the most pressure on coaches’ in-game decision-making. The lower the mean score, the greater the factor was perceived to produce pressure in coaches’ in-game decision-making.

Table 3

Data for all 14 stressors were rated by the participants are presented in Table 4. The top three stressors rated as creating the most pressure on these coaches’ in-game decision-making were Expectations of Self (M=1.23, SD=0.46), Importance of Eventual Outcome (M=1.51, SD=0.60), and Quality of Preparation (M=1.53, SD=0.66). The stressors rated as creating the least amount of strain on these coaches’ in-game decision-making were Others’ Expectations (M=2.30, SD=0.64), Venue (M=2.25, SD=0.67), and Your Physical Well-Being (M=2.21, SD=0.73).

Table 4

When dividing the sample by current coaching status (head or assistant coach), gender of coach, gender of athletes coaching, and educational level of the coach the top three stressors of Expectations of Self, Importance of Eventual Outcome, and Quality of Preparation remained the same. These demographic groups’ means and standard deviations are presented in Table 5. However, when categorizing the participants by (a) years of coaching experience, and (b) level of athletes coached there were slight differences in the top three factors causing the most stress in these coaches’ in-game decision-making.

Table 5

Perhaps the most interesting difference came when separating the sample by the level of athletes coached. High School coaches (n=124) rated Expectations of Self (M= 1.22, SD= .47), Quality of Preparation (M= 1.54, SD= .67), and Amount of Preparation (M= 1.59, SD= .68) as causing the most pressure on their in-game decision-making. Whereas college level coaches’ (n=80) top three stressors were Expectations of Self (M= 1.24, SD= .45), Importance of Eventual Outcome (M= 1.54, SD= .67), and Quality of Preparation (M= 1.50, SD= .65) Furthermore, minor differences were found when college level coaches were categorized by the level of competition. Coaches from Division I (n=52) rated Expectations of Self (M= 1.27, SD= .49), Importance of Eventual Outcome (M= 1.33, SD= .55), and Quality of Preparation (M= 1.52, SD= .70) as their top three. Division II coaches (n=10) equally ranked Expectations of Self, Amount of Preparation, and Quality of Preparation (M= 1.30, SD= .48) while Division III coaches (n=18) rated Expectations of Self (M= 1.11, SD= .32), Importance of Eventual Outcome (M= 1.44, SD= .51), and, equally, Amount of Time to Make Decision and Quality of Preparation (M= 1.56, SD= .62) as the three factors causing the most stress on their in-game decision-making.

The educational level of coaches also resulted in minor differences in what the coaches felt caused the most in-game pressure on their decision-making. Coaches with a graduate degree (n=139) indicated that the three factors causing the most stress on their in-game decision-making were Expectations of Self (M= 1.24, SD= .49), Quality of Preparation (M= 1.55, SD= .67), and Amount of Preparation (M= 1.63, SD= .70). Those with a bachelor’s degree or less (n=66), however, rated Expectations of Self (M= 1.21, SD= .49), Importance of Eventual Outcome (M= 1.41, SD= .58), and Quality of Preparation (M= 1.48, SD= .63).

Each participant was asked to indicate the number of years they have coached basketball and 94% (n=193) responded. Coaches were classified as being (a) Early Career (0-15 years), (b) Mid-Career (16-24 years) and (c) Late Career (25 or more years). The results revealed that early career coaches (n= 84) rated Expectations of Self, Quality of Preparation, and Importance of Eventual Outcome as factors causing the most pressure on their in-game decision-making. Both mid-career and late career coaches rated these factors in a slightly different order with Expectations of Self remaining highest rated pressure-causing factor, followed by Importance of Eventual Outcome and Quality of Preparation.

DISCUSSION
As Thelwell and colleagues (22) determined, coaches experience two primary categories of stressors: (a) Performance-related, and (b) Organization-related. This study sought to extend this area of investigation by identifying what a large group of coaches believed about which specific stressors trigger the most strain (stress) on their decision-making during competition. The results of the study provide not only one of the first looks into this phenomenon but have clearly indicated that basketball coaches, in particular, appear to experience very common stressors that create and, presumably, exacerbate stress that influences their in-game decision-making.

