This is the first of a series of posts on decision-making and football.

Let’s start with a typical football play. The quarterback fades back to pass. The offensive and defensive lines jostle for position like sumo wrestlers. The receivers run well-learned routes.  The secondary looks to cover the receivers. The quarterback checks the primary, secondary, tertiary receivers.  The short receiver is open. The quarterback throws the ball.  The catch is made.  The linebackers converge on the short receiver and tackle him. A tremendous flurry of decisions, but all that action took less than five seconds to play out.

If we look at how actions are selected in mammalian (including human, and yes, including football player’s) brains, we find that there are four action-selection processes, each of which are doing different computations to decide what to do. By asking how each system learns and how each system calculates the best action to take, we can determine which systems are driving behavior when.

Reflexes are not learned by an animal – you don’t have time to learn to pull your hand from the fire.  So, although reflexes are almost certainly playing a role when a player starts to slip and needs to catch himself, I’m pretty sure that none of the actions in our example above are reflexes.

Pavlovian action-selection systems (which I call Pavlovian because this is what Pavlov’s dogs were doing) are about species-specific behaviors that one learns to release at the right time.  It’s unlikely that any of the examples above are Pavlovian.  (We will see Pavlovian systems being important in a later post when we talk about keeping player’s emotions in check.)  Actually, my favorite example of what is probably a Pavlovian response in football is a referee getting out of the way of an oncoming player.

Deliberation is just what it says it is – deliberating over choices. Many people think that the quarterback is deliberating over which receiver to throw to, but computationally, that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because deliberation is about imagining the future. In a deliberation process, the person imagines “If I did this, that would happen.” It tends to be conscious, language-based, and slow. It’s the slowness that’s key here. Deliberation takes time and mental effort. Deliberation requires running simulations of the world forward. By the time a quarterback has imagined throwing the ball, the receiver catching the ball, and run those multiple simulations forward – “Can that safety reach the receiver before the ball gets there?” “What if the receiver speeds up?” “What if he slows down?” – the pocket has collapsed and the quarterback’s been sacked. Instead, most quarterbacks report that they are really saying “Does it feel right?” “Throw or don’t?” “Go or not?”

This leads us to the fourth system – Procedural action-selection systems.  Procedural action-selection is a categorize-and-act system.  It learns to recognize categories of the world (Is he open?) and release a well-practice action (Throw the ball!).  Procedural actions take a lot of time to learn.  The action sequence needs to be run over and over again (drills) until it can be released reliably whenever it needs to be.  The player needs to experience the many different variations on the category so that they can be recognized quickly.  

The four decision-making action-selection processes in the human brain.

Decision-making in football

All of the examples in the play that I started the post with are procedural examples:  The offensive and defensive lines jostle for position like sumo wrestlers, having learned judo moves to block or get around the other player; The receivers run well-learned routes, perhaps with a stutter-step at just the right moment to lose a defender; The secondary looks to cover the receivers, trying to recognize the category of the play; The quarterback checks the primary, secondary, tertiary receivers, recognizing the category of “open"; The quarterback throws the ball, as the learned action is released; The catch is made, because upon recognizing that the ball has been thrown, appropriate responses are made. Since procedural actions are executed quickly, all that action can happen quickly in a few seconds.

And, of course, what happens when a pass is intercepted? It’s because the quarterback misread the category.  Usually because the defender successfully hid himself from the quarterback’s “he’s open” category. That leads us to the perceptual arms race, which we will talk about next week.

About the Author

A. David Redish, Ph.D.

A. David Redish, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota.


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