PART II: Cognition and Sport


The influences of athletics on cognitive functioning: A coaches training program

Brynne Middaugh; Richard Ramirez; and Jill Uyeda

Introduction to Children and Athletics

Physical activity and sports in childhood can positively influence the areas of attention, thinking, language, learning, and memory (Bidzan-Bluma & Lipowska, 2018). Efficient cognitive functioning in pre-adolescents requires high levels of executive function development (motivation, ability to set goals, and self-control). Physical activity is desirable and comes naturally to children of that age, so focusing on cognitive and emotional development through the engagement of sports will emphasize the effectiveness of this training program, and others like it. More specifically, we will be implementing the effectiveness of self-enhancing cycles such as positive changes in children’s mindsets.

In the last few decades, children are leading significantly less active lifestyles due to the increasing use of technology. It is becoming more prevalent than ever that children prioritize physical activities as overlooking these practices can have harmful effects on the body’s physical health. Recently, professionals have also begun to explore the effects of limited or no physical activity on the mental health and cognitive functioning of children. A positive correlation from a variety of empirical studies between participation in sports and cognitive functioning would help illustrate the importance of physical activity on children’s mental health and functioning. “Such knowledge would be useful in developing training programs for pre-adolescents, aimed at improving cognitive functions that may guide both researchers and practitioners relative to the wide range of benefits that result from physical activity” (Bidzan-Bluma & Lipowska, 2018). The array of information from the meta-analysis we summarize here can be translated into a program for coaches and other instructors to guide them in implementing effective training programs for their athletes. Coaches will learn to understand the mindset that players must have in order to be successful, and with some specific cognitive psychology tools that we will provide them with throughout this program, they can help nurture their athletes to more success.

The Basics of Cognitive Psychology

Cognitions are the cognitive mental processes or brain states that reflect mental behavior and are thought to be some kind of transformation, generally labeled as the process of encoding to storage to retrieval, from environmental energy to mental energy (Goldstein, 2015, p. 6; E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). Some examples of mental processes are perception, attention, working memory, long-term memory, language, visual imagery, mental mapping, problem-solving, and reasoning (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). Further, cognitive psychology is the study of these mental processes, including determining and operationalizing the characteristics and properties of the mind and how it functions (Goldstein, 2015, p. 6).

Cognition is examined physiologically and neurologically through the technique of brain imaging, “which makes it possible to determine which areas of the brains of humans are activated by different cognitions” (Goldstein, 2015, p. 40). The frontal lobe is important for cognitive functions and control of voluntary movement and activity. The parietal lobe processes information about temperature, taste, touch, and movement. The occipital lobe is primarily responsible for vision, and the temporal lobe processes memories, integrating them with sensations of taste, sound, sight, and touch. Empirical brain-imaging experiments have shown us that different areas of the human brain respond to different features of the environment, meaning that most of what we experience is multidimensional.

Attention is the ability to focus on specific stimuli or locations, and more specifically, selective attention is where we only attend to one particular thing at any given time (Goldstein, 2015, p. 95). In contrast, distraction is where one stimulus interferes with the processing of another stimulus, and sometimes this distraction can cause divided attention, which is defined as paying attention to several things at a time (Goldstein, 2015, p. 95). Divided attention is possible for some well-practiced tasks. However, if the difficulty of the task increases then automatic processing is not possible even with lots of practice (Goldstein, 2015, p. 111). Sometimes, our attention is divided across too many things, so we are not able to process everything we are trying to attend to, this is also known as our processing capacity. Processing capacity refers to the amount of information one can handle and therefore limits their ability to process incoming information (Goldstein, 2015, p. 99). Perceptual load is related to the difficulty of the task so tasks that are especially easy and well-practiced have low perceptual loads whereas tasks that are more difficult and not as well-practiced have high perceptual loads (Goldstein, 2015, p. 99).

Distraction also causes mind wandering, or the inner thoughts we have, to occur about 47 percent of the time across several activities (Goldstein, 2015, p. 114). This is another reason for the importance of attention. Selective attention can “enhance our response to objects and…when attention is directed to one place on an object, the enhancing effect of that attention spreads to other places on the objects” so it is imperative that the players have optimal cognitive control (Goldstein, 2015, p. 106). More specifically, coaches can take advantage of selective attention by eliminating outside distractions and cutting down on other stimuli that could take up room in the processing capacity of the players. Coaches can also use what we know about cognitive energy and selective attention to lead their players to solely focus on the important information they must learn. This attention and cognitive control both go into the working memory system which plays a role in this program as well.

