Pattern Recognition And Recall

In  the  sporting  domain,  pattern  recognition  and recall refer to the capability of athletes to recognize or recall the patterns formed by the configuration of key elements (such as teammates and opposing players) that exist within the playing environment. An enhanced capability to quickly and accurately extract  information  from  these  unique  pattern structures  has  been  suggested  to  contribute  to other  important  sports  skills  such  as  anticipation (i.e.,  predicting  future  events  such  as  the  movements of other players) and decision making (DM) (i.e., deciding what to do next). This entry briefly outlines the basic methodological approaches used to  measure  pattern  recognition  and  recall  as  well as summarizes the results from empirical research in this area.

Pattern  recognition  performance  is  typically measured  in  two  phases.  In  the  first  phase,  participants are shown a series of patterns presented sequentially. The task in this initial phase generally requires participants to either memorize each of the presented  patterns  or  make  some  form  of  a  decision such as determining what they think will happen next in each particular scenario. In both cases, the principal objective is to encourage participants to closely attend to the patterns. Shortly after the first  phase,  participants  are  shown  another  series of patterns but on this occasion, the series contains some patterns that were displayed in the first phase (usually 50%) and some patterns that are entirely new. When each pattern is presented, participants are  asked  to  determine  whether  it  is  a  previously seen pattern or a new pattern. Recognition performance is then measured by the number of correct responses.

The method used to measure pattern recall performance in team sports typically involves presenting experienced and lesser-skilled participants with a series of stimulus patterns extracted from a specific sport. Each pattern is displayed to the participants for a few seconds before it is removed from view. Once it is removed, participants are required to  recall  the  final  locations  of  the  players  in  the pattern  by  placing  or  drawing  icons  of  the  players  on  a  scaled  diagram  of  the  playing  area.  The patterns themselves can be displayed in a number of ways with the more common approaches using schematic  images  (where  icons  are  used  to  show the locations of players), static slides (still images such  as  photographs  that  have  been  taken  from an  actual  game),  or  videos  (video  footage  of  an actual game). Each pattern is carefully selected to ensure it is either highly structured (i.e., shows the locations of players as they would appear in a typical  game)  or  relatively  unstructured  (i.e.,  shows an  atypical  pattern  where  players  are  located  in random  positions  that  do  not  reflect  game  structure,  such  as  when  the  game  has  been  disrupted by a time-out). Recall performance is assessed by comparing the location of each player in the actual pattern to those indicated by the participant and, from this, generating an overall recall accuracy (or recall error) score.

Studies  employing  the  pattern  recognition  and recall  methodologies  have  generally  shown  a  significant  advantage  for  experts  over  lesser-skilled participants  when  the  patterns  depict  gamelike information,  but  this  advantage  typically  declines when the patterns become more unstructured. This demonstrates  that  expert  performance  on  recognition  and  recall  is  moderated  by  the  amount  of structure contained within the patterns themselves. For example, A. Mark Williams and his colleagues have shown that experts extract information from the  interrelationships  that  exist  between  the  elements in the patterns, and this perceptual information is utilized by experts more so than some of the finer details, such as the specific postural orientation of the players in the image. Their research has also revealed that this structural information may in  fact  transfer  between  sports,  particularly  those that have similar rules, tactics, and playing structures. This may help explain how experts from one team  sport  are  sometimes  able  to  perform  quite well in other, similarly structured team sports.

It is also believed that the structural information may play an important functional role in anticipation  and  DM  in  the  normal  competitive  setting. Research by A. Mark Williams and Keith Davids in 1995, for example, suggested that an enhanced capability to recall the configurations of players in an evolving team sport pattern may assist experts to anticipate the next most likely outcome to occur in  the  playing  sequence.  Further  support  for  the use of pattern information in anticipation was provided by André Didierjean and Evelyn Marmèche, who  used  a  recognition  task  to  show  that  the encoding of structured patterns includes anticipatory  information  where  the  future  locations  of the  players  in  the  pattern  are  incorporated  into the  memory  representation.  However,  K.  Anders Ericsson and his colleagues have argued that memory-based tasks, such as recognizing and recalling patterns of play, are not a requirement of normal participation  and  so  the  extent  to  which  pattern recognition  and  recall  skill  actually  contributes to  performance  in  the  competitive  environment remains an area of scientific debate.

Tests  examining  pattern  recognition  and  recall skill have helped researchers to better understand the  nature  of  expert  performance  and  the  underlying  mechanisms  that  contribute  to  perceptual skill in team sports and other domains. An understanding  of  the  key  characteristics  that  contribute  to  expert  performance  can  help  practitioners design training sessions that specifically target the underlying variables that significantly enhance the development of skilled performance.


  1. Allard, F., Graham, S., & Paarsalu, M. E. (1980). Perception in sport: Basketball. Journal of Sport Psychology, 2, 14–21.
  2. Didierjean, A., & Marmèche, E. (2005). Anticipatory representation of visual basketball scenes by novice and expert players. Visual Cognition, 12, 265–283.
  3. Ericsson, K. A., & Smith, J. (1991). Prospects and limits of the empirical study of expertise: An introduction. In K. A. Ericsson & J. Smith (Eds.), Toward a general theory of expertise: Prospects and limits (pp. 1–38). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Smeeton, N. J., Ward, P., & Williams, A. M. (2004). Do pattern recognition skills transfer across sports? A preliminary analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 22, 205–213.
  5. Williams, A. M., Hodges, N. J., North, J. S., & Barton, G. (2006). Perceiving patterns of play in dynamic sport tasks: Investigating the essential information underlying skilled performance. Perception, 35, 317–332.
  6. Williams, M., & Davids, K. (1995). Declarative knowledge in sport: A by-product of experience or a characteristic of expertise? Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 17, 259–275.

See also: