Shared Mental Models

The shared mental model is a term used in industrial and occupational psychology. Within the discipline  of  sport  psychology  (SP),  a  shared  mental model is commonly referred to as a shared knowledge state. This is a state in which the knowledge held  by  each  member  of  a  sports  team  about  the upcoming actions of the team is at least similar to other team members’ knowledge of these actions. In  everyday  language,  the  state  can  be  described as team members being “on the same page” about their actions on the field. This topic is of interest to sport psychologists because the ability of a team to coordinate the actions of its members is thought to depend, in part, on the attainment and maintenance of this state. In this entry, the concept of a shared  knowledge  state  and  its  role  in  achieving team coordination is outlined first. The processes by  which  a  shared  knowledge  state  is  established prior to a given game, and established and updated during  a  given  game,  are  then  described.  Note that there have been few studies to date on team coordination  and  the  role  of  shared  knowledge in  achieving  team  coordination,  within  the  sport domain.  As  such,  while  reference  to  such  studies is made in the sections that follow, the content of these sections is largely theoretical.

Shared Knowledge States and Their Role in Achieving Team Coordination

A  challenge  for  teams  is  to  achieve  coordination. Team coordination is the process of arranging team members’ actions so that, when they are combined, they are in suitable relation for the most effective result.  Team  members’  actions  must  be  arranged so  they  are  correctly  related  on  three  dimensions of action: type, timing, and location. First, achieving  a  team  action  often  requires  that  each  team member undertakes a specific type of action. If a point guard in basketball lobs the ball in an alley-oop pass through the air toward her offensive basket, her teammate might prepare to jump to catch the ball in midair and dunk it in the basket. If at the last moment the point guard makes a bounce pass on the ground, her teammate might not have time to adapt to the bounce pass because she has already begun to jump. This change in action type would likely result in an incomplete pass. Second, achieving  a  team  action  often  requires  each  team member to undertake an action at a specific time. In the basketball example, if the point guard makes the  alley-oop  pass  too  early,  her  teammate  might be  unable  to  jump  fast  enough  to  catch  the  ball and dunk it. Third, achieving a team action often requires  each  member  of  the  team  to  undertake an action at a specific location. If the point guard does not throw the alley-oop pass close enough to the rim of the basket, her teammate will not be in position to catch the ball to dunk it.

While  the  basketball  examples  are  hypothetical,  research  has  provided  a  real  example  of  the importance  of  action  timing.  Studies  of  multiperson  rowing  show  that  rowers’  strokes  must be  synchronized,  requiring  that  they  deliberately coordinate  their  actions  during  races.  In  a  recent study  of  elite-level  two-person  rowing,  Carole Sève and colleagues, a rower (Marion) was shown a  film  of  her  and  her  teammate’s  rowing  performance  and  asked  to  comment  on  their  performance. Within her comments, Marion highlighted a problem of coordinating her strokes with those of her teammate (Lucy), feeling that she (Marion) was being “pushed” by Lucy. This report suggests a  problem  with  action  timing;  Lucy  is  stroking too fast for Marion. A subsequent analysis of the rowers’ movements confirmed this: The length of the  stroke  phase  (i.e.,  the  oar  in  the  water)  was shown to be shorter for Lucy than Marion, which meant that Marion needed to “catch up” to Lucy during the recovery phase (i.e., the oar out of the water). Having proposed that achieving coordination  can  be  challenging  for  teams,  we  now  consider  the  reasons  why  attaining  this  outcome  can be challenging.

When one individual performs a task, the task being undertaken is controlled by only one executive (i.e., brain). However, when a team attempts a  task,  there  are  as  many  executives  as  there  are team  members.  Each  person  possesses  unique knowledge about how to perform a given task, so people  placed  into  teams  tend  to  select  the  type, timing, and location of their actions at their own discretion.  The  performance  of  a  team  suffers when  team  members  select  actions  at  their  own discretion  because,  as  proposed  previously,  team members’ actions must be related in terms of type, timing,  and  location  to  actions  being  undertaken by  other  team  members.  Establishing  a  shared knowledge  state,  in  which  team  members  share (i.e.,  hold  in  common)  similar  knowledge  about how to undertake their team task, means that team members  can  draw  on  that  similar  knowledge  to undertake this task. As a consequence, team members  are  able  to  select  the  type,  timing,  and  location of their actions in a way that affords effective team coordination.