Bits and pieces of perceptual experience register in different areas, and phase sequencing syncs the network. Advances in technology have played an important role in understanding the physiological basis of cognition (Goldstein, 2015, p. 41). These advances in technology introduced the possibilities of structural and functional connectivity of the brain. The structure and flow of the brain are extremely dynamic. Structurally, spreading activation is constrained by actual tissue and its physical location, and functionally spreading activation reflects usage patterns (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). The neuron doctrine states that neurons are not like other cells because they can communicate with other neurons. They have a semipermeable membrane that allows for exchanges and a change in state that can initiate the flow of activation from one part of the brain to another. All this is nicely summed up with Hebb’s Rule: neurons that fire together, wire together.

The wiring that occurs creates webs of knowledge and actions. That is, interconnected sets of cells firing are the basis of a recurring thought or behavior that will happen again and that cells get into the habits of communicating and firing. Patterns of behavior come from communication habits about sets of cells called neural networks and our consciousness comes from multidimensional networks of neurons that fire following patterns of structural connectivity and actual experience.

Perception becomes our cognition with “experiences resulting from stimulation of the senses” (Goldstein, 2015, p. 60). Vision is the primary sense people use to obtain their initial judgments about an experience. With it being the first sense that we use, it becomes a gateway to our other senses and other processes we need to perform in a sport (Goldstein, 2015, p. 61). Perception can be acquired through the transition from the occipital lobe to the frontal lobe. The transition begins with sensation, that it can assist perception by adding additional information to make the processing by the brain easier.

Perception becomes cognition by the process of the Bayesian inference, with prior probability and likelihood leading to predictions about the future (Goldstein, 2015, p. 76). Prior probability is the initial belief in the plausibility of an outcome, then, the likelihood is the possibility of something occurring (Goldstein, 2015, p. 76). The players will gain the information they need from prior knowledge and coaching to analyze how to handle a situation. Also, from previous scenarios we place them in during practice they will know their likelihood of success. Therefore, perception is a pivotal aspect of cognition because it is how we receive a majority of information.

The perception of an object determines the necessary action to adjust and adapt to it (Goldstein, 2015, p. 81). Perception is prevalent in sports because it assists the player in necessary adjustments. How important perception is in sports is presented in the ventral and dorsal pathways (Goldstein, 2015, p. 83). The ventral pathway allows the person the initial reaction to the object or person. Once that initial reaction happens the dorsal pathway provides the person with its location in space. So, the quicker a person can adapt to their surroundings, the higher the quality of play they will have. To assist the interaction of perception and action, processes such as bottom-up and top-down can be beneficial. With a bottom-up approach, the athlete will begin the process with their eyes and attend to a focal point of the task (Goldstein, 2015, p. 67). A signal will transfer from their eyes to their brain, offering the brain a reference to act upon. Bottom-up processing can also be paired with mirror neurons. When the coach is teaching the player how to perform a movement, the player can follow along with their neurons firing similar to their coaches (Goldstein, 2015, p. 86). With the mirror neurons firing, the player will begin to increase their capacity to act correctly. Once this firing pattern becomes ingrained in the person’s mind, it becomes a top-down process when the information needs to be recalled. A top-down process is using the brain to identify objects and how they are interacting with the environment (Goldstein, 2015, p. 67).

The idea of distributed processing is that specific functions are processed by several different areas of the brain. “One reason for the activation of many areas is the multidimensional nature of experience” (Goldstein, 2015, p. 56). Neural networks are connected structurally and are also functionally related. These networks operate in a dynamic way similar to the dynamic nature of cognition. Through our program, children will be exposed to a type of learning that will enrich their functionality and cognitive processes. Our brains are pre-developed in an experience expectant manner where we are getting prepared to make neural connections. Despite this, the structure of our brain is changed by our individual experiences, also known as experience-dependent plasticity (Goldstein, 2015, p. 34). Seeing that the structure, or neurons, of our brain can be changed and molded based on our experiences, it is critical to immerse children into valuable skills that will enhance their cognitive and emotional functions.

