The Other 90 Percent, Part 2: Cognitive Functions and Athletic Performance

ErocWolverineSenior Writer IJune 2, 2008

Taking away the variables of effort and attitude, this enigma can be explained by differences in cognitive functions. Cognitive factors can give some athletes an advantage and explain why some kids with abundant physical skills do not succeed. Take this into consideration; the higher up the ladder of competition, the more difficult it is for an athlete to overcome a weakness in cognitive functions. The pros quickly notice deficiencies and either do not draft, sign, or keep questionable players.

College coaches like the physical skills they see in developing athletes, but come to find that sometimes the other 90% is not what was expected. Coaches typically will individualize instruction and attempt to add extra repetitions. Coaches will lend support and attempt to muster maximum confidence. Some of their work is rewarded, but players who keep on demonstrating the same mistakes are labeled as projects. After a year or two some players blossom, due to the extra work of coaches and often just having mental skills further develop because of normal maturation late bloomers). Some players display little success or improvement and are sent to the scrapheap.

In high school, skilled athletes do not need the other 90% to beat players of average skill, so they achieve. In college, huge changes in competition, intensity, and expectations, combined with a greater equality of physical talent across the player spectrum, make for a quick and brutal shock for some student athletes.

Cognitive functions are typically termed executive functions or cognitive controls. Executive functions are brain processes that guide decisions, find patterns, make sense of physical surroundings, make order and analysis of a situation, and provide the thought processes needed to reach a systematic goal. Research indicates these controls are located in the prefrontal area and are clearly related to academic, athletic, and job success

One such cognitive function, linked to athletic success, is field independence. Field independent people tend to succeed more than field dependent people. Someone who gets lost in a phone booth is severely field dependent. Someone who can dissect the entire environment almost immediately and make a great decision is field independent. Great quarterback play is often attested to superior vision, but the reality is that many quarterbacks have a high level of field independence.

I will insert a personal example here that became shockingly accurate during my coaching. After watching incoming freshman and walk-ons settle in for a week, a number of players stood out as having potential but were having difficulty with drills, directions, or any type of execution. The players having trouble were always behind in reacting to any situation and made at least twice the number of mental errors as the other newcomers. These players were taken to a course where there was a bowling pin every 10 feet and every pin was placed at a ninety-degree right angle. The objective was to loop each bowling pin on the inside and go to the next pin and repeat the loop on the inside of the pin (the space between the two pins) until the course was completed up and back. Sending the players up to the end and then back made them reverse mental operations. There were seven pins. Each prospect watched as an upperclassman ran the course fast and without mistakes the first time. Some freshmen that were doing well were added as a control. The successful freshmen ran the course an average of 10 seconds quicker, with one mistake or less. Those who had trouble in practice would frequently not have a score, stopping at every pin trying to make the correct loop. They simply could not function in an environment where correct and speedy decisions were a prime necessity. Players who committed two or three mistakes, but improved after two or three trials, usually did well with good individualized instruction and by their sophomore seasons were “with it.” The kids who never or marginally improved on the loop-the loop test, rarely played, improved at a slower rate, and were always behind the other players. The problem was not of effort or attitude, it was, I am firmly convinced, linked to field independence. In the forty-yard dash, which takes no field independence, the “slower reacting players” could hold their own with the team studs.

written by Doc4blue and ErocWolverine

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