Decision making in elite rugby – what separates the best from the rest

This week’s post was sent to us by Navitas on behalf of the authors Mr David Johnston and Dr Ben Morrison of the Austrailian College of Applied Physiology (ACAP). “ACAP is a subsidiary of global education provider Navitas Limited. Navitas is a proud sponsor of the Australian rugby team, Western Force.” Read more about the authors and their institutions at the end of this post:

New research sheds light on decision making of elite rugby players

New insights coming out of the Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP) have taken researchers a step closer to understanding what separates superior athletes from novice players, by analysing players’ decision making during rugby league games.

Masters student David Johnston conducted and led the research into rugby players of various skill levels to identify key factors which emerge in the development of expertise. It involved careful and intricate construction of game situation ‘scenarios’ to enable the players to demonstrate their processes of decision making.

Previous research suggests that cue use (i.e., the ability to recognise key indicators during decision making) is a significant factor in sport-related performance. Mr Johnston’s research indicated that higher skilled players demonstrated greater cue discrimination, assigned different meaning to the cues, and processed cues in a different manner to lower skilled players.

“This research demonstrates the close relationships that can be formed between the scientific investigation of skilled performance and the practicalities of training in high level sports. The further development of this work would allow training of novice players to be targeted toward the acquisition of high level skills in an efficient manner,” Mr Johnston said.

Ten rugby league playmakers – six of whom played with a professional rugby league team and four from amateur clubs – were interviewed using a Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) technique in the research.

A CTA is an interview method that involves the recall of a non-routine event to explore the decision-maker’s unique response to the event. These methods are designed to elicit information about the cues, goals and strategies used by the players.

The work was supervised by Dr Ben Morrison, a lecturer in the School of Psychological Sciences, who has extensive experience in the study of decision making in natural settings.

“This research is really exciting because it has opened the door to further research which could help us understand the evolution of cue use across expertise, and whether we can model expert cue use in training programs for less experienced players,” he said.

Mr Johnston will present his research into rugby player decision making at the prestigious International Conference on Naturalistic Decision Making in America in June. He is presently studying for his Master of Psychology (Clinical) degree in the School of Psychological Sciences at ACAP. He is also the winner of the 2014 Australian Psychological Society Prize for the best honours student, for which will be awarded at the ACAP Sydney graduation ceremony in May.

For further information, please contact:

Dr Ben Morrison

PhD, B.Psych (Hons), MAPS

Lecturer of Psychological Sciences

Course Coordinator for Bachelor and Graduate Diploma of Psychological Science

Australian College of Applied Psychology

Tel: +61 (02) 9964 6373


Imogen Clark

Corporate Affairs Coordinator

Navitas Limited

Tel: +61 (08) 9364 0021

Mob: 0498 574 633


About Australian College of Applied Psychology

The Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP) has been a leader in applied psychology education for over 30 years. ACAP offers specialist courses in counselling, psychology, coaching, social science, social work, youth work and case management and has over 5,500 students studying on-campus or online. ACAP is a nationally registered training organisation and a register higher education provider. Further details about ACAP are available at

About Navitas

Navitas is a leading global education provider that offers an extensive range of educational services through three major Divisions to students and professionals including university programs, creative media education, professional education, English language training and settlement services. Navitas is an S&P/ASX100 company. Further details about Navitas are available at

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