Dual-Task Paradigm

It  has  been  known  for  a  long  time  that  there  are significant  limitations  in  the  human  capability  to attend to and perform two or more tasks concurrently.  Observations  of  the  performance  errors arising from the simultaneous performance of multiple tasks date back at least to the late 19th century and form the basis for cognitive theories that regard attention as a limited capacity or resource. When attention is divided between tasks in a way that  exceeds  the  available  capacity  or  resources, suboptimal  performance  in  the  form  of  increased errors  or  delayed  responding  becomes  evident  on one or more of the tasks. The dual-task paradigm is an established methodology to measure performance  capability  under  these  conditions  where attention  must  be  divided  between  two  concurrently  performed  tasks.  This  entry  first  outlines the basic rationale and assumptions underlying the dual-task paradigm before describing some of the key factors that affect dual-task performance and some  of  the  existing  and  prospective  uses  of  the paradigm within the sport domain.

Basics of the Dual-Task Paradigm

As  the  name  implies,  the  dual-task  paradigm involves  the  simultaneous  performance  of  two tasks—a  primary  task  and  a  secondary  task.  In the  simplest  application  of  the  method,  participants are required to assign priority to the primary task (so that performance on this task remains at a  comparable  level  in  the  dual  situation  as  when the  task  is  performed  alone),  and  then  changes in performance of the secondary task are used to provide a measure of the attentional requirements of  the  primary  task.  The  primary  task  is  generally the task that the researcher is most interested in  understanding,  whereas  the  secondary  task  is simply  a  tool  used  to  help  assess  the  attentional demands of primary task performance. For example, in research examining the attentional demands of walking control in the elderly, the walking task is the primary task while there is a wide range of possible secondary tasks available, including continuous  tasks  (such  as  counting  backwards  from  100  in  3s)  or  discrete  tasks  (such  as  a  reaction time  task  with  an  auditory  stimulus  and  a  vocal response).

The  extent  of  the  deterioration  in  secondary task performance between the condition in which it is performed concurrently with the primary task compared to when it is performed alone provides a measure of the attentional demands of the primary task.  Poor  secondary  task  performance  accompanies primary tasks that are extremely difficult and require many of the participant’s information processing  resources,  whereas  secondary  task  performance  that  remains  unchanged  from  the  solitary performance  condition  to  the  dual  performance condition  suggests  a  primary  task  that  can  be performed  essentially  automatically,  requiring  no processing resources.

An  alternative  instructional  set  that  is  sometimes  used  is  to  ask  participants  to  assign  equal priority  to  both  tasks.  This  particular  approach is  used  if  the  interest  is  less  in  quantifying  the attentional  requirements  of  one  of  the  tasks  and more in ascertaining the general time-sharing and attention-switching capabilities of the participants. In all applications of the dual-task paradigm, the selection of the secondary task, the monitoring of adherence to the instructional set, and the careful measurement of the performance on both tasks in isolation  as  well  as  contemporaneously  is  pivotal to the generation of interpretable data.

Factors Affecting Dual-Task Performance

Although  there  is  some  indication  that  the  total available   attentional   resources   (or   processing capacity)  available  at  any  given  instant  may  vary with  factors  such  as  arousal—being  theoretically maximal when arousal is optimal—by far the biggest factor influencing dual-task performance is the complexity and attentional demand of the primary task.  The  proportion  of  the  available  processing capacity  that  is  consumed  by  the  primary  task depends  on  the  extent  to  which  the  primary  task can be controlled by automatic processes and this, in  turn,  is  dependent  on  the  extent  to  which  the skill has been learned. Primary tasks that are intrinsically  simple  or  that  are  effectively  made  simple as a consequence of extensive amounts of practice and  skill  learning  require  relatively  little  central processing  capacity  and  can  be  performed  concurrently  with  only  limited  impact  on  secondary task performance. A large number of studies from different  domains  including  aviation,  transport, rehabilitation,  and  sport  have  consistently  demonstrated that the ability to perform two (or even more) tasks simultaneously improves with practice of the primary task and is superior for experts than novices in the task domain. The improvements that occur with skill development are likely attributable to  both  a  transition  of  at  least  some  of  the  control  of  the  primary  task  from  deliberate  processing  to  automatic  processing  and  the  development of  effective  time-sharing  and  attention-switching strategies that help minimize interference between the concurrently performed tasks.

Uses of the Dual-Task Paradigm in Sport

Because  many  sports  activities  necessitate  the dividing   of   attention   between   two   or   more concurrent tasks (e.g., the basketball player dribbling  the  ball  while  scanning  around  for  a  suitable  teammate  to  whom  to  pass),  the  dual-task paradigm  is  ready  made  for  the  study  of  skill  in sport.  The  main  use  of  the  paradigm  to  date  has been in assessing the skill level of individual athletes  and  in  this  respect  the  dual-task  method  is advantageous in that it offers a means of assessing the extent to which primary skills are automated and  a  means  of  revealing  individual  differences that  are  not  apparent  from  simply  observing  the primary  skill  performed  by  itself.  A  fundamental premise  is  that  athletes  whose  primary  skills  are well automated are more likely to be able to cope with competitive pressure and the time constraints of  high-level  competition  than  are  athletes  who need to devote a considerable proportion of their available attention to their basic skills in order to perform  these  to  an  acceptable  level.  In  a  recent study  in  rugby  league,  it  was  demonstrated  that performance  on  a  dual-task  test  of  2-on-1  passing skills was predictive of match performance of the same skill. Other potential, but as yet largely untapped, uses of the dual-task paradigm in sport include  (1)  using  comparisons  of  the  secondary task  performance  under  match  and  simulation conditions to ascertain the effectiveness of simulation drills, (2) making objective assessment of the relative  demands  of  different  skill  learning  drills in  order  to  introduce  them  in  appropriate  order of  increasing  complexity,  and  (3)  exploiting  the attentional  overload  available  through  dual  task methods to attempt to further stimulate the automation of key skills or encourage the learning of skills via a form of control that is below the level of consciousness.


The dual-task paradigm offers a simple but potentially powerful approach for the assessment of the attentional  demands  of  skills  and  tasks  that  are fundamental  to  successful  performance  in  many domains.  Although  the  paradigm  has  a  long  history  of  use  in  cognitive  psychology,  especially  in the testing of different theories of attention, it has thus  far  been  underutilized  in  the  understanding and enhancement of the skills for sport.


  1. Abernethy, B. (1988). Dual-task methodology and motor skills research: Some applications and methodological constraints. Journal of Human Movement Studies, 14, 101–132.
  2. Abernethy, B. (2001). Attention. In R. N. Singer, H. A. Hausenblas, & C. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of research on sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 53–85). New York: Wiley.
  3. Gabbett, T. J., & Abernethy, B. (2012). Dual-task assessment of a sporting skill: Influence of task complexity and relationship with competitive performances. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30(16), 1735–1745. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2012.713979
  4. Taylor, M. E., Delbaere, K., Mikolaizak, A. S., Lord, S. R., & Close, J. C. (2013). Gait parameter risk factors for falls under simple and dual task conditions in cognitively impaired older people. Gait and Posture, 37(1), 126–130. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2012.06.024


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