JOURNAL ARTICLE

Gunslingers, poker players, and chickens 2: Decision-making under physical performance pressure in subelite athletes

Beth L Parkin, Vincent Walsh
Progress in Brain Research 2017, 234: 317-338
29031469

BACKGROUND: Having investigated the influence of acute physical exhaustion on decision-making in world-class elite athletes in Parkin et al. (2017), here a similar method is applied to subelite athletes. These subelite athletes were enrolled on a Team GB talent development program and were undergoing training for possible Olympic competition in 4-8 years. They differ from elite athletes examined previously according to expertise and age. While considered elite (Swann et al., 2015), the subelite athletes had approximately 8 years fewer sporting experience and were yet to obtain sustained success on the international stage. Additionally, the average age of the subelite sample is 20 years; thus, they are still undergoing the behavioral, cognitive, and neuronal changes that occur during the transition from late adolescence to young adulthood (Blakemore and Robbins, 2012). Previous work has used broad definitions of elite status in sport, and as such overlooked different categories within the spectrum of elite athletes (Swann et al., 2015). Therefore it is important to consider subelite athletes as a discrete point on the developmental trajectory of elite sporting expertise.

OBJECTIVE: This work aims to investigate the influence of physical pressure on key indicators of decision-making in subelite athletes. It forms part of a wider project examining decision-making across different stages of the developmental trajectory in elite sport. In doing so, it aims to examine how to apply and develop psychological insights useful to an elite sporting environment.

METHODS: 32 subelite athletes (18 males, mean age: 20 years) participated in the study. Performance across three categories of decision-making was assessed under conditions of low and high physical pressure. Decision-making under risk was measured with performance of the Cambridge Gambling Task (CGT; Rogers et al., 1999), decision-making under uncertainty with the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART; Lejuez et al., 2002), and fast reactive responses and inhibition via the Stop Signal Reaction Time Task (SSRT; Logan, 1994). Physical exhaustion was induced via intervals of maximal exertion exercise on a wattbike.

RESULTS: Under pressure subelite athletes showed increased risk taking for both decisions where probability outcomes were explicit (on the CGT), and those where probability outcomes were unknown (on the BART). Despite making quicker decisions under pressure, with fewer errors, on the CGT, subelite athletes showed a reduced ability to optimally adjust betting behavior according to reward and loss contingencies. Fast reactive responses to perceptual stimuli and response inhibition did not change as a result of physical pressure. Individual responses to pressure showed a negative correlation in that a decrease in reaction times on the SSRT Task under pressure was associated with an increase in risk taking on the BART. When assessing the applicability of results based on group averages to individual athletes, 17% of the sample showed an "average" response (within 1 SD of the mean) to pressure across all three decision-making tasks.

CONCLUSION: Indicators of decision-making in a sample of subelite athletes are influenced by physical pressure, with a shift toward increased indiscriminate risk taking. The influence that physical pressure has on decision-making was different to that observed in world-class elite athletes; this highlights the importance of distinguishing between athletes at the elite level (Swann et al., 2015). The application of this work to a novel subgroup of elite athletes, including the implementation of a decision-making taxonomy, is discussed.

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