Working memory, dopamine responsiveness and winning decisive sets in tennis

What does working memory and dopamine responsiveness have to do with playing well under pressure in tennis? Eric Bijleveld and Harm Veling recently found that club-level competitive tennis players with a greater working memory capacity and lower dopamine responsiveness won more decisive sets during matches. This was thought to represent performing well under pressure.

What is working memory capacity?

Working memory capacity represents the ability to control attention in the face of distraction (e.g., crowd noise).

Working memory capacity was measured with the Operation Span Task. This required participants to remember specific letters whilst simultaneously solving simple mathematical equations.

What is dopamine responsiveness?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that modulates the prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain that supports working memory. Dopamine is released when people are motivated to perform. This allows the prefrontal cortex to exert control over other brain areas, consequently optimising performance on most tasks. Individual differences  exist in the amount of dopamine released for a given task. This is referred to as dopamine responsiveness.

Dopamine responsiveness was measured with the Balloon Analogue Risk Task. This required participants to blow up a virtual balloon on a computer. Blowing up the balloon resulted in the participant earning money, however it also increased the risk of popping the balloon and losing the money.

How are working memory & dopamine responsiveness connected?

If too much dopamine is released, the prefrontal cortex cannot exert control over other brain areas. Consequently performance suffers on tasks that require working memory. Sports performers who are more prone to releasing high amounts of dopamine are therefore more likely to experience performance failure under pressure.

What did the study on tennis matches reveal?

There were 3 key findings:

  1. Working memory capacity predicted better performance during decisive sets (hence, a larger working memory was considered advantageous).
  2. Dopamine responsiveness predicted worse performance during decisive sets (hence, releasing too much dopamine was considered disadvantageous).
  3. The influence that working memory capacity has on performance under pressure was less for players who were more likely to release high amounts of dopamine. The authors argued that this was because excessive dopamine release mitigates the influence of working memory capacity.
Extracted from Bijleveld & Veling (2014). AOSPAN = measure of working memory capacity. BART = measure of dopamine responsiveness. Choking Index = performance during the decisive sets of tennis matches


Bijleveld, E., & Veling, H. (2014). Separating Chokers From Nonchokers: Predicting Real-Life Tennis Performance Under Pressure From Behavioral Tasks That Tap Into Working Memory Functioning. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 36(4), 347-356.


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