We have all heard of physical load. But what about cognitive load?
Cognitive load refers to the mental exertion when performing a task. When our mind is filled to its capacity – such as when attempting to solve a complex sudoku – cognitive load is high.
Cognitive load is typically applied to the provision of instructions. More instructions translates to greater cognitive load, and when cognitive load exceeds a certain threshold, performance for the task at hand suffers.
An interesting question in sport is whether cognitive load is influenced by contextual information, such as match scenarios. This has implications for training, as coaches might seek to add or remove contextual information depending on the cognitive load of the task.
Oliver Runswick investigated this issue in a cricket batting anticipation task.
There were 18 participants – 9 skilled (played first grade club cricket or higher) and 9 less skilled (had no competitive club cricket playing experience).
All participants watched vision of bowlers on a large projector screen. The vision was occluded (i.e., the screen went blank) just prior to the ball being released. At this moment, the participant was required to mimic the action of striking the ball (as if the ball was actually coming towards them). Participant’s were also required to mark on a sheet of paper where they anticipated the ball was being projected. This was the primary measure of anticipation accuracy.
Participants performed the task in two conditions. In one condition, referred to as the context condition, participants were informed of additional contextual information, including field placements and match information (i.e., the score, match format, etc.).
In the other condition, referred to as the control condition, participants were not provided with any additional contextual information. Moreover, the same bowler was never presented twice in a row. Hence, anticipation of where the ball was being projected was based purely on kinematic information.
It was hypothesised that the additional contextual information in the context condition would increase the cognitive load for the less skilled participants, and anticipation performance would consequently decline.
In an attempt to further test this hypothesis, the authors asked participants to complete the task in each condition twice. However, the second time required participants to count backwards in 7s whilst doing the task. Counting backwards in 7s is a sure way to increases cognitive load, and this was hypothesised to hinder performance for the less skilled participants in a similar manner as the additional contextual information.
As expected, skilled participants anticipated the ball’s trajectory better than the less skilled participants.
Unexpectedly, however, the additional contextual information did not increase cognitive load (as indicated by participants ratings of mental effort). Moreover, both skilled and less skilled participants benefited from the contextual information. In fact, when participants were asked to retrospectively recall how they anticipated the ball’s trajectory, lesser skilled participants reported that they used field placements and sequencing information (i.e., the sequence of deliveries from a bowler) to aid anticipation.
When cognitive load was heightened via counting backwards, mental effort was higher, and performance for the less skilled participants, but not the skilled participants, declined.
Hence, increasing cognitive load did hinder performance for the less skilled participants, but providing additional contextual information did not increase cognitive load.
Take home message
Coaches should add context to training where possible – particularly basic information such as field placements. By adding context, players can learn how various situations influence future events. As the authors state:
“… even lesser skilled performers have the ability to quickly learn the meaning of, and to use some specific sources of, contextual information to aid anticipation.”
Runswick, O. R., Roca, A., Mark Williams, A., Bezodis, N. E., Mcrobert, A. P., & North, J. S. (2018). The impact of contextual information and a secondary task on anticipation performance: An interpretation using cognitive load theory. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 32(2), 141-149.