The Sports Cognition Framework

So, why should athletes and coaches be interested in all of this cognitive science stuff? They have been playing and coaching these sports for years, practicing with the same drills and routines and having success. Some may say, "if it ain't broke..." At the same time, all players and coaches are looking for the "the Edge"; the practice technique, game strategy, player development skill that will help the bottom line; winning. The physical training attributes still need to be developed in terms of raw speed, acceleration, agility, strength and balance. Hours are spent in the training rooms and gyms improving these variables. The game preparation process is still there; watching film, breaking down strengths and weaknesses of the opponent, tactical planning, etc. Some may say that is the "mental preparation" needed for competition. That's true, it is a plan for success, but the key is in execution of the plan. At the exact moment in the game when execution is needed, will each player know the right thing to do and be able to do it? That is the essence of what I call the "Sports Cognition Framework". It is the combination of the three themes: decision-making competence (knowing what to do), motor skill competence (being physically able to do it), and positive mental state (being motivated and confident to do it). There seem to be many, deep areas of research into each of these topics. My job is to dig into each of these areas and look for relevant research that you will find practical to include in your training or your coaching.

Where Does Sport Psychology Fit?

As I outline my framework for researching the neuro-motor skills necessary for sports, I have debated where the discipline of "sport psychology" fits. Obviously, the topics of motivation, fear, anxiety, concentration, imagery and leadership are critical to the success of any athlete, and are often included under the heading of sport psychology. I can see more application of these ideas in the realm of decision theory than the core skills. An athlete does not perform in a vacuum. His decisions on the field are affected by his emotions, his confidence level, his fear of failure. For example, what effect does the game situation have on a pitcher's skill level? If the score is 0-0, with no one on base and 2 outs in the first inning, not only will his pitch selections and execution be determined by his rational, tactical decisions, but also by his confidence level at that point. Did his last outing go well? Has he had a good month of starts, or is he nervous about getting through this game? Athletes are humans, not robots. Their confidence, motivation and emotions cannot be detached from their skills. The degree to which they can keep their feelings under control are a measure of their maturity as a player but all athletes are somewhere along the continuum. Based on this assumption, we will definitely dig into this "emotional intelligence", to borrow the phrase from Daniel Goleman, but will separate the topics initially and address their intersection later.

What Was He Thinking? Decision Theory in Sports

Previously, I outlined the core framework of sports skills. Over time, my intention is to dive deep into each of those areas and present research that will be useful to you in understanding the brain-body connection. Again, the goal of my ramblings here is to examine the foundation of skills necessary to perform well across the continuum of most sports. Ongoing posts will use this framework to organize this information into categories that are easy to search and focus on what you are interested in that day.

In addition to the core skills, there seems to be another equally significant side of sports cognition known as "decision theory". There is a deep research base in this area, not only specific to sports, but across other platforms (i.e. business, medicine, etc.) Basically, the application in sports looks at how athletes make thousands of split-second decisions during a game, some which will go unnoticed, but some that will affect the outcome. While most of these decisions appear instant and somewhat random, are there layers of "conditioning" that trigger one response versus another? Let's look at some examples:
Situation 1: Mike brings the basketball up the floor during a game and makes a pass to Tom. How many factors affected Mike's decision about that pass?
- Tom appeared to be "open".
- The play that the coach called dictated that Mike pass first to Tom.
- The game was tied and time was running out, and Mike knew Tom was the best option to score.
- Mike knew that Jack, another teammate, had missed his last 5 shots and wanted to avoid giving him the ball.
- Mike had missed his last 5 shots and was afraid to shoot.
- Mike and Tom are friends and feel the rest of the team is not at their skill level.
- Mike's choice was completely random
- Is there a "correct" answer, and if not, how do we judge effectiveness of the decision?

