When people are asked the question, “What quality is most needed to play a sport?” most will agree that one of the first, if not the first, quality that comes to mind is physical ability. It’s easy for people to assume that athleticism and strength are the most important skills to become successful. Looking at professional athletes, it’s clear that the top players are in killer shape (for the most part). But people have the tendency to believe it’s only what’s on the outside that makes the player phenomenal. On the contrary, what makes a true champion often comes from within.
Training methods often incorporate techniques to improve agility, speed, hand-eye coordination, balance, strength, etc. Yet one of the newest and possibly most important training techniques elite athletes should use is often overlooked: perceptual-cognitive ability. Perceptual-cognitive ability is the level at which an athlete can see movement while on the court/field/rink. This ability is common amongst sports where the ball/puck is moving rapidly.
Dr. Faubert, a clinical sports psychologist, wanted to look further into the relationship between athletic success and cognition. He believed that “elite” athletes and average athletes differed in their levels of perceptual-cognitive ability. Despite this difference, Faubert also believed that all athletes can increase and improve their perceptual-cognitive ability during competition through certain training methods. His paper discusses the heightened importance for athletes to focus on their mental game equally as much as they do for their physical game. If an athlete chooses to work on their perceptual-cognitive ability, it’s likely they will be one step closer to becoming an elite athlete and reaching their goals.
Physical strength is all well and good, but sports are much more mental than people like to believe. “More research is needed, but Faubert suggests that what sets an elite athlete apart from sub-elite might be “the ability to process relevant perceptual cues and enhance search strategies”” (Sport Techie, 2013). Faubert further discusses the importance of repetition of motor skills. The saying “practice makes perfect” is very relevant for cognition in athletes. Yes, doing the same drill over and over again will help with technique, but it also eases the mind mentally. It allows for the player to feel comfortable with said shot/play/pass when they entire a competitive. Knowing they’ve practiced it 100 times has a calming affect, which lowers the likelihood of making too many errors.
Cognitive training will have its best results when players train in short sessions. With little research conducted on the topic, it seems that elite athletes benefit the most from such cognitive training; although average athletes have also seemed to benefit more quickly than expected. The mental game is a huge part of an athletes success, so researchers are intrigued to see if success can be developed/increased on different types of athletes (under various circumstances) with the help of perceptual-cognitive ability training.
As a tennis player, I completely agree with this article and Faubert’s research paper. The mental side of sports is often overlooked, yet it can make or break an athlete’s success. I know that there are sports psychologists who can help with mental/clinical issues, but I was extremely interested to find out that there is an actual term and training method. Consciousness is a portion of cognition that we are currently aware of, creating a unique aspect of personhood. A huge part of consciousness relies on working memory and attention, which in athletics is enormously important. Having great depth perception, anticipation, and an even greater court sense (of the competitive environment) are what give elite athletes an edge.
Lastly, most athletes use (or could benefit from) mental models. Mental models are when a person tries to represent concrete examples in their head, rather than use abstract rules. Using tennis as an example, a mental model can be beneficial when I’m trying to visualize where to hit the ball. The mental model allows me to simplify the point so that I don’t begin to over-think how deep, short, angled, high, or low I should hit the ball. If my mental model fails during my match, I can then use an analogy to improve and prepare myself for the next competitive in order to avoid making the same mistakes.