top of page

Decisions vs. Habits: What drives success in sports?

When an athlete has complete control of their technique - when technique becomes automated, precise, and accurate; it allows them to make better decisions. That is the simple premise I base my teaching methodology on.

Improve Technique = Improved Decision Making = Improved Execution of Scheme

I was recently made aware that Tony Dungy - a Super Bowl winning head coach and renowned leader and mentor - had employed a slightly different philosophy than the NFL norm while taking over at his first head coaching job in Tampa Bay. The Bucs were a historically bad team back then, most of us remember the terrible jerseys and empty stadium. But Dungy had a different method to coaching compared to many of his peers. He was not loud or boisterous, he was not a soundbite coach; he was a relatively soft-spoken teacher.

Dungy wanted to teach his players habits that they could recall at a moments notice. His game plan/scheme was relatively simple - not an overload of plays, calls, or checks. What Dungy strove for was automatic movement. Have a small number of processes that you can master - become automatic with. In doing so, Dungy was trying to replace the decision making activities with simple habits - see a cue, return a response.

I don't have details of the entire journey, but I do know that over time, Dungy found success. First by taking the Bucs out of the NFL cellar and into a perennial contender, and later with the Colts as a championship winner.

I was interesting to me the way that the process was described, maybe because of terminology. Coach Dungy wanted to take the thinking out of the game, he wanted to turn as much as he could into read and react situations. If you have followed our podcasts this should sound very familiar - but the lines are blurred between read and reacting, and decision making. Process 2 Perform uses individual development as the vehicle to ultimately change an organization, but the most basic premise is the same: break down into simple concepts, and rep until the response is both automatic and consistent.

We use improved decision making as something to strive for, while Dungy was trying to remove the decision process from his players. But if I dig a little deeper, the methods are one and the same. At the 30,000 foot level, decision making - both the speed and quality of your decisions during a confrontational situation, is going to be largely based on your experiences, your confidence, and the amount of brain power you can use to generate your given response.

In order to maximize the amount of external awareness we can muster - the ability to read your surroundings, either with a wide or narrow focus - we must be able to switch off the internal processes of HOW we are to accomplish a specific movement, or task. This can be an easy or difficult request depending on the behavioral profile of an athlete. I'm sure if we could dig deeper into Coach Dungy's behavioral playbook, we would see that decision making is a combination of recall from prior experience, football IQ, and speed of thought.

The difference is, at the individual level, we want to detail out the technique and quality of movement so that the desired output becomes automatic. If we think about our cognitive/behavioral side, the most efficient version of action we can produce is in a read and react state. Gather external information (see a cue), and react to what you see based on prior experiences and learned behaviors. This is another way to say by improving technique you will improve your ability to make decisions.

Habits are much like automated technical movements in that they are a physical response to a cue that we are performing automatically. We have addressed this before on the podcast; automatic technique performed during confrontation is just a series of learned habits. How we want to frame this - as a response from a cue, or a decision we make; they are two sides of the same coin.


In the world of American football the decisions are really happening before the snap of the ball. Because the game stops every 4-6 seconds and essentially resets, players on either side of the ball are essentially shooting 70-75 free throws every game. That means they should have routines they perform before every snap to get them working their game, perfecting their process, and blocking out the noise.

Most movements in football are pre-determined; blocking assignments, routes, QB decisions...all of these are scripted and can become automated both technically and as a mental process. By locking in on assignments and using cues pre-snap you can prime your mind to focus on external awareness.

In football - we want to use our brain power on external events both pre-and-post snap so that we can react (or make the best decision based on our training). The majority of read and react moments come when the ball is snapped and each player has to make adjustments based on what they see. All of this happens during a small window of time; seconds or split seconds. Without first creating the environment for high level, automatic technique - our focus might narrow to HOW we must perform our task and miss on compelling cues from the opponent that could lead us down a better path.

This is different then when a play breaks down because someone has performed a spectacular athletic feat to extend a play. Now, the breakdown that led to this feat is probably the consequence of one player individually defeating another. But when Lamar Jackson breaks contain and finds a receiver streaking down the middle of the field, that reaction; the reaction by the receiver to break off his route and run in the same direction as the QB - that is a learned habit that does not necessarily require precise skill.

And this is where our similar messages have to be clarified; to win an individual matchup it is crucial that you understand the scheme, your opponent, your responsibilities; so that you can react to what you see and play at whatever your full speed is. It is critical that you consistently can execute whatever technique; cutting, throwing, tackling, blocking, transition to sprinting - that is required at the highest level without thinking about it. Thinking about that during the play will only slow you down.

At some positions; receiver, defensive back, offensive and defensive linemen, for example - becoming a great player means you have to win your one on one matchup. You have to physically out maneuver your opponent. And while we can learn a great deal about our opponent through film study, the ability to read and react in these situations - to make the right decisions - is dependent on your ability to win with technique. Automatic technique that allows you to make the fastest decisions possible. It is a deeper dive into individual responsibility than just seeing a QB scramble and knowing where to go, or getting a break on the snap because you can read the stance of the offensive lineman.

This is even more apparent during fluid sports; soccer, basketball, MMA, as examples. In order to excel at the highest level in these sports, you must not only have an intimate knowledge of your opponent and scheme, but you must be able to address confrontation over and over with split second decisions based on what you see. How to do that? By creating a practice/learning environment that fosters perfect process and repetition of critical movement patterns.

It goes back to the mental toughness tenants I have shared earlier here - in order to be mentally tough you must:

1) Train at an intensity level equal to or greater than the expectations on game day. This is not necessarily physical, can be detail, precision, and accuracy.

2) Believe that what you are doing matters. Take pride as an individual and as a team that your training will be a differentiator.

3) Maintain consistency in your effort throughout the training period.

It isn't easy, but it's pretty simple. And it works.


1) Decisions are often split-second and based on prior experience, confidence, and speed of thought.

2) Cue/response habits are not always technically based, but must be so when in 1v1 confrontations.

3) Learning to improve your process in decision making is similar to mental toughness tenants of preparation

Work to win!

Hit me up with any questions on Twitter @UnrivaledESS or email me at

Check out the Process 2 Perform podcast on iTunes or Spotify if you want to hear more on athlete development - uploads every Wednesday. Click here for more blogs on athlete development. Have a great one everybody!

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page