Instructions Perceptual-Cognitive Skill Practice Design Pressure

What is working memory and how is it related to sport?

Working memory capacity is responsible for controlling attention in the face of interference. A good example of working memory in action is when we focus our attention on a conversation with a friend in a noisy bar. In this example, we are able to listen to the conversation without letting the background noise interfere with our attention.

A wealth of research in psychology has revealed that individual differences in working memory capacity influences the ability to perform a range of everyday cognitive tasks. Notably, individuals with a larger working memory capacity are typically better at solving problems and often have a higher IQ.

Individual differences in working memory capacity also influences sports performance. Phillip Furley and Daniel Memmert published an article in 2010 that detailed scenarios in sport where working memory is likely to be influential.

Extracted from Furley & Memmert (2010).

Information about some of these scenarios are detailed below.


Furley & Memmert (2012) showed that athletes with a larger working memory capacity made more accurate decisions when (a) a distracting noise was present or (b) the performer was required to resolve conflict when an incorrect instruction was provided

Skill acquisition / execution

When we consciously perform skills, we use working memory. The simplest example of this is when we attempt to implement coaching instructions when performing a skill.

Learning skills in a highly conscious manner is referred to as explicit learning. Some researchers argue that a highly conscious / explicit mode of learning is difficult for individuals with a comprised working memory.

Choking under pressure

A larger working memory capacity affords a greater ability to control attention whilst inhibiting distracting information (e.g., crowd noise). Indeed, a study in tennis revealed that players with a larger working memory capacity performed better in the decisive sets of matchplay. The decisive sets were considered to represent heightened pressure situations. Similar results were evident in a shooting task.

Why is knowledge of working memory beneficial to sport?

Understanding how a person’s working memory capacity influences performance and learning might facilitate the development of more individualised training programs. It also has implications for the delivery of instructions (i.e., the type and volume of instructions).

Note: 2 more reviews focusing on working memory in sport have been published since Furley and Memmert’s initial article in 2010 – see below.


Buszard, T., Masters, R. S., & Farrow, D. (2017). The generalizability of working-memory capacity in the sport domain. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16, 54-57.
Furley, P. A., & Memmert, D. (2010). The role of working memory in sport. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3(2), 171-194.
Furley, P., & Wood, G. (2016). Working Memory, Attentional Control, and Expertise in Sports: A Review of Current Literature and Directions for Future Research. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition5(4), 415-425.
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