The cognitive principle of neural representation states that “everything a person experiences is based on representations in the person’s nervous system” (Goldstein, 2015, p. 32). Most of our experiences are multidimensional, “the multidimensional nature of cognition refers to the fact that even simple experiences involve combinations of different qualities” (Goldstein, 2015, p. 43, 436). “Consciousness comes from multidimensional networks of neurons that fire following patterns of structural connectivity and actual experiences,” and these multidimensional neural networks are formed from habits of communication that created patterns of behavior (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). Therefore, the multidimensionality of these networks is an important aspect of the possibility of more recall of our past experiences.

Previous life experiences are of high significance to our future ability to make decisions and move through life. Encoding variability is a concept in cognitive psychology that refers to the fact that the more “routes” into a specific memory, the greater the chance of retrieving that memory later (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, 2020). In other words, the more ways we encode an experience, the higher the chance we have of being able to remember that experience for future applications. Encoding variability is crucial to learning because we often learn things to aid us in future experiences. Therefore, the higher chance we have of retrieving it from long term memory, chances are the better we will do in a learning context, such as education or athletics.

In order to enhance the players’ chances of skills developing in long term memory, coaches use specific coaching techniques to accelerate the memory and retention processes. According to Tulving, the experience of episodic memory involves mental time travel while semantic memory does not. Additionally, personal semantic memories are associated with personal experiences and can, therefore, enhance the recall of semantic information.

Although these memories are served by different mechanisms, there is a great deal of interaction between episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory refers to memories of specific personal experiences, involving mental time travel to achieve a feeling of reliving an experience while semantic memory refers to memory for facts (Goldstein, 2015, p. 175). Therefore, our knowledge can influence the nature of experiences that become episodic memories. The combination of semantic and episodic memory will be beneficial to a child’s learning experience. Semantic memory also guides our experience, and this, in turn, influences the episodic memories that follow from that experience (Goldstein, 2015, p. 174). There is a link between the ability to remember the past and the ability to predict the future.

Results from previous studies have led to the idea that a function of episodic memory is to help anticipate and guide future behavior. While this is extremely important for survival, you can also see how this can translate into athletics. For young athletes, the knowledge acquired about a particular sport can influence what they pay attention to and how they experience that game. A deeper connection and integration of episodic and semantic memory leads to a richer understanding and more successful learning for the athlete.

Information is manipulated in working memory so that it can become integrated into long term memory. Long term memory is an interconnected web of neurons that fire together, it is often easier to think of long-term memory as an archive of information about our past experiences and knowledge we have acquired. It is the system that is responsible for storing information for long periods of time and is then coordinated with our working memory to help create ongoing experiences (Goldstein, 2015, p. 162).

The Wise Intervention

Wise interventions are small, precise programs simply used to alter how a person feels or what they are thinking in order to allow them to thrive in everyday life. The term “wise” intervention was coined because these kinds of interventions are “wise to specific underlying psychological processes that contribute to social problems or prevent people from flourishing” (Walton, 2014). Wise interventions depend on a precise understanding of a person’s psychological reality, such as what it is like to be themselves and how they construe themselves and their social world (Walton, 2014). For example, these interventions can be used to help someone with cognitive reframing, social belonging/connection, growth mindset, or trauma confrontation.

Psychological researchers determine a psychological aspect of someone’s life that harms their general well-being. It begins with a distinct, grounded psychological theory. This theory is used as a precise tool for changing specific psychological processes in a real-world application (Walton, 2014). This tool is then used to design a small, but effective, intervention that results in positive change for the individual while additionally testing the psychological theory. While results can take some time to see, as they change a process that must unfold with time, these interventions have shown to improve outcomes for several years beyond the intervention (Walton, 2014).

In order for wise interventions to be the most effective, researchers have put together a helpful checklist to allow other researchers to be wiser in the application to the specific population and context of the situation. First, the wise intervention process must directly affect the setting of the current situation (Walton, 2014). If the intervention is meant to help people with social belonging, for example, the researchers must apply the intervention to an individual who gets left out from playing with their peers at recess.

Secondly, researchers must be able to adapt the targeted psychological process in order for the intervention to be maximally effective in every situation (Walton, 2014). For example, many interventions utilize active exercises, rather than passive exposure, by using their own experiences to illustrate the important message of the intervention. This is a popular method as it allows the individual to feel more encouraged and more in control about their life changes, rather than stigmatizing or criticizing them.

