Preprint / Version 1

Why humble farmers may in fact have bigger potatoes - A call for street-smart decision-making in sport

Rethinking decision-making in sport


  • Anne Hecksteden Universität Innsbruck
  • Niklas Keller Harding Centre for Risk Literacy, Faculty of Health Science, University of Potsdam
  • Guangze Zhang Saarland University
  • Tim Meyer Saarland University
  • Thomas Hauser German Football Association



Decision Making, Heuristics, Forecasting, Bias, Variance, Prediction Modeling, Evidence, Expert


The main task of applied sport science is to inform decision-making in sports practice, that is, enabling practitioners to compare the expectable outcomes of different options (e.g. training programs). The “evidence” provided may range from group averages to multivariable prediction models. By contrast, many decisions are still largely based on the subjective, experience-based judgement of athletes and coaches.  While for the research scientists this may seem “unscientific” and even “irrational”, it is important to realize the different perspectives: Science values novelty, universal validity, methodological rigor, and contributions towards long-term advancement. Practitioners are judged by the performance outcomes of contemporary, specific athletes. This makes out-of-sample predictive accuracy and robustness decisive requirements for useful decision support. At this point, researchers must concede that under the framework conditions of sport (small samples, multifactorial outcomes etc.) near certainty is unattainable, even with cutting-edge methods that might theoretically enable near-perfect accuracy. Rather, the sport ecosystem favors simpler rules, learning by experience, human judgement, and integration across different sources of knowledge. In other words, the focus of practitioners on experience and human judgement, complemented - but not superseded - by scientific evidence is probably street-smart after all. A major downside of this human-driven approach is the lack of science-grade evaluation and transparency. However, methods are available to merge the assets of data- and human-driven strategies and mitigate biases. This work presents the challenges of learning, forecasting and decision-making in sport as well as specific opportunities for turning the prevailing “evidence vs. eminence” contrast into a synergy.


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