Conscious vs. Unconscious Decision-Making in Football

Football player making a split-second decision during a game.

In the realm of football, players face split-second decisions throughout the game. Have you ever pondered whether these decisions are consciously or unconsciously made? This blog delves into the intricacies of player choices, drawing connections between daily life decisions and those on the football pitch.

Read more: Conscious vs. Unconscious Decision-Making in Football

The Elephant and the Rider Analogy

In our daily lives, from the moment we wake up to the time we hit the bed, we’re faced with countless decisions. Interestingly, many of these decisions are made without us being consciously aware. This phenomenon is often metaphorically described as the elephant and the rider. Where the elephant represents the emotional, automatic, and unconscious part of us, the rider symbolizes the rational, controlled, and conscious mind. What’s fascinating is that unconscious decisions are made much faster. For instance, studies show that in response to an unexpected stimulus, a person can make an eye movement in just 100ms, while our conscious mind takes nearly 300ms. So, how does this play out when a footballer has the ball and is pressured by the opposing team?

The Role of Time Pressure in Decision Making

The higher the football level, the faster a player needs to decide. Scientist Ap Dijksterhuis explored the influence of ‘time pressure’ on decision-making. He conducted a study wherein participants had to evaluate cars and choose the best one. Half were given ample time to think, while the other half were quickly asked for their choice post-distraction. Astoundingly, only 25% of the thoughtful group chose correctly, while 60% of the intuitive group did. Another intriguing case is poker player Michael Binger. Early in his career, he was obsessed with card counting and odds calculation, which often led him to indecisive or suboptimal choices.

Instantaneous Choices on the Pitch

Footballers, when under pressure, sometimes have milliseconds to decide – a dribble, a pass, or a shot can be the difference between victory and defeat. The subconscious seems remarkably adept at making these snap decisions. José Valenzuela of the Barca Innovation Hub remarks, “A player doesn’t need to consciously look for all relevant data during a game, but it should be available for our brain to access. A novice won’t know the technique of the sport or team strategy. Yet, through training and experience, your brain forges new connections, granting instantaneous access to vital information.”

The Broader Perspective of Rapid Actions

An article from NRC features Chris van der Togt, a researcher from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam. He provides a nuanced take, stating, “Our thought process isn’t just about reacting to external stimuli. Memory processes dictate our intentions, goals, and mindset spanning minutes to years.” Swift actions are often unconscious executions of previously automated patterns. Consider martial artists; if they’re self-assured, they can react rapidly. However, in doubt, they can falter, contemplating consequences like the aftermath of a loss.

Unraveling the True Essence of Player Decisions

While the title might feel a tad sensationalized, the answer isn’t condensed into one blog. Numerous books discuss conscious and unconscious footballer behavior, linking various training methodologies with team functions and tasks. For a glimpse into this debate, check out the following riveting football clips. Are these actions made consciously or subconsciously? Watch here.


Dijksterhuis, A. (2006). “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect”. Science. 311(5763): 1005–1007.

Lehrer, Jonah (2011), Cómo decidimos, Barcelona: Paidós.

Soon, Chun & Brass, Marcel & Heinze, Hans-Jochen & Haynes, John-Dylan. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature neuroscience. 11. 543-5. 10.1038/nn.2112.

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