This thesis details a systematic attempt to elucidate the perceptual and developmental characteristics underlying expert 'game-based' decision-making skill in Australian football; Also, from a perceptual-motor learning perspective, to apply this knowledge in the investigation of alternative learning strategies to improve the acquisition of the perceptual and decision-making components of skilled performance. Three separate studies were undertaken to investigate; (1) the perceptual skill; (2) the developmental histories; and (3) the developmental experiences of expert decision-makers playing in the Australian Football League (AFL). A total of 32 elite AFL players, 17 classified as expert decision-makers and 15 classified as non-expert decision-makers voluntarily participated. A fourth study was conducted with junior AFL football players to assess the effectiveness of coaching interventions designed to improve game-based perceptual-motor and decision-making skill.
The first study sought to determine the role of perceptual pattern recognition in expert decision-making skill. Specifically, the study investigated whether expert and non-expert decision-makers differed in performance on an AFL-specific video-based perceptual and decision-making task. The task was designed to test the player's game pattern recall and game play prediction ability. The expert decision-making group clearly outperformed the non-expert decision-making group on the video-based task. This suggests a player's ability to rapidly read patterns of play and predict game events is a fundamental element of expert 'game based' decision-making skill.
In the second study, in-depth interviews were conducted with each player to gather data on the type and amount of sporting involvement, along with related practice and play activity undertaken during each year of their sport development. The data revealed that, in addition to the many years of football-specific practice and competition required to become an elite player in the AFL, sustained involvement in secondary 'invasion' sports (e.g., basketball) and 'invasion' deliberate play activity (e.g., pick-up games) appears influential in the development of expert perceptual and decision-making skill.
A qualitative research approach using semi-structured interviews was adopted for the third study to allow a deeper, more insightful exploration of the players' developmental experiences in sport and related activity. This included information on the role of family, peer and coach influences in the developmental process. The qualitative analyses revealed players from both skill groups possessed a strong competitive spirit and were afforded tremendous family support throughout their development. Importantly, there are a number of themes revealed in the analyses that appear to discriminate the expert from the non-expert decision-makers. These qualitative differences between skill groups provide a unique insight into some of the factors that may have contributed to the development of expert decision-making skill. These findings consolidate and extend a number of the key quantitative findings reported in the second study. In particular, the role of extensive 'invasion' deliberate play activity in the developmental process was again highlighted.
The final study investigated the efficacy of alternative learning/intervention strategies aimed to improve the perceptual-motor and decision-making components of game performance. Specifically, a game-based coaching framework and additional video-based perceptual training was compared to the traditional skills-based coaching methods currently advocated and resourced by the AFL. The design of the intervention program incorporated the knowledge gained from the first three studies along with direct input from several AFL coaches. Four junior AFL teams participated in the study and undertook a prescribed training program for the duration of the regular competition season. The empirical results failed to support the use of the alternative intervention strategies. The findings reflect the difficulty of conducting natural field-based experiments and, most likely, the need for longer intervention periods to demonstrate any potential learning effects. However, descriptive competition results over the season indicated the teams that undertook the game-based coaching program and/or the video-based training were more successful than the skills-based coaching team.
Theoretically, the thesis contributes important new knowledge to the study of expert performance and perceptual-motor learning in sport, and extends a number of recent findings reported in the expertise literature. Practically, the findings provide new information relating to the identification, development and acquisition of perceptual and decision-making skill in Australian football and other team invasion sports.