Given that the literature regarding decision-making under pressure is, at best, minimal when it comes to coaches’ in-game decision-making, it is appropriate to, first, discuss our findings in light of studies done in other areas. Perhaps the largest disconnect between the findings of this study as a whole and those from other areas such as psychology (14, 15) and law enforcement (4) is that these coaches did not consider external stressors such as time pressure as exerting the most strain on their in-game decision-making. For example. The coaches in this study did not consider the “Others Expectations (e.g., superiors, administration, media, athletes, staff)” as a stressor that created intense strain on their in-game decision-making. Interestingly, the coaches in this study ranked factors that were more internal in nature and could ostensibly be controlled by the coach such as “Expectations of Self,” “Amount of Preparation,” and “Quality of Preparation” which Thelwell et al. (22) would classify as “performance-related—Coach sources of stressors” (p. 911). While the current study only sought to analyze what coaches perceived to be the intensity caused by stressors, this finding is somewhat in contrast to Thelwell and colleagues’ contention that “coaches experience approximately 50% of their performance stressors via their athletes, whom in essence are largely uncontrollable” (p. 916). It should be noted that while these coaches were not selected for participation based on, nor was there any attempt to gauge, their expertise level. The results indicate there may have been a high level of expertise among them in that their concerns tended to be with factors that can be controlled rather than those extraneous and irrelevant to the task at hand (20).

Although the participation criteria for this study was not limited to participants deemed as experts, the findings align with evidence from studies specifically targeting expert coaches. For example, the basketball coaches’ top-rated factors (Expectations of Self, Quality of Preparation, Amount of Preparation, Importance of Eventual Outcome) creating pressure on the in-game decision were relevant to their instruction and within their own control (20). Likewise, the basketball coaches indicated the factors causing the least amount of pressure on their decision-making abilities during competition included Others’ Expectations, Venue, and Your Physical Well-Being. Except for their own physical well-being, these variables are typically beyond the coaches’ jurisdiction. Such external factors generally have little influence on the coaches’ ability to adequately coach the team by providing plenty of quality practice and setting high expectations for themselves. Conducting a study like this one among coaches with various levels of expertise may be a worthwhile endeavor to determine which stressors triggering the most intense strain may be a product of expertise.

This study and its results are a response to Arnold and colleagues’ (3) call for studying demographic differences when it comes to sport performers’ experiences of stressors in that coaches most certainly can be classified as sport performers (22). Specifically, this study analyzed the data among different groups of coaches. In this sample, no differences were found when coaches were grouped coach gender, the gender of athletes being coached, and current coaching status. This finding suggests a level of consistency that might be related to the nature of the sport in which these coaches worked (14). It may be that basketball and other team-based, time limited, invasion sports coaches may present a structure that explains the consistency of the findings when coaches were grouped by various demographics. Future investigations into whether the type of sport may elicit different stressors as triggering the most strain is warranted. It could be that coaches of individual (golf, tennis, etc.) and aesthetic sports (gymnastics, diving, & ice-skating) may provide a different set of results as a whole or by demographic groups.

At face-value, one may deduce from these findings that the coaches in the sample were indicative of those who may be experiencing the psychological phenomenon of perfectionism (7). It should be noted that this study was not a psychological evaluation of whether the participants were indeed perfectionists nor was it aimed at determining if they were, whether it was negative or positive in nature. However, the fact that the stressors believed to trigger the most strain were wholly ‘coach-centric’ has implications for those concerned with the causes of burnout in coaches. It stands to reason that if coaches’ believe that their in-game decision making is most intensely affected by Expectations of Self and then those decisions do not result in positive results, there is a heightened possibility of coaches experiencing the more negative outcomes of perfectionism such as “anxiety…fear of failure, self-esteem, performance success, self-presentational concerns, and coping strategies” (21, p. 196). All of which have been strongly linked to burnout (9).

