Perceptual-Cognitive Skill

Training athletes for situational probabilities

The rise of data analytics in sport has provided coaches and athletes with rich information regarding opposition players’ patterns of behavior. For instance, in European Handball, a player might direct shots for goal to a specific location on 80% shots. Presumably, then, it will be advantageous for the goalkeeper to be aware of this information.

However, what happens when the player does not shoot this location? Is the goalkeeper able to adjust?

This question was asked in a study by David Mann and colleagues.

The study

20 skilled female handball players participated in the study. All participants were goalkeepers in the National Women’s Handball League in the Netherlands.

Participants underwent a training protocol to improve their ability to anticipate an opponents shot for goal in a computer-based task. Half of the participants were exposed to a training protocol that involved watching videos whereby the opponent displayed a preference for shooting the ball to one location (termed action-preference group). The other half of the participants watched videos of an opponent shooting to various locations at random (termed no action-preference group).

Participants ability to anticipate the opponents shot direction was measured before and after training. Importantly, the authors manipulated the pre- and post-test so that half of the trials involved 1 player shooting the ball with an action preference (the same action preference that the action-preference group were exposed to during training), while the other half of the trials involved a second player who did not display an action preference.

The results

There were 3 key results.

  1. The action-preference group were better in anticipating shot direction during the post-test (compared to the pre-test) when shot direction corresponded with the action preference.
  2. However, the action-preference group were worse in anticipating shot direction during the post-test (compared to the pre-test) when shot direction did not correspond with the action preference.
  3. The no action-preference group did not improve anticipation of shot direction from pre- to post-test.


Coaches and sports scientists should be mindful of the potential effect of providing information about situational probabilities to athletes. Athletes can certainly benefit from such information, but it is probably wise that this information is only provided if the probability of an event occurring is high.

The authors also note 2 additional implications from this research.

  • “If the coach does wish to pass on probabilistic information to a player, then it may be wise to do so without the opponent having explicit knowledge that they have done so” (i.e., otherwise the opponent might deliberately choose to perform a different action).
  • Alternatively: “A potentially wise coach could seek to fool opponents by giving the impression that they are passing on information about action preferences (through the use of a clipboard of table), when in reality they actually pass no information on in the hope that the opponent might perform a less-performed action, whilst ensuring that the goalkeeper is not primed to move in any given direction.”


Mann, D. L., Schaefers, T., & CaƱal-Bruland, R. (2014). Action preferences and the anticipation of action outcomes. Acta Psychologica152, 1-9.

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