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.
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