Cognitive Load Theory: How does it impact sports performance?

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In domains where high performers need to thrive, it is required to make their decisions and perform accordingly under very severe time pressure (e.g., sport and military combat situations). The ability of an individual to anticipate their opponents’ reaction with great precision will make them dominate in a given situation. Elite performers differentiate themselves from good players in their ability to obtain and use information in two general channels: simple biological motion information of the kinematics of the opponent (e.g., posture and simple movement) as well as complex and contextual information requiring cognitive power.

Information Processing

This three-part model found its origin in a 1968 paper regarding human information processing. The fundamental principle of this research of Atkinson and Shiffrin still holds up today. The schematic overview is shown in the figure below.

Adapted from Atkinson, R.C. and Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). ‘Human memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes’. In Spence, K.W. and Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation, (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

When the football world cup returns, we will all be rallying behind our respective countries. For now, just imagine yourself in the football stadium at the world cup final. One half of the stadium wants the players to succeed, the other half wants the same players to fail miserably. There are millions of watchers worldwide. It is the 91st minute with 3 minutes overtime, the score is 0-0 and your striker is heading towards the box. The player is in a 1 vs 1 situation with the keeper, he SHOOTS, and MISS!

In this situation, the player gets totally bombarded with sensory information. The sensory memory is a strong filter reducing the large stream of incoming information into impressions that last just long enough to move into the working memory. For the player, this sensory memory would largely filter out information that is not related to the complete focus on the goal. The rest is forgotten and the information regarding the keeper and the goal are moving along to the working memory.

Once the working memory is reached, information can go two ways: it is either immediately forgotten or it will be processed. The working memory is known to be able to hold 7 ± 2 items of information at the same time. This is something fundamental to the Cognitive Load Theory.

When the route of information processing is taken, the information can reach its last station: the long-term memory. The information comes in and gets stored in classes, something that can ring a bell for programmers. Classes like flowers, animals, and food can be used to store your information. These classes are so-called “schemas”. On top of recognizing items, there are classes in our minds that categorize based on behavior. Shooting a ball, blocking the ball as the keeper, defending the ball for the defender, are all behavioral information that can be put in those classes. By being in those situations more and more, these behaviors will come naturally without much thought. At that point, you are reaching the “automation” of your information processing. This is the second pillar of Cognitive Load Theory.

Cognitive Load Theory

The base of information processing helps us understand the concept of Cognitive Load Theory first mentioned in Sweller’s research in 1988. The notion of Cognitive Load refers back to the working memory of 7 ± 2 items. Especially stating the relevance of its limited capacity. In training cognition, the minimal available items should have as much overlap and/or contribution to the real situation since all else will be forgotten.

One manner of improving one’s working memory is by adding overstimulation on top of “automation”. Tasks with very frequent repetition are safely assumed to be in the automation zone, hence these can be taken out of the 7 ± 2 items working memory capacity. In doing so, you let people use their experience and already automated knowledge in order to strengthen their working memory.

Such an approach can show the value of preventive / preparation training to reinforce people’s working memory and build upon their established classes to make them perform better in cognitively complex tasks. This can lead to improved understanding and processing of more (complex) stimuli.

Additionally, working memory training is one of the most researched cognitive tasks showing good transfer potential. Not only that, but increased working memory is known to correlate with higher cognitive functions like decision making, reasoning, and problem-solving. In fact, research of Takeuchi et al. even showed that working memory training could increase myelination in specific white matter, measured through fractional anisotropy of fibers, needed for working memory.

Cognitive Fatigue and its Effect on Performance

Doing complex cognitive tasks induces a decline in both endurance performance as well as perceptual-cognitive skills. We go back to our football player in the beginning who missed the scoring chance in the world cup final in the 91st minute. Athletes, like this player, who are required to regulate either their behavior or frequent decision-making are more cognitively overstimulated, or fatigued, compared to a player that would only do physical tasks. The more elite players who have a cognitively active lifestyle may have less effect of cognitive fatigue than the lower-skilled player. That is why we want to help players become elite to complement their physical training, diet, and tactical knowledge with cognitive training to dominate under high time pressure.


  • Atkinson, R.C. and Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). ‘Human memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes’. In Spence, K.W. and Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation, (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.
  • Badin, O. O., Smith, M. R., Conte, D., & Coutts, A. J. (2016). Mental fatigue: impairment of technical performance in small-sided soccer games. International journal of sports physiology and performance11(8), 1100-1105.
  • Klingberg, T., Forssberg, H., and Westerberg, H. (2002). Training of working memory in children with ADHD. J. Clin. Exp. Neuropsychol. 24, 781–791. doi: 10.1076/jcen.24.6.781.8395
  • Runswick, O. R., Roca, A., Mark Williams, A., Bezodis, N. E., Mcrobert, A. P., & North, J. S. (2018). The impact of contextual information and a secondary task on anticipation performance: An interpretation using cognitive load theory. Applied cognitive psychology32(2), 141-149.
  • Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive science12(2), 257-285.
  • Takeuchi, H., Taki, Y., Sassa, Y., Hashizume, H., Sekiguchi, A., Fukushima, A., et al. (2011). Working memory training using mental calculation impacts regional gray matter of the frontal and parietal regions. PLoS One 6:e23175. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023175

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