One of the most interesting distinctions to think about when we’re talking about athletes and cognition is the difference between the reactive, lighting-quick decision making that happens on the field, and the slower, more deliberate though involved in what often gets called “strategy”.
Both are important, but both are different. In some ways the divide mirrors the difference between implicit or procedural memory–skills that we execute without thinking consciously about them, like riding a bike–and explicit or declarative memory, which are memories that we call forth, like remembering the capitol of California.
Th high-speed recognition of anticipatory cues, discussed a few weeks ago, is a skill that falls more into the former, implicit and reactive camp. The snap decisions that athletes make in the heat of the moment on the field are based on so much information, and the decisions need to be made so quickly, that conscious thought is too slow. That athletes have these high-speed recognition abilities implies that something has been encoded into memory, but what? Do athletes have superior memory?
There has been very interesting research done on expert performance and memory that illuminates the ways that expert athletes’ memories are different, as well as the ways that they are not. The thing that experienced athletes seem to have is a superior sort of sport-specific memory, one that allows them to rapidly decode and understand the field of play. Expert soccer players easily outperform the average fan if they are briefly shown a still photo of a soccer game and then asked to remember the positions of the players on the field. But they perform no better than an average fan, however, if you show them a soccer field with the players organized randomly. The same is also true of grand master chess players, who can recall precisely the board position of pieces mid-game, but fare no better than average with randomly organized pieces.
It has been hypothesized that expert athletes may use a process called “chunking” to organize information more efficiently in their minds, such that they can take in and store more information and have it remain manageable. We all use chunking to various degrees in our lives. Think about remembering a phone number: 7 digits is about the longest string of digits that most people can keep in short-term memory. But increasingly, people have 10 digit phone numbers with area codes. Most of the time though, an area code is familiar and repeated, and can be remembered as a single “chunk”, rather than three separate digits. Rather than thinking of it as 8-0-8 followed by 7 other numbers, we turn it into “808″, and we know it as the area code. We store it as one “chunk”. This is more efficient; it frees up some mental workspace.
Experts, athletes included, use similarly efficient methods of seeing the field. A point guard, rather than thinking about each individual player on the court and their relationship to one another, recognizes familiar patterns that he has seen before. Seeing the game like this allows him/her more cognitive space to think about what the court might look like in the next second, or what matchup might be exploited. Research on youth soccer players suggests that, among other cognitive and perceptual skills, information chunking strategies can be taught to soccer players as young as age 5. In a sense, mastering the snap-judgment decisions and recognitions allows expert athletes to think about things like strategy, and devote more thought than they otherwise would be able to, because their minds have become more efficient at recognizing the patterns of the game.