In the domain of sport, the term cognitive capabilities refers to the athlete’s aptitude to process, evaluate, select, and compare information. Cognitive capabilities are encompassed in the cognitive system and serve as a linkage between the perceptual and motor systems. Thus, these assume the role of interpreters, translating environmental stimuli into meaningful patterns for further processing. The main function of these analytical mental skills is problems solving and decision making. The list of cognitive capacities is broad and includes, but not limited to memory, perception, attention, anticipation, and situational assessment.
An example from tennis is provided here to demonstrate and clarify the importance of cognitive capabilities in the sport domain: A player returning a tennis serve is required to process environmental information, which stems from the player serving the ball (the height and positioning of the ball, hip angle, arm and racquet motion, etc.) and other potentially salient sources of information (prevailing wind direction, the court characteristics, the match score, etc.). The capacity to efficiently analyze this information and anticipate the final location, speed, and spin of the ball, and generate plausible return options) for instance, is indicative of the returner’s cognitive capabilities.
Measuring and Capturing Cognitive Capabilities
The exploration of cognitive components evolved from cognitive psychology and the information processing approach, in which the computer processor was used as a metaphor for the black box (the human processor). Thus, similarly to computers, cognitive capabilities were traditionally measured by speed (e.g., reaction time), quantity (e.g., size of knowledge base), and quality (e.g., decision optimization) information. These three cognitive characteristics systematically distinguish among athletes of different skill levels, even more so than physical and technical skills. Although sport activity is primarily defined as a motor task, the cognitive components appear to be the decisive factor in the attainment of expertise.
As a result of the limitations in observing cognitive capabilities, a combination of creative research designs and state of the art technology are required to study these processes. Initially, researchers focused on measuring basic memory functions by utilizing pattern recognition and recall tasks (see also the entry “Pattern Recognition and Recall”). These set of studies attempted to capture athletes’ ability to recognize and recall static and dynamic game patterns and structures. Although experienced, skilled athletes exhibited superior performance over novices on these tasks, ensuing studies provided evidence that these capabilities are relatively easy to train and do not afford information to the underlying mechanisms leading to the acquisition of advanced cognitive capabilities. Thus, research paradigms and designs shifted to the examination of more domain-relevant and representative tasks, which have been used in the past 30 years.
An innovative assessment tool, the temporal and spatial occlusion paradigm, explores athletes’ anticipatory capability in representative situations (see also the entry “Anticipation”). The paradigm consists of a domain-specific, sport action video sequence, presented to athletes of different skill levels. In the spatial occlusion paradigm, different areas of the display are blocked for part or the duration of the entire action sequence. While using temporal occlusion, the action sequence is occluded at a certain point in time and usually remains occluded until the end of the sequence. Participants are then required to predict the following events of the sequence, based on the limited information they received. Thus, by observing differences in performances among spatial areas and temporal points, insight is given to the key environmental stimuli needed for successful anticipation. Additionally, under this paradigm, skilled athletes are able to predict opponents’ intentions early and accurately by utilizing cues more efficiently (see also the entry “Cue Utilization”).
To assess visual search behaviors that lead to anticipation and enhance decision making, eye-tracking technologies are used. The introduction of this equipment enables researchers to measure variables, such as fixation areas, fixation duration, frequency, and search order or sequence.
Comparison between successful and unsuccessful performances allows researchers to identify effective search strategies and gaze behaviors. Although this technology provides detailed and imperative information, there are several limitations that should be considered: the calibration of the instruments, inference from gaze behaviors, size and mobility of the equipment, and connection issues.
Finally, with the use of retrospective and concurrent verbal reports, researchers are able to explore the intact thought process from stimuli detection to action generation. In this process tracing research method, athletes provide detailed reports of their thoughts during or after performance. This procedure enables gaining insight and access to cognitive processes.
All of the above-mentioned capturing and measuring paradigms make use of the expert–novice paradigm in which performance comparisons were used to infer on the cognitive capabilities necessary for achieving successful performance. Extant research using these paradigms resulted in abundant and valuable knowledge related to skill level differences in cognitive capabilities.
Expert athletes are able quickly and accurately to anticipate future events. They are capable of assessing a situation efficiently by integrating in-vivo information from the environment with stored information like knowledge base and long-term memory, utilizing an advanced memory structure termed long-term working memory. Specifically, long-term working memory facilitates the acquisition of mental representations and planning. Thus, by relying on advanced cognitive capabilities, elite athletes display superior decision-making skills. These decisions are characterized by flexibility, creativity, and adjustment to dynamic situations.
Cognitive capabilities are often divided into different sequential processes. Visual search behavior is the initial process and refers to where athletes gaze and what they attend to. The two prevailing strategies are context (attending to a large visual field) and target (attending to a narrow visual field) control. Novice athletes cannot utilize context control strategies because of limitations in the amount of information they can process. On the other hand, experts have the flexibility to shift from context to target-control strategies depending on environmental demands.
Furthermore, experts exhibit advanced cue utilization skills. This allows them to incorporate complex and expansive cues in the anticipation process, and predict what will occur next with higher probability and confidence. Skill level differences are also evident in the option generation and prioritization process. Primarily, experts generate more relevant options and efficiently prioritize them. This cognitive advantage is subsequently reflected in the action selection process, where the expert athlete is able to determine the action that will result in the best possible outcome. More importantly, experts have the capability to alter a previously selected action pattern on the fly. Finally, elite performers evaluate their performance with better precision, compared to low-level performers, and hence can detect errors in their performance (process and outcome) and adjust their actions accordingly in the upcoming situations.
- Mann, D., Williams, A. M., Ward, P., & Janelle, C. M. (2007). Perceptual-cognitive expertise in sport: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 457–478.
- Tenenbaum, G. (2003). An integrated approach to decision making. In J. L. Starkes & K. A. Ericsson (Eds.), Expert performance in sport: Advances in research on sport expertise (pp. 191–218). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.