The Process by Which a Shared Knowledge State Is Established and Updated

In this section, we will distinguish between shared knowledge  states  established  prior  to  a  given game  and  those  established  and  updated  during a given game, as both types of shared knowledge state underpin team coordination. Prior to a given game,  teams  acquire  a  shared  knowledge  state  in two  ways:  through  actual  play,  in  both  practice and competition settings, and via explicit planning.

Shared   knowledge   acquired   through   play is  often  considered  knowledge  of  “situational probabilities”—that  is,  knowledge  of  what  the team  and  its  individual  members  are  likely  to  do in response to a given game situation. This type of shared knowledge can be acquired simply through experience of playing the sport. Players learn from practicing and competing within their sport what teams  and  individual  team  members  are  likely  to do in general in a given situation. Consider a newly formed soccer team where, previously, every team member has played the sport but no team member has played on this particular team. As a result of their  experience  playing  the  sport,  all  the  players on  this  team  know  that  when  a  midfield  player accidentally turns the ball over to the opposition, defenders on his or her team are likely to respond to the turnover by moving back toward their own goal into a defending position.

Shared  knowledge  of  situational  probabilities also  arises  from  experience  of  playing  alongside members of one’s own team. Players come to know through playing on a specific team what their team and  its  individual  team  members  are  likely  to  do in a given situation. Consider how team members playing together on the same ice hockey team for several years would learn that the right winger on their team likes to feint with his stick twice before passing  the  puck  across  the  goalmouth  for  an assist. Coaches often design practice sessions and drills, such as “2 vs. 1” drills in soccer, as well as scrimmages  with  the  goal  of  accelerating  players’ learning  of  the  situational  probabilities  related to  their  team  and  individual  teammates.  In  other words, coaches place players in specific game (or gamelike)  situations  involving  coordination  so they will get to experience, and in turn learn, how those situations “play out.”

Regarding shared knowledge acquired through explicit planning, coaches or other team members often  provide  the  same  information  about  the team’s  intended  actions  to  all  team  members  by communicating  plans  of  action  (e.g.,  approaches, strategies,  tactics,  and  plays)  to  those  members. Coaches  usually  communicate  plans  initially  via verbal  communication  and  often  demonstrate plans  using  visual  aids  such  as  a  whiteboard. Subsequently, the coach asks the team to practice executing  the  plan  (e.g.,  running  a  play)  on  the field.  Ideally,  all  team  members  acquire  similar knowledge  of  the  plan  from  the  coach’s  communications and demonstrations and/or by practicing the execution of the requisite plan.

The  result  of  (a)  playing  the  sport  generally, (b)  playing  in  a  particular  team  within  the  sport, and  (c)  creating  and  practicing  the  execution  of team  plans  is  a  relatively  stable  form  of  shared knowledge  state.  This  state  is  established  prior to  a  given  game  and  forms  a  cognitive  resource upon  which  team  members  can  draw  during  a given  game  to  achieve  coordination.  Consider  an example of a play in football. The play is planned by  a  coach  and  then  discussed  with,  and  demonstrated  using  a  whiteboard  to,  players  prior  to  a practice session. Next, the play is practiced on the field, and feedback on it is provided by the coach until players feel comfortable executing it. At this point,  each  player  involved  in  the  play  knows (a) when to use the play (or what signal from the coaching  staff  or  teammate  denotes  that  the  play should be used), (b) what actions those involved in the play are expected to perform, and (c) how his own actions fit with the actions of his teammates. Consequently, the play can be used during actual games.

