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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