Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 7: Intuition in sport


We dance round in a ring and suppose,

but the secret sits in the middle and knows.


Robert Frost


In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman asserted that the brain uses two distinct modes to think and process information. The first (creatively titled system 1) is quick, reflexive and instinctive, whilst the other (system 2) is slower, logical and deliberate. Each system has strengths and weaknesses, and are better suited to different tasks.  In my estimation, the development of individual wisdom is to know and use these systems at the right time for the best outcome.


The quicker, reflexive style is (and has been) integral for survival and our great and ancient ancestors generously preserved it for us.  System one is very old and pre-dates humans (evolutionarily speaking) and resides in the deepest and oldest structures of our brain.


In our species however, a slower, reflective system evolved which afforded many other advantages (especially after we broadly mastered horticulture and amassing food surpluses).  It resides in our more recently evolved brain structures (the distinctively human pre-frontal cortex) and no doubt featured prominently in the emergence and development of observation, reflection and empiricism.


In sport, these two systems are equally valuable but can be in opposition.  It’s easy to see how athletes benefit from quick reactions and responses (system 1) whilst coaches tend to believe and rely on analysis and methodical thinking (system 2).  In my experience, out of form athletes have degraded their system 1 mode because of an interfering system 2 – or depending on the sport, vice versa.


Intuition (akin to system 1) fits in nicely in a field of play because it is reactive and predictive.  To me, intuition is the evaluation of voluminous data points that lead to a resolution or course of action.  There is so much detail and task relevant information for a competitor to take in that it is beyond conscious ability to process.


For example, kicking to a teammate on the run 40 metres away without them having to break stride is an example of skill mastery.  Many AFL players repeatedly achieve this but how many of them could calculate the physics and mechanics of this action with a slide rule and calculator? A quick précis of the components involved by the kicker would include:  biomechanical feedback to offset any imbalance in their centre of gravity, adjustment for wind resistance, analysis of the velocity of the receiver, the trajectory of the ball to avoid opponent interception, speed and momentum of the kicking leg….



There are so many elements required to come together for successful execution that one is statistically far more likely to fail.  Plenty of practice and an empty head (of conscious thought) is the best recipe for success in this situation.  This is the domain of intuition emerging from system 1 processing.  To me, intuition is a feature of expertise and reliance upon it is a feature of confidence.  Sadly however, the modern fixation with over-analysis tends to disrupt confidence by making players second-guess their intuitive responses.


When working with coaches, I consciously (thanks to system 2) reinforce that our intuitions are far better informed than we think.  They may not always be accurate or appropriate, but they are based on observation and evaluation of immeasurable amounts of data.  Intuition is formed from data we cannot consciously appreciate and our insecure and egotistic conscious mind sometimes feels aggrieved that wehave made a decision without consulting it.


But system 2 is not without utility in sport.  Philosophy blogger David Papineau has highlighted an ill-fated error of judgment by English cricketer Mark Ramprakash who, in a rush of blood (I’m looking at you system 1) succumbed to the entreaties of Shane Warne to dance down the wicket in the 2001 Ashes series.  Papineau notes that Ramprakash lost (albeit momentarily) his reasoned resolve to stay the course that his system 2 had so successfully (till that point at least) marked out.  So perhaps in cricket, a useful mantra may be: system 1 to face each delivery, and system 2 for the bits in between.


Again, like so much in life, it appears that balance is the key. Intuition and system 1 can fire our cylinders to engage and act but system 2 is critical to maintain the longevity of our engine. Upon reflection of my career, I loved the energy and freedom that intuition and system 1 provided but am equally grateful for the soothing, bigger picture perspective of experience and system 2.



You can find the first six parts of David’s series HERE.









About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Really enjoyed this David.

    I started a new job last week, in a sprawling, complex workplace with loads of procedures but also plenty of staff (training me) who had very detailed and finely honed experiential procedures gather over 30 years in some cases. There is nothing like starting a new job and learning an AWFUL lot of new things in a very condensed time frame to acquaint you with these two sides of the brain – my week had me deep in the experience of feeling which one was useful when, trying not to let the jumpy colt of system 1 step in too soon, holding back and letting system 2 take its place so that information could really be listened to and absorbed and then activating the system 1/system 2 partnership to get things going for myself. It’s also very interesting to think about how large, cultural organisations need these long-throw, creative systems and thinkers as much as they need the responsive doers. But how they also need to unleash the creative doers so the systems doesn’t get too static and removed from practice.

    Fascinating stuff. Thank you.

  2. david stiff says

    Thanks for your comment Mathilde, and I hope your new job is going well.

    I agree that the push-me-pull-me system of doers and the creative types is necessary. Both have their place and times to shine. I like the analogy of the creatives being the explorers and the doers being the settlers and together they combine to extend and expand into the unknown. Lots of hardship but lots of rewards too.

  3. Davis, I really enjoyed this – as I have your previous pieces.

    I really believe you hit the nail on the head with this comment: “…the modern fixation with over-analysis tends to disrupt confidence by making players second-guess their intuitive responses”. This is a major issue in professional sports!

