Decision-making and anticipation: key cognitive aptitudes.

Decision-making and anticipation: key cognitive aptitudes.

An expert sportsperson stands out from a novice through their ability to very quickly produce appropriate, adaptable and repeatable responses. These responses are produced at low cognitive ‘cost’, in complex and high pressure situations. What mechanisms come into play when making decisions? Perspectives from a cognitive approach.

The cognitive approach considers the decision as processing information, relying on knowledge bases stored in the memory to identify and interpret the key indicators in the environment. In order to explain decision-making by expert players, research studies have put forward three key ideas: the depth and structure of their knowledge in the memory, the skill of their mnemonic system, and the accuracy and speed with which they process visual information.

Efficient structure and depth of knowledge in long-term memory

Research shows that experts have more sophisticated, honed and specific knowledge structures, a broader network of concepts and a better ability to make links between the different types of knowledge.

This knowledge (or situations bank) therefore reflects the extent of the experience involving many sporting situations. Besides the greater depth of this knowledge, what distinguishes the expert from the novice is their ability to automatically activate this knowledge ‘at low cost’ and in implicitly (directly in long-term memory).

This mechanism means very complex actions become reflexes for the athletes. Recent studies show that they can even decide not to use or to limit these reflex responses! They have in some way trained their brain to distrust them. This ability is particularly useful in sports where a dummy can bring about a motor reflex in the opponent, such as in football or dual sports.

Mnemonic skill

The results of all memory tests confirm the superiority of expert players over novices. Specifically, they are faster to recognise game situations previously encountered and do so with more accuracy. Their mnemonic system is therefore faster to adapt to the complexity of the situation. This superiority of the mnesic system is however specific to their field of expertise.

Accuracy and speed of processing visual information

The results of all studies into the processing of visual information in team sports suggest that the experts have developed effective anticipation strategies specific to their activity. They perceive the relevant information earlier, faster and with more accuracy. Perceptive anticipation depends on knowledge. The sportsperson plans the next action so much better as they have spent hours practising.



  • The experts are able to very quickly manage all the parameters of their movement.
  • They efficiently exploit the memorised knowledge about their discipline (some in long-term memory) by accessing it automatically.
  • Complex actions become reflexes which they have learned to distrust!
  • Their cognitive capacities are superior to novices mainly in terms of precision, anticipation, recognition and visual attention.
  • Their mental capacities are optimised for what they do.

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