Surprise: Expect The Unexpected

"The Decision" by LeBron | What are you doing to developing decision making?

I’m going to start at the end with this blog…

“If you want your ideas to be stickier, you’ve got to break someone’s guessing machine and then fix it.” —Made To Stick

(Can you tell that I’ve enjoyed many of the ideas in this book by Chip and Dan Heath?)

Below is a list of four words. Read each and take a moment to think about whether it’s a real English word or not:


What do you think? Any of ’em look or sound familiar?

Well, according to the researchers who developed this task, Bruce Whittlesea and Lisa Williams, PHRAUG and TABYL often cause raised eyebrows. They get that ‘Agh!’ moment; whereas, HENSION and BARDLE will get a frown or furrowed brow.

Here’s why… PHRAUG and TAYBL cause surprise because they look unfamiliar but sound familiar. The ‘Agh!’ reaction comes when you realize that the word is not really real, but instead, a funny way of spelling FROG. Like many brain teasers.

HENSION and BARDLE, on the other hand, are tougher to swallow. For some, they seem oddly familiar, but they’re made-up words.

HENSION and BARDLE also have an element of surprise. But, lack the ‘Agh!’ because the words are meaningless. If anything, they’re frustrating because there’s no connection to anything and come off in the end, as they are, purposeless.

The key to stickiness is surprise. Yet, surprise without insight – some relevance and realization – is empty and is often dissatisfying.


“To be surprising, an event can’t be predictable. Surprise is the opposite of predictability. But, to be satisfying, surprise must be ‘post-dictable.'”

(Post-dictable! Got me a new word thanks to the Heath Brothers.)

Two of the best movies of the recent past are The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects. Both have fantastic unforeseeable surprise endings. In both, the end pulls together clues that you’ve been shown throughout the flick.

Surprise occurs when one’s guessing-reflex falls short. The interesting thing about surprise, according to The Heath Brothers of Made To Stick, is that it’s designed to focus our attention on the failure, so we can improve our guessing-reflex for the future.

Said differently, surprise brings a special focused attention to the task or challenge. When that surprise is combined with a post-dictable realization, you have insight. Learning.


Gonna make another run at pulling it all together, again.

An approach to player development – which to me must include vision and decision training – should hazard against cutting the game into neat little segments, or blocks, that eliminate a critical element to learning… surprise. Without the element of surprise, memory from skill acquisition gets compartmentalized or stored into segments that do not translate in the game situations. The mind just doesn’t access that information that way we might think it does. Why? They’re not sticky and don’t integrate all the different hooks and loops, like Velcro Theory suggests. As such, it’s not as easy form for those memories to be turned into action.

Surprise is in effect, randomness. Basketball is a series of random events that require immediate action-reaction.

Our training, therefore, should recreate this environment of chaos. Further, decision training, to me, involves creating an environment or drill that forces an athlete to adapt to randomness.

I’m not suggesting that we should breakdown the game into the various links that create the chain in a sequence of movements. What I am proposing is that we begin with two decision or ‘reads.’ Allow the athlete to continually have to get reps deciding between two choices. Once their skill exceeds the challenge, surprise goes away and boredom sets in. This is where the art of coaching kicks in and you must add the third decision. That too should be repped with the first three ‘reads.’ And, then add a fourth, etc.

How do you do it? Start with the end in mind. Give thought to all the decisions that an athlete will need to make within one element of the game, then progressively build from there. For instance, it could be ball screens. Begin with two ‘reads’ and then progress from there.


“Must learn to work in the absence of certainty. Each new case presents an opportunity to learn. First opinions are crucial, but if the evidence changes, so must the theory.” —Gil Grissom (CSI Las Vegas)