Cognitive Approaches in High-Performance Sport Psychology



Cognitive theories of the 70s were predominantly based on an information-processing approach (Lachman, Lachman & Butterfieled, 1979), or more simply put ‘minds are bundles of computations.’ (Edelman, 2008, p.181).

This view has changed fundamentally over the past decades. The current embodiment approach to cognition proposes a direct link between thinking and skilled action which is critical to sports performance (Moran, 2012). Executive functions are vital for novices to learn novel skill-sets under the oppositional presence of habitual responses as well as for experts, such as Olympic athletes, to facilitate goal-directed actions under distraction (Jacobson & Mattheus, 2014). In terms of cognitive computation, athletes aim to develop skilled movements by accomplishing their goals at the lowest possible cost. Coaches help athletes to develop long-term cognitive strategies preventing athletes from ‘falling into local maxima for immediate rewards (…) and thereby allow the athlete to attain the global maxima with maximum future rewards.’ (Yarrow, Brown & Krakauer, 2009, p.587).

Novice Athletes

Novices start with developing a ‘growth mindset’ which focuses on effort, rather than on talent (Dweck, 1986, 2009). A growth mindset assumes that intelligence is malleable and focuses on learning, which entails the importance of feedback and learning from mistakes. This is also know as Incremental Theory. Using mental strategies during training assists novices to control body-movements and to anticipate the movements of others in team-sports. It is e.g., physically impossible to visually track a tennis ball travelling at approximately 200 km/h, this is why good players learn how to pick up cues and patterns from the body movements of their opponents, to anticipate action long before a ball is served.

Practicing their own body language improves perceived confidence, e.g., a confident body posture helps avoiding anxiety and to focus on the task at hand (Symes, 2014). Breathing and visualization exercises demonstrate how intrinsically body-control and working-memory functionality is intertwined, in this case the interaction between the short-term memory’s visuo-spatial sketch pad (Baddeley, 2010) and the brain’s respiratory control center responding to voluntary motor-control (NIH, 2014).

Practicing mental imagery assists motor cognition (Moran, 2009, p.421) since imagined movements share neural processes equivalent to physical actions (Borst, Ganis, Thompson & Kosslyn, 2012). For novices, guided discovery and explicit instruction have proven effective training methods under pre- and post training performance measurements, with guided discovery proving less vulnerable and more robust under anxiety provoking conditions (Williams, Ford, Eccles & Ward, 2010, p. 438).

Expert Athletes

Skilled athletes have already developed higher encoded, complex maps and internalized structural relations than novices, which allow them making more relevant evaluations while simultaneously reducing disruptive mental workload (Williams et al., p.333; Nuri, Shadmehr, Ghotbi & Attarbashi Moghadam, 2013). Aim of top athletes is to achieve flow, immersive top performance, and to avoid choking, this is impaired performance by distraction from unnecessary thinking, cognitive worry or anxiety (Winter, MacPherson & Collins, 2014; Vickers & Williams, 2007). Flow is described as an automated state in the here-and-now and it depends on inhibiting conscious thoughts (Moran, 2012). Athletes that re-focus on conscious motor control or self-monitoring (Collins, 2014, p.103) start to ‘choke’. Working memory is in such case occupied by far slower conscious control and subsequently deteriorates performance; ‘paralysis through analysis‘. Skill acquisition for athletes typically passes through cognitive, associative and autonomous-automated stages (Vickers & Williams, 2007), whereby declarative knowledge is transferred to procedural knowledge via memory storing processes (Gallego, González, Calvo, Del Barco & Del Villar Alvarez, 2010).

Winters and colleagues (2013) argue for a fourth state ‘beyond automaticity’, allowing for a continuing implicit self-diagnosing awareness which enables an athlete to correct errors and adjust situational performance levels instantaneously. In terms of a highly goal- and persistence based mindset Sideridis and Kaplan (2011) propose that mastery-oriented learners persist significantly longer than performance-oriented learners, although latter rebound faster after experiences of failure. Their findings are consistent with the notion of not falling into local maxima (Yarrow, et al., 2009).

Performance evaluation of athletes is usually conducted by pre-post training comparisons, separate skill- and game performance analysis, e.g., by reviewing video recordings or during training debriefings, and testing the level of strategic knowledge of a player (Gallego et al., 2010, p.471). Self-reports inform the coach about the robustness of an athlete’s mindset, anxiety management and how the athlete deals with failure or injuries. Evaluation is likewise facilitated by exchanging experiences with other athletes (Symes, 2014, p.87).

In closing, sport psychologists draw on a great variety of frameworks such as Gestalt, humanistic or cognitive-behavioral. Besides performance- and mastery-orientation, an athlete’s self-awareness and personal growth as well as long-term psychological health deserves equal attention.



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