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“It is now accepted that expert performance in sport is dependent on perceptual and cognitive skills as well as on physical and motor capabilities.” Dr. Mark Williams, Research Institute for Sports and Exercises Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University

The Role of Cognitive Skills in Athletic Performance

Everything we do, including sports, relies on a foundation of cognitive skills.  The following examples illustrate the role that certain cognitive abilities play in athletics.


Sustained Attention: Virtually all sports require sustained attention and focus. Consider the baseball outfielder tracking a fly ball, the gymnast performing a routine, the football player executing a play and staying focused on the player he is trying to tackle, or the track athlete waiting for the sound of the starter’s gun.

Selective Attention: Being able to screen out irrelevant stimuli and to focus on the important aspects of a situation is vital in sports – for example, in hearing a teammate’s instructions but ignoring the sounds of the fans or in focusing exclusively on the basket despite the waving and attempts by fans of the opposing team to distract a player from making a basketball free-throw.

Flexible Attention: The ability to shift quickly and smoothly from one activity to another is essential in many sports. An example is moving between offensive and defensive modes in basketball, soccer or hockey.

Visual Processing

Visual Span: Being able to take more information in at a glance and the effective use of peripheral vision, particularly in combination with visual discrimination, can enhance visual search techniques (spotting the ball or another player on the field/court.)

Visual Discrimination: Distinguishing small differences – from the angle of the opponent’s racket to subtle shifts in the position of a lineman – can enable an athlete to anticipate and prepare for the appropriate action.

Visualization: The ability to create a mental map of the state of game play is a key area of expertise for players in virtually any team sport. Being able to sense (see in one’s mind) where players are, where they are moving and where opportunities exist often sets great athletes (football quarterbacks, tennis players, playmakers in basketball) above their peers.


Long-Term Memory:  This is the type of memory we are most familiar with. It involves the ability to acquire knowledge, such as the playbook in football, soccer, basketball and other team sports.

Working Memory:  Working memory refers to the ability to hold multiple pieces of information in one’s mind while manipulating them. Adjusting one’s golf swing to account for conditions (wind, lie, etc.) or evaluating novel or unforeseen circumstances when a play goes wrong in football or basketball are examples.

Sensory Integration

Visual-Motor Integration: The ability to use the eyes and hands together efficiently, as in catching or hitting a ball, aiming at a target or coordinating actions with team members.

Timing and Rhythm: The ability to perform rhythmically and in split-second timing is inhere in sports like crew, any sport performed to music, and even a golf swing.

Higher Order Executive Functions

Planning: Sports involve planning at multiple levels – from the longer term plan to get ready physically and mentally for game day to the “seat of the pants” planning of how to get the ball down court or players in position for a volley ball attack.

Decision Speed: Split-second decisions are a hallmark of athletics and the ability to quickly make a decision, based on the most relevant information, is tested constantly in sports, every time an athlete responds to an opponent’s action. Hesitation gives the opponent a chance to attack or regroup, whereas quicker decisions can provide a small but often important advantage.


BrainWare SAFARI and Cognitive Training for Athletes

Just as an athlete trains for physical endurance, speed, flexibility and the specifics of his or her sport, athletes and coaches are realizing the benefits of cognitive training. There is a growing consensus that cognitive skills, including those described above, can be trained and transferred to athletic performance as well as academic achievement. BrainWare SAFARI develops 43 cognitive skills in a comprehensive and integrated way (like cross-training for the brain) to improve an athlete’s capacity to learn, perform and win.

Webinar: The Science of Performance in Sports: Training the Mind

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