In  addition  to  the  relatively  stable  shared knowledge state achieved prior to the game, it is usual that a relatively dynamic version of a shared knowledge  state  is  established  and  updated  by a  team  during  actual  games.  This  dynamic  “in game”  state  is  required  because  games  in  most team sports are characterized by rapidly unfolding and  difficult-to-predict  situations  within  which team members must adapt (e.g., a faked punt by the  opposing  team  in  football).  Nonetheless,  the establishment of this in-game state is often based in  part  on  the  shared  knowledge  state  achieved prior  to  the  game.  Consider  a  soccer  team  that has  developed  a  strategy  of  attacking  up  the wings  of  the  field;  in  other  words,  the  team  has acquired  a  shared  knowledge  state  in  which  this is  the  team’s  go-to  offensive  strategy.  Of  course, the  team  members  would  likely  also  know,  and share knowledge of, how to attack up the middle as a team. In other words, although attacking up the middle is not the team’s current go-to strategy, the  team  has  used  this  strategy  and  thus  knows how  to  implement  it.  Then  consider  that  the team  begins  a  game  but  soon  realizes  that  their opponent  is  defensively  strong  on  the  wings  but weaker  in  the  middle.  The  team  would  likely switch  from  attacking  up  the  wings  to  attacking up  the  middle.  Thus,  the  in-game  shared  knowledge state of the team would need to be updated accordingly for the team to achieve the coordination required to effectively execute this new strategy—that is, a strategy that is new to this game, if not to this team.

The  updating  of  this  in-game  state  occurs  via incidental  and  deliberate  means.  Regarding  incidental  means,  when  a  given  change  in  the  game situation  occurs,  one  or  two  team  members  may begin to adapt to this situation by switching to a different strategy. In the previous example, as the soccer  team  experiences  a  strong  defense  against its attacks up the wings, an attacking player (e.g., Emma) may begin to pass the ball to a teammate in the middle of the field rather than dribble it up the outside of the field. When other team members see the change in Emma’s attacking behavior, they infer (on the basis of their experience of attacking up  the  middle)  that  Emma  is  switching  from  the up-the-wing strategy initially prioritized to an up the-middle  strategy.  In  turn,  these  team  members infer that they are required to integrate their own actions with the up-the-middle strategy to achieve effective coordination.

Team  members  also  often  deliberately  update the  team’s  in-game  shared  knowledge  state  by communicating  intended  changes  to  upcoming actions  during  games  to  other  team  members. They typically communicate this information using bodily movements (e.g., pointing) and verbal communication.  In  the  soccer  example  that  was  just given, consider that when Emma realizes that the strategy of attacking up the wings is not working, she might communicate verbally to her teammates that they should attempt to attack up the middle. Even subtle facial expressions can be used for this purpose. In a recent study of table tennis doubles teams,  Germain  Poizat  and  colleagues  reported that  a  particular  stare  by  one  table  tennis  player was enough to communicate intended changes to tactics to the other player.


In  conclusion,  team  coordination  is  thought  to depend in part on the team’s ability to establish a state  in  which  knowledge  of  the  team’s  intended actions is shared by team members before a given game and establish and update an “in-game” version of this state during actual games. Establishing a shared knowledge state before a game is achieved by (a) general experience of practicing and competing  in  the  sport,  (b)  experience  of  practicing  and competing  in  a  particular  team,  and  (c)  communication of team plans by coaches to players and practice  executing  these  plans.  Establishing  and updating  the  in-game  version  of  this  state  occur on  the  basis  of  observed  changes  in  teammates’ actions, which signal a change of team plan, and deliberate  communication  by  coaches  or  team members  to  other  team  members  about  intended changes to the team plan.


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  2. Eccles, D. W., & Tenenbaum, G. (2004). Why an expert team is more than a team of experts: A socialcognitive conceptualization of team coordination and communication in sport. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 26, 542–560.
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  5. Poizat, G., Bourbousson, J., Saury, J., & Sève, C. (2012).Understanding team coordination in doubles table tennis: Joint analysis of first and third-person data. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 630–639.
  6. Sève, C., Nordez, A., Poizat, G., & Saury, J. (2013). Performance analysis in sport: Contributions from a joint analysis of athletes’ experience and biomechanical indicators. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 23, 576–584. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2011.01421.x

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