Situation 2: Mary is playing centerfield for her softball team. There are runners on 1st and 2nd base and there is 1 out. A ground ball is hit to her, she fields the ball and now needs to make a throw to a base. How does she decide where to throw?
- What is her "pre-pitch" analysis of the game situation? Does she have a plan of where to throw?
- What is the score of the game? Does she need to prevent a run from scoring?
- What is her self-assessment of her throwing ability? Does she have confidence in her throw to any base?
- What does her visual information give her during the play? When she fields the ball and looks up, what are her eyes telling her about the changing position of the runners?
- What are her teammates and coaches instructing (yelling at) her to do?
- Is there a "correct" answer?

To me, this side of the "80% mental" equation is just as important to success in sports. It deserves alot of attention and understanding, before we can coach athletes on how to improve these decision making skills. We will add this to our outline of research.

Sorting the Skill Sets

OK, so before I take on the whole world of cognitive psychology, kinesiology, neuromuscular patterns and the motor skill development (yikes!), I want to try to categorize the different distinct set of skills that seem obvious to my untrained eye. While each sport is different in its rules, objectives and layout, the underlying skills required of the athletes seem to overlap. My early theory is that if athletes, especially young athletes, focus on the fundamentals of each core skill set, then they will be able to transfer those "mental maps" to other sports. Also, when considering the pieces necessary to perform a skill, it will be easier to break down the variations of the skill of each sport and get to the underlying mechanics.

So, here is my "Outline of Sport Skills" that will help organize our research and discovery:

First, a definition from Merriam-Webster ( of skill: the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance b: dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks

Throwing ( to propel through the air by a forward motion of the hand and arm) Sample sports: baseball, football, cricket, basketball, bowling, etc.
One qualifier that I would add is to throw "at a target", which would differ than just throws for distance (i.e. shot/discus/javelin). The skill is two-dimensional as it involves judgment of distance and lateral accuracy.
Research questions would include:
- How is distance to target determined?
- How is lateral accuracy determined? (i.e. right-left, up-down target accuracy)
- If we include a soccer kick in this category, how are foot-eye coordination different than hand-eye?

Catching (
to grasp and hold on to (something in motion)) Sample sports: baseball, football, cricket, basketball, hockey, etc.
As familiar as we are with the act of catching a ball, we rarely dig deep into the true skill involved.
Research questions would include:
- How does the athlete judge the flight of the object (ball)?
- What are the visual cues that we use to reposition ourselves to meet the object at the right place and time to make the catch?
- What tactile cues to we use to close the grasp on the object?

Hitting (
to strike (as a ball) with an object (as a bat, club, or racket) so as to impart or redirect motion) Sample sports: baseball, golf, tennis, hockey, etc.
There are two variations: hitting a stationary (golf) vs. a moving object (baseball, tennis, hockey, cricket)
Research questions would include:
- Are the object tracking skills of Catching similar to those needed in Hitting?
- How does the neuro-motor connection adjust to the use of an object?

These three sets of skills cover most of the necessary situations in most major "goal-oriented" sports as opposed to the repetitive action sports of running, swimming, cycling, etc. Learning the commonalities at a very basic level should offer ideas of how to improve these core abilities through exercises and techniques.

The Beginning...

First off, thanks for stopping by! I hope you can find some useful information here. There's over 200 articles on sports science, sports psychology, fitness research and the science of coaching from the last 3 years. Its kind of an unusual mix of stuff, but it is a collection of topics that all revolve around the mental side of sports.

For many years, I have had an interest in cognitive science and sports science. More specifically, how do we learn to perform all of the individual motor skills necessary to compete in any type of sports? Why do some athletes outperform others? Why can't all basketball players make 95% of their free throws?  Why do athletes make "mental errors" or "poor decisions" during a game or competition?

Finding answers to these questions is the fun part for me and I'm happy to share what I learn with you.

I hope that Sports Are 80 Percent Mental becomes the community hub for coaches, scientists, parents and athletes of all ages.

Also, I report on cognitive science and sports performance research for Axon Sports.  Please visit them to learn more about how athletes can Train Above The Neck.

If you have questions or topics for me, please just let me know and I'll be happy to add them to my future stories.

For any scientists or authors, if you have an article or book that you would like to get in front of our readers, just drop me a message.  I'd be happy to help.

Again, I really appreciate your time here and hope it's worthwhile!

Dan Peterson
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