Lastly, for wise interventions to be effective in the long run, the researchers must assure two things. The first being that the intervention must alter the “critical recursive processes” (Walton, 2014). For example, a value affirmation intervention can be administered to students early in a school year to attempt to prevent cyclical, negative performance or psychological threat, however, if these negative cycles are established prior to the administration of the intervention, the intervention will be less effective for the students (Walton, 2014). The second being that the context of the situation must provide “appropriate affordances,” for example, in a social belonging intervention that promotes forming better relationships between students, the effectiveness of the intervention will heavily depend on the possibility of the students’ abilities to form these connections (Walton, 2014).

In “Wise interventions: Psychological remedies for social and personal problems” the authors discuss wise interventions that capitalize on the need to understand. More specifically, the techniques for change such as promoting growth mindsets (Walton & Wilson, 2018). In the article, they use the example of the belief that intelligence is fixed – that you either have it or you do not. This type of mindset can lead individuals to attribute academic setbacks to inability. Instead, this intervention conveyed that intelligence could improve through effort, effective strategies, and assistance from others. A longitudinal study (Blackwell & Dweck, 2007) explored implicit theories of intelligence and its predictions about mathematical achievement across an adolescent transition. In the first study, the belief that intelligence was malleable predicted an upward trajectory in grades of 7th graders over the two years of junior high school. On the other hand, the group with the belief that intelligence is fixed predicted a flat trajectory in grades. Overall, this study showed that teachers implementing a growth mindset as opposed to fixed, promoted positive change and motivation in the classroom. We will be able to use the findings of this study and apply them to a sports context. Coaches will implement the same technique as the teachers and promote a growth mindset in order to create positive change and motivate their players.

Just as the students in Dweck’s research benefited from recognizing how their behavior in math class influenced their grades, when student athletes connect their behavior and thinking during practice to their game-performance their “sport-mindsets” become healthier. In this way, our wise-intervention for sports is like Dweck’s interventions for schoolwork.  Through our program we will use the mindset intervention and apply it to the cognitive underpinnings of athletics. Similar to the working memory model, episodic long-term memory, visual semantics, and language are part of long-term memory. Coding refers to the form in which stimuli are represented. These types of coding go hand in hand with the multidimensionality aspect of our program. Players will represent visual patterns in their mind when asked to recall a certain skill or drill that have been taught to them previously such as how to field a ground ball. Players will then use auditory coding in the form of sound such as hearing the words “right, left, field”. This way the player is combing the visual demonstration of this drill in their head, while also using auditory stimulus to help them better achieve their goal.

A specific type of coding called semantic coding, the predominant kind in long term memory. Semantic coding has been demonstrated in the Sachs experiment where recognition memory was measured to determine whether participants remembered the exact wording of sentences in a passage or just the general meaning. (Goldstein, 2015, p. 169). In order to coach players effectively, we need to make novel skills meaningful to the players. Coaches will explain and demonstrate new skills so that the player understands what the skill requires and why it needs to be executed in a particular way. Additionally, coaches can associate new skills and concepts with learned skills. Players will be able to learn skills quicker if certain movements or concepts are familiar to them.

It is important for coaches to help athletes learn skills correctly the first time. Initial learning is most impressionable and a skill that is learned incorrectly is often difficult to correct after neurological pathways are established. When players recall their personal semantic memories and experiences of skills, they should be similar to their original experience as the coaches in our program have monitored and guided them as in their early stages of learning. Lastly, we will teach our coaches the importance of procedural memory and how it is a common component of many skills we learn. A way to enhance athletes’ procedural memory is to teach the broader skill rhythms first, then refine the movements. The players will have an easier time recalling rhythmic movements than isolated ones and will, therefore, be easier to instill a long term understanding of motor movements. Ultimately, we need to know the player’s previous experience or help create them in order to create meaningful associations. In our training program, we will intentionally work on retaining information through repetition and rehearsal while adding in the psychological background of how long-term memory works in order to facilitate a better sport skill memory.

When the coach is teaching an athlete a concept, they will attempt to use elaborative rehearsal (Goldstein, 2015, p. 193). We will teach the coach how to draw the player’s attention. To have the players focus on specific parts of the body when doing a demonstration. Highlight, or go back to a specific point they are making. When the player is engaging in the task, they will have a greater memory of what they are learning (Goldstein, 2015, p. 193). By doing this, the player will think of what this means to them and making connections to a prior concept of knowledge. With these connections forming, it allows a hierarchical organization to form (Goldstein, 2015, p. 273). That the player will have a concept map of how different concepts interact with each other. The concept map will reinstall the initial teachings they got from their coach and have a stronger base for the new concept.