  4. Thanks for this series David
    Tuning your instinctive capacity is often really first-guessing and getting it right,often enough to be able to rely on the subconscious mind to supply the necessary inputs and outputs.
    I challenge people who disparage the subconscious,”Have a conscious thought,why don’t you!”
    The first-guessing is based on complex neurological associations that can be trained,but only to the limits of each individual. it is also apparent in comparing athletes who cross into Aussie Rules,to the exceptional players who grew up with the Sherrin before many of the neural connections were made and before,as has been discovered,a certain degree of calcification, or its cortical equivalent takes place,usually late teens.
    I think about the Narkle brothers particularly, and how they practiced kicking the ball over high-tension powerlines on the way to school

  5. david stiff says

    Thanks Smokie

    I also think the umpires and referees have it worse than the athletes. With the current trend for VARs and instant reviews, why would it be in the best interest of an official to make a “gut” call. Too much for them to lose.
    And while I’m on this rant, why didn’t I get the memo that the Hawk-Eye system used in tennis is unerring and faultless?

  6. david stiff says


    The subconscious mind stuff is so interesting. I’m not entirely sure of the distinctions between unconscious, pre-conscious and subconscious but it’s an emerging and fascinating area of inquiry. I also like how recent psych research is discovering that the role of the conscious mind is broadly similar to what zen and other eastern religions have observed for a couple of thousand years.
    As a species we’re so clever that we can re-discover what we’ve already learnt.

  7. Yeah,it’s a bit like saying,”when the student is ready,the teacher will appear”.
    Charles Fort observed “a social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine-time. … How do we learn so easily from one mentor and not from another or from a preferred set of writings ?
    The idea of the conscious mind being the decision-maker is based largely on the concept of the super-ego shaping our personality.Decisions and practice made ‘below’ our review and edit process, if any good, get reinforced straightaway and the conscious mind takes the credit.
    Thinking is rehearsing so in order to learn we cast ourselves into a role until it it fits seamlessly

  8. david stiff says

    Couldn’t agree more Gregor

    I love the student / teacher quote too. Hashtag zen rocks


  9. craig dodson says

    David, enjoyed reading the series. As an average batsman who played a relatively decent standard of cricket im still intrigued by my best career knock.

    A shocking preperation, highlighted by a fair sampling of amber fluid and a 4am cab home. I spent 60 overs fielding then went out to bat for 18 overs, peeling 70 off about 50 balls.

    Time felt like it stood still. Everything hit the middle and i vividly remember the ball moving so slowly towards me. For some shots i remember standing post shot and being astounded that the ball had cleared the pickets with such peceived minimul effort.

    I scored runs before and after but never with the clarity and time of that innings. I wish i could have stayed in that moment for more than 1% of my career!

  10. David
    I’ve also enjoyed this series and Ive also appreciated your comments on my Sport as Entertainment pieces.
    I read this piece just as I’d been reflecting (as I often do) about the prospects of Richmond over the next few years and I latched onto Shane Edwards as a bit of a bellwether. To me he is archetypal System 1 in your analysis and I firmly believe that every team needs at least a couple these types to really make the grade. My interest with Edwards is how long he can keep this going? My thought is that System 1 players are more likely to lose their mojo quickly than System 2 players, because it’s all about lightning quick reflexes and decisions. Yet with Edwards he’s arguably had his best season on the wrong side of 30.
    I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on this.

  11. david stiff says

    Would you mind if I used your comment of your best cricket knock for my next post. No dramas if not but I’d like to explore your experience in terms of the themes and what could have been happening, or why it happened. I would quote your comment at the beginning of the post, then extrapolate from there. No dramas if not but it’d be cool to do (for me at least). Then perhaps you could comment about what you think.


  12. craig dodson says

    More than happy for you to use me as a case sample David. I would be really interested to see what you make of it, even if my playing use by date is long gone!

    Your article got me thinking about comparing ‘that’ innings I mentioned above to the time I scored my one and only century. For the century innings my vivid memory was my ability to concentrate and maintain a rigid pre-ball routine and not make mistakes throughout the innings, again something I managed to struggle with in my career. The two innings were complete opposites.

  13. david stiff says


    I didn’t realise Shane Edwards is that old (by which I mean in athlete years – which are a bit like dog years). The first thing for me is that we all use system 1 & 2 continuously. I think for athletes, their ability to switch between the two is the supreme skill. Certainly, the psych literature suggests that the higher your expertise and competence, the more effective system 1 will be in your chosen discipline. Experts tend to use top down processing to make decisions, so if Edwards is doing well (despite his advanced physical age) he has that nice balance between the 2 systems.
    Whilst it’s true that “the game” can pass us by (too old), there are too many instances in which athletes who should be “past their prime” continue to flourish and succeed. To me, they are in a nice zone where their experience is complementing and informing their performances. Those not fleet of foot but fleet of mind can still compete – particularly against fleet footed fools. I still see system 1 more as the competitor dimension (our predator mode) of thought and that it’s more likely our system 2 is responsible for a failing mojo – because it’s the one that has to drag us out of bed to go to training, or put up with the scrutiny…

  14. david stiff says

    Thanks Craig – I’ll get to it. Stay tuned

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