Automaticity in Sport

Automaticity is the ability to execute a skill using no (or very few) information processing resources: attention and working memory. When a skill can be  executed  in  this  fashion,  the  performer  has resources  available  to  process  other  sources  of information  not  directly  required  for  the  task. Automaticity is thought to be a hallmark of expert performance that is acquired through learning and extensive  practice.  A  breakdown  of  automaticity  resulting  from  a  performer  turning  attention inward toward skill execution is thought to be one of  the  primary  causes  of  choking  under  pressure (see also the “Attentional Focus” entry).

When  one  performs  a  skill,  there  are  different modes of control that can be used. At one extreme, commonly  called  controlled  processing  mode,  a performer executes an action by following a series of explicit steps that are held in working memory and  by  focusing  attention  on  each  part  of  the action.  Each  stage  during  skill  execution  is  consciously  controlled  and  monitored.  For  example, when  executing  a  complex  movement  in  sports, the performer must remember the instructions to position  different  body  parts  and  focus  attention on  these  parts  to  determine  if  positioning  is  correct.  In  this  performance  mode,  the  information processing demands of the skill are very high and there  are  few,  if  any,  leftover  resources  available for  processing  task-irrelevant  information.  At the  other  extreme,  commonly  called  automatic processing  mode,  skill  execution  relies  on  motor programs  or  procedures  that,  once  initiated,  run without the use of attentional or working-memory resources.  The  skill  is  executed  unconsciously as  it  is  thought  to  involve  muscle  memory  (well-developed  internal  commands  for  how  the  different  body  parts  should  be  moved)  rather  than high-level  cognitive  control.  In  this  performance mode,  the  performer  has  information  processing resources  available  for  handling  task-irrelevant information.  Planning  a  play  to  be  executed  on the  next  possession  in  basketball  is  an  example of  a  highly  controlled  task,  whereas  running down  the  court  is  thought  to  be  a  highly  automatic one.

As  first  proposed  by  Paul  Fitts,  the  controlled and automatic processing modes are thought to be characteristics of the early and late stages of skill acquisition,  respectively.  For  novice  performers, it has been proposed that skill execution requires that attention be paid to each component stage of the  motor  act  (in  golf,  back-swing,  down-swing, club-head angle in putting). At this level of performance, referred to as the cognitive or declarative stage,  it  is  assumed  that  skill  execution  depends on  a  set  of  unintegrated  control  structures  that must  be  held  in  working  memory  and  attended in  a  step-by-step  fashion.  The  attentional  and memory  requirements  result  in  the  slow,  non-fluent,  and  error-prone  movement  execution  that  is characteristic  of  a  novice  performer.  As  expertise develops  through  practice  and  the  performer reaches  the  highest  stage  of  skill  execution  (the autonomous  or  procedural  stage),  it  has  been proposed  that  the  role  of  attention  and  working memory in performance changes dramatically. As procedural  knowledge  develops,  the  conscious step-by-step  control  of  execution  is  no  longer required.  Instead,  skill  execution  is  assumed  to operate  by  fast,  efficient  control  procedures  that function largely without the assistance of working memory or attention. At this final stage, it is proposed that skill automaticity has been achieved. It is  frequently  also  proposed  that  automatic  skills are encapsulated such that, once they are initiated, it is difficult for the performer to inhibit or disrupt them.

A  key  advantage  that  automaticity  is  thought to give an athlete is the availability of attentional and  working-memory  resources  to  process  information in the environment not directly related to movement  control.  First,  the  performer  is  more likely to detect situational or contextual information that is not required for movement control but may  serve  to  improve  performance  success.  If  an expert  footballer  does  not  need  to  actively  monitor the position of the body when taking a penalty kick,  that  player  will  have  processing  capacity available to attend to the movements of the goalkeeper.  Second,  the  performer  is  less  likely  to  be affected by the introduction of stimuli completely irrelevant to the task like a fan yelling an insult or waving hands in the background.

Theories  of  skill  acquisition  and  automaticity make several predictions about the nature of performance  (and  the  supporting  attentional  mechanisms  and  memory  structures)  as  a  function  of skill level. For example, if it involves the automatic processing  mode,  expert  performance  should  be (a) unaffected by the introduction of an irrelevant secondary task that requires attentional or working  memory  resources,  and  (b)  associated  with  a poorer  ability  to  verbalize  the  stages  involved  in skill  execution  (expertise-induced  amnesia)  since these  stages  are  not  attended  or  held  actively  in memory.  For  the  most  part,  research  evidence  is consistent  with  these  predictions;  however,  for most  tasks,  it  has  also  been  shown  there  is  some decrement in performance when a highly demanding secondary task is introduced. Therefore, it may not be the case that automatic processes are completely  resource  free;  rather,  automaticity  may  be best characterized by a reduction in the processing resources required.

Another  important  prediction  of  skill  acquisition  and  automaticity  theories  concerns  pressure-induced  failures  of  performance  (choking  under pressure). One of the dominant theories of choking,  called  explicit  monitoring  theory,  proposes that pressure can cause the deautomization of well-learned  skills.  This  occurs  because  an  increase  in self-consciousness  and  anxiety  about  performing well causes an athlete to turn attention inward on the specific processes of performance in an attempt to  exert  more  explicit  monitoring  and  control. This increase in skill-focused attention is thought to disrupt the automatic motor procedures.


  1. Anderson, J. R. (1983). The architecture of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Beilock, S. L., & Gray, R. (2007). Why do athletes “choke” under pressure? In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 425–444). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  3. Fitts, P. M., & Posner, M. I. (1967). Human performance. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.


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