So, while teaching the drill, the coach will stop at strategic steps and have the players act out the motion and coach them on what needs to be altered. After the theory has been taught, the coach will ask questions to make sure the players understand. By doing this, it will assist the players’ encoding process (Goldstein, 2015, p. 192) and help the concept be retrieved later.

Our Training Program

Our training program will allow children to develop and enhance their cognitive skills through a multidimensional approach. While taking part in our training program, children will be immersed in the multidimensional nature of experience when participating in specific activities. When completing a task there will be activation in many areas of the brain such as the use of the frontal cortex in order to problem-solve, remember, use judgment, and have the ability to communicate. Additionally, the parietal lobe will be responsible for processing language, and sensory information, specifically the visual processing coming from the occipital lobe. Lastly, the temporal lobe will be activated when engaging in language, emotion, and comprehension. All these different aspects of the brain will work in a multidimensional manner and will be amplified through the kinesthetic activity involved in our program.

This is applicable to our program as coaches can use this specific technique to better communicate and understand the most effective ways to help adolescents develop through sports. Through the concept of encoding variability, we also know it is important to encode experiences in multiple different ways. It then becomes crucial for coaches to focus on giving their players opportunities to experience things in several learning contexts as this ensures a higher chance of retrieving those memories.

With an awareness of the working memory model components, coaches will be better able to ensure that kids have a chance to fully engage with their practice regimes. The model consists of four key aspects, central executive function, phonological loop, visuospatial sketch pad, and episodic buffer. In the model, the central executive function is the process that controls where attention is placed (Goldstein, 2015, p. 148). The phonological loop assists in holding information for a few seconds and rehearsal of information to help it become a long-term memory (Goldstein, 2015, p. 144). Also, the visuospatial sketch pad benefits long-term memory storage by, creating visual images of the concept (Goldstein, 2015, p. 146). Lastly, the episodic buffer assists in placing information in long-term memory by adding extra capacity to store new information (Goldstein, 2015, p. 149). If the rehearsal is completed correctly, then it is stored in long-term memory. Once it is in long-term memory, it can be retrieved and used for whatever use is needed (Goldstein, 2015, p. 132).

A coach will attempt to draw the players’ attention directly to specific aspects when they are coaching. Also, they will pursue to have nothing going on behind them to limit distractions. With this, there valuable information the players need to succeed will likely be in their short-term memory. They will have the players rehearse the information by practicing the technique with one another until the coach believes it is stored in their long-term memory. Lastly, at the next practice, the coach will have the players practice the same drills so the player will retrieve the technique from their long-term memory.

Also, the coach will help the players manage their central executive functions. They will help by giving the players advice on how to coordinate their energy in their working memory (Goldstein, 2015, p. 144). Coaches will assist the players in when to use a majority of their energy on the phonological loop and listen to the words that are being said (Goldstein, 2015, p. 144). Then, when to use the visuospatial sketch pad and place most of their energy into their visual aspects of the task that is being demonstrated (Goldstein, 2015, p. 144). With this, the players will have an easier chance to learn the material that is being coached.

Additionally, coaches in our program will learn the importance of instilling a growth mindset in their players. As players reach obstacles in their athletic careers, they will understand that failures are not the end, but rather an opportunity to be resilient and strive again for that accomplishment with dedication and hard work.  Coaches will also teach players to have positive self-talk which will allow the player to become more encouraging to themselves and to others on and off the field. Not only will this benefit young athletes in sports, but this type of growth mindset can be applied to all other aspects of life and will help the child develop not only as a player but as a person.

Wise interventions afford lots of opportunities to psychologists and other researchers by allowing us to simultaneously explore psychological phenomena and how they affect specific social problems, how to easily adapt them to specific field situations, and those changes in the psychological processes evolve with time. Often, social issues are multidimensional and convoluted, but through these wise interventions, psychologists can bring innovation to guide individuals through troubling situations, and hopefully, to more desired outcomes in their lives.


Bidzan-Bluma, I. & Lipowska, M. (2018). Physical activity and cognitive functioning of children: A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Retrieved from

Goldstein, E.B. (2015). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience, fifth edition. New York: Cengage learning.

Walton, G. M. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 73-82.

Walton, G.M. & Wilson, T.D. (2018). Wise interventions: Psychological remedies for social and personal problems. Psychological Review, 125, 617 – 655.



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What is Cognitive Psychology Good For? Wise Interventions for Personal Growth Copyright © 2020 by Brynne Middaugh; Richard Ramirez; and Jill Uyeda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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