Be Careful What You Instruct: Working Memory Capacity & Decision Making

Working memory, also referred to as the brain’s notepad, has recently been examined as a variable that could influence sports performance. Specifically, individual differences in working memory capacity seems to influence decision making in specific scenarios.

The Experiments

Philip Furley & Daniel Memmert conducted two experiments to demonstrate this. The first experiment required basketball players to make tactical decisions of where to pass the ball. When irrelevant audio was played through headphones whilst performing the task, players with lower working memory capacity were distracted more easily and, consequently, displayed poorer decision making.

The second experiment involved ice hockey players making tactical decisions of when to shoot and pass. During specific trials, however, players were presented with specific instructions, such as:

“The opposing goal-keeper reacts really slowly to passes in front of the goal and sticks to his goal-line. Thus, parallel passes in front of the goal are a promising option.”

Whilst these instructions mostly led to correct decision, 33% of the time they led to an incorrect decision. Indeed, players with lower working memory capacity made more incorrect decisions during these trials.

Furley & Memmert (2012)
Figure extracted from Furley & Memmert (2012).

What do these results mean?

These experiments highlight that working memory capacity facilitates decision making in specific scenarios by: (a) controlling attention on the task whilst inhibiting distracting information and (b) resolving conflict when incorrect coaching instructions are provided. Coaches should therefore be aware of the impact that their instructions might have on a player’s decision making depending on the player’s working memory capacity.

A limitation of these experiments, however, was that decision making was assessed using static images, as opposed to a task that requires greater action fidelity. Future research should address this issue.

Furley, P. A., & Memmert, D. (2012). Working Memory Capacity as controlled attention in tactical decision making. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 34(3), 322.

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