Situational Awareness

Expertise in sport, or the growth of specialist athletic  knowledge  and  skills  as  a  result  of  effortful experience, has attracted considerable attention in recent years from researchers in cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and sport psychology (SP). An important impetus for this surge of interest is the fact that the study of athletic expertise can shed light on the relationship between knowledge and  skilled  action  in  complex  dynamic  environments  that  are  characterized  by  uncertainty  and time  constraints.  Specifically,  studies  in  this  field can  help  to  identify  the  cognitive  processes  and neural mechanisms that underlie expert and novice differences  in  pattern  recognition,  decision  making (DM), and skilled performance. For example, research  shows  that  expert  athletes  are  generally superior  to  novices  in  recognizing  and  recalling precise details of patterns of play in their specialist  sport—a  skill  that  enhances  their  “situational awareness”  (SA)  (or  their  general  understanding of  what  is  going  on  around  them)  and  efficiency of  performance.  But  what  are  the  components  of SA in sport? What do we really know about expert and  novice  differences  in  SA?  Finally,  can  SA  be trained, and if so, how? The purpose of this entry is to answer these questions.

Components of Situational Awareness

The  term  situation(al)  awareness  (SA)  originated in  human  factor  (HF)  research  in  the  aerospace industry  and  subsequently  spread  to  cognitive task performance in other domains, such as military  command  operations,  surgery,  and  sport.  In general,  it  describes  people’s  knowledge  of  the importance of what is happening in their immediate  surroundings.  More  precisely,  SA  denotes  the accuracy with which performers can perceive relevant  events  in  their  environment,  establish  their significance, and use this knowledge to anticipate future  outcomes.  Unfortunately,  the  theoretical foundations of SA have not been well established. To illustrate, there is considerable semantic confusion  in  this  field  as  few  theorists  have  attempted to clarify exactly how SA differs from apparently related,  but  more  established,  concepts  in  cognitive psychology such as “mental models” (i.e., the knowledge  structures  that  people  create  in  their minds  to  understand  and  explain  specific  phenomena and experiences). In addition, the logical status of SA is unclear as theorists are divided on the issue of whether it is an individual characteristic  (e.g.,  residing  in  the  mind  of  the  perceiver) or a shared one (e.g., emerging from the constant interaction  between  the  perceiver  and  his  or  her colleagues and their shared environment). In view of  these  problems,  it  is  not  surprising  that  some theoretical models of SA appear to be based more on intuition than on systematic empirical findings.

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Typically,  SA  is  postulated  to  contain  three cognitive  components—selective  attention  (or  the ability to focus on task-relevant information while disregarding  distractions),  pattern  recognition (e.g.,  the  capacity  to  recognize  situational  characteristics  and  promising  strategic  options  based on  stored  knowledge),  and  anticipation  (e.g.,  the ability  to  make  rapid  and  accurate  predictions about  future  outcomes).  Interestingly,  the  claim that SA is facilitated by rapid access to memorized information  highlights  an  intriguing  paradox  of expertise.  Although  expert  athletes  have  a  larger database  of  knowledge  to  search  through  than have novices (e.g., the size of a chess master’s database  has  been  estimated  at  between  50,000  and 100,000  chunks  or  units  of  meaningful  information),  they  can  retrieve  game-specific  information in their specialist sport quicker than novices. The most plausible reason for this expert–novice difference in speed of search and retrieval concerns the way in which this knowledge is stored. Specifically, it seems that whereas expert athletes’ knowledge is largely associative and extensively cross-referenced in long-term memory (LTM), novices’ knowledge is more discrete and compartmentalized.

Situational Awareness in Sport

At  present,  little  consensus  exists  as  to  the  best way in which to assess SA in sport. In some early studies on this topic, athletes’ knowledge of event probabilities  was  explored  using  generic  choice reaction  time  (RT)  tasks  in  laboratory  settings. As  these  measures  failed  to  elicit  athletes’  game specific  knowledge,  however,  they  were  abandoned in favor of more ecologically valid methods. For  example,  SA  in  soccer  has  been  investigated by  showing  expert  and  novice  players  various film sequences of actual match action and requiring them to extrapolate from such information. In these  studies  when  the  final  frame  of  action  was frozen,  the  expert  players  were  more  adept  than the novices at identifying the best strategic options for the players viewed (as assessed by an independent panel of judges).

Arising  from  such  research,  several  methods are  now  available  to  investigate  expert–novice differences  in  the  anticipation  component  of  SA in athletes. Typically, these methods include sport specific prediction tasks  (e.g., athletes must guess what  will  happen  next  in  a  sport-specific  film sequence), pattern recognition tasks (e.g., athletes are  shown  several  film  sequences  and  asked  to judge  whether  a  particular  one  had  been  shown earlier or not), and immediate retrospective verbal reports (e.g., athletes are required to describe what they  had  been  thinking  while  viewing  dynamic simulations of a sport-specific task). To illustrate, a  recent  study  combined  these  three  methods  in exploring  expert–novice  differences  in  anticipation  skills  in  soccer  players.  Results  showed  that compared  with  novices,  skilled  soccer  players demonstrated  superior  anticipation  accuracy  and recognition  performance  (i.e.,  they  were  better able  to  predict  future  events  and  more  adept  at distinguishing  previously  seen  from  novel  film sequences). Furthermore, analysis of these athletes’ verbal  reports  suggested  that  the  expert  performers  used  more  complex  memory  structures  than did  their  novice  counterparts  in  generating  their predictions. In summary, many studies have shown that expert athletes are superior to relative novices in their ability to use SA skills in order to anticipate correctly how a given scenario will unfold in a dynamic sport situation.

Training Situational Awareness Skills

The question of whether or not perceptual–cognitive skills  in  sport  can  be  enhanced  using  systematic training  interventions  has  attracted  increasing research  attention  in  recent  years.  Unfortunately, the majority of these studies have used simulation training techniques to improve specific anticipation skills (e.g., the ability of athletes to identify advance visual  or  postural  cues  from  opponents)  rather than general SA. Also, many of these studies have not used appropriate control groups. Nevertheless, focusing only on methodologically sound studies in this field, there is evidence that novice and developing  athletes  can  benefit  significantly  from  programs that train people to detect informative cues in  their  specialist  sport  and  to  execute  appropriate  actions  accordingly.  However,  the  effects  of these programs on expert and/or older athletes are largely unknown. Consequently, there is currently inadequate  evidence  available  to  date  to  demonstrate that SA skills can be improved significantly in  athletes.  Clearly,  the  collection  and  evaluation of such evidence is an important priority for future researchers in this field.


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  5. Williams, A. M., Ford, P. R., Eccles, D. W., & Ward, P. (2011). Perceptual-cognitive expertise in sport and its acquisition: Implications for applied cognitive psychology. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25,432–442.

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