The few inconsistencies among demographic groups in this study emerged when coaches were separated by whether they coached at the high school or college level. We speculate that this is due to the differences in the stakes at each level. Arguably, in most instances, intercollegiate sport (in this case, basketball) may be considered more high-stakes than interscholastic sport. Perhaps another explanation for this difference is sports’ position in the interscholastic and intercollegiate landscapes. This might be more of a North American phenomenon where win/loss record can be the deciding factor in whether a coach maintains his or her job, and, ideally, high school sports are supposed to be part of the overall educational experience while collegiate sports are more closely aligned with professional sports. As such, the eventual outcome causes greater pressure for college coaches and the emphasis on winning is greater. Furthermore, it is more likely that job security is more attached to a coach’s performance at the college level than at the high-school level. While an argument could be made that in many high school coaching situations, job security is related to win-loss records, in an overwhelming majority of cases, high school coaches’ primary professional obligation is as a faculty or staff member. Thus, a high-performing teacher and/or is tenured and coaches after-school has a luxury that many college coaches do not. That luxury is that whether s/he is summarily removed as a coach a reliable source of income and other benefits would still exist from employment as a teacher. Given the high-stakes nature of the college coach’s job, it stands to reason that the college coaches in this study rated Importance of Eventual Outcome as creating intense pressure because their job security is impacted by such outcomes. Despite the fact that one could argue that it is somewhat similar in both college and high school environments, college coaches’ win-loss record maybe a more important factor for their career advancement. This seems, again, logical in that college coaches’ job is solely coaching and variability in salaries among college coaches is wider than high school coaches. Therefore, if a coach wants career advancement, for example, from assistant coach to head coach or from a smaller to a larger program, a major indicator of effectiveness is a win-loss record.

A study investigating coaches under pressure over the last four decades revealed the most frequently noted sources of coaches’ pressures as parents of the athletes, fans, the school board, and the coach themselves (19). Additionally, that study found that from 1970s to the 2000s, reasons for the dismissal of coaches consistently included ‘failure to win’ as a major factor. During the 1980s, win/loss records were deemed the most important variables in the hiring and firing of coaches. By the 2000s, failure to win had fallen to fourth in ranks as a reason for coaches’ dismissal.

Moreover, statistical analyses according to demographic groups were comparable to the overall results. The demographic breakdown demonstrated high levels of consistency in the rating of the top three factors. Although slight differences were observed in the order of which coaches rated pressurized factors, each categorical analysis revealed that Expectations of Self, Importance of Eventual Outcome, Quality of Preparation, and Amount of Preparation were perceived as the causing intense pressure by all demographic groups. More significantly, Expectations of Self emerged as the number one factor overall as well as within each subgroup of the sample population. These findings are consistent with evidence from research on becoming an expert coach.

CONCLUSIONS
The results provide some of the first data regarding which factors create the most pressure on coaches’ in-game decision-making. Differences between high-school and college coaches may be indicative that the type of decision, whether high-stakes or not, significantly impacts the level of pressure experienced by coaches during competition. These data are important as they can provide guidance to researchers in how to design studies of coaches’ pressurized, in-game decision-making processes. A prevalent line of inquiry, decision-making in sport has been the focus of a multitude of studies in the coaching field. Much of this research emphasized athletes making decisions under pressure, avoiding choking, and coaches’ decision-making from a much broader perspective including tasks such as recruiting or staffing, for example. However, there is little evidence of how coaches’ make decisions during competition and which factors cause the most pressure. Therefore, a study of this nature was necessary in attempt to gain a better understanding of how coaches make decisions when the pressure is on.

One limitation of this study was the exclusion of coaches in other sports. The findings revealed here are certainly applicable to other sports, nevertheless, there may be significant differences between sports. For example, on average, a football team is comprised of 50-90 players whereas a basketball team averages 12 players per team. Consequently, the pressures a football coach experiences may directly relate to the number of players under their supervision which is substantially more than basketball or any individual sports such as golf or wrestling. Additionally, more attention should be devoted to Expectations of Self among coaches since this factor was the number one pressurized factor in every category. For future directions, it may be beneficial to determine which Expectations of Self coaches impose on themselves and why those expectations are perceived to cause so much pressure.

APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
These data are important as they can provide guidance to researchers in how to design studies of coaches’ pressurized, in-game decision-making processes. Per the findings revealed in this study, it may be that despite the multiple sources creating pressure during competition, it could benefit coaches to divert their attention to internal factors such as Expectations of Self, Quality of Preparation, Importance of Eventual Outcome, and the Amount of Preparation. These types of variables have been found to distinguish novice and expert coaches and, thus, are factors that should be the central focus for novices striving to reach higher levels of expertise in the coaching realm.

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