A Leaders Performance Institute article brought to you in association with the
By John Portch
What happens when an athlete fails to execute a skill they have reproduced hundreds of times in training or practice?
According to Jesse Rissman, a professor of cognitive psychology and behavioral neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, those reps may be part of the problem.
“It can be an impediment if you’re too focused,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “Having the goal in mind, whether it’s a free throw in basketball or a penalty kick in soccer, is important, but if you’re overthinking it and having too many explicit thoughts going on then you might override your implicit skill.
“You can get anxious about it and you try to think about it is as a series of cognitive steps and commands that you need to do as opposed to letting your brain execute the skill more naturally.”
In discussing an athlete’s response to the stimuli of their environment Rissman is addressing the broader topic of memory and memorization – the process of committing something to memory. It is out of the University of California, Los Angeles, that he oversees the Rissman Memory Lab, a cognitive neuroscience laboratory based in the school’s Department of Psychology.
He says: “Memorization is a very general concept where you’re practicing a specific domain of knowledge and trying to commit information to memory so that it can be retrieved more fluently.” It relates to the recall of something such as a playbook – known as declarative memory – but, as Rissman goes on to explain, it might also refer to the skills themselves – acquired through what he describes as procedural knowledge.
Either way, there are steps coaches can take to help their athletes strengthen their memories and their learning.
“It’s about encouraging athletes not to think of memory as a fixed ability,” he adds. “I think a coach could train an athlete to use mnemonic techniques to make information more memorable and not just engage in rote memorization.”
Declarative memory vs procedural knowledge
The next topic on the agenda is the idea of interleaving in practice: practicing one domain within others to make that skill acquisition more effective. Rissman describes the process through the travails of a notional basketball player with a weakness at the free throw line: “If they go to the court and just practice free throws all day they will get better over the course of an hour or a day; this is called ‘massed practice’.
“But when you come in the next day you won’t necessarily resume where you left off. Research demonstrates that it’s better to use interleaved practice; if you want to get better at your free throws you should interleave your free throw shooting with some lay-ups or three pointers.”
The skill acquired through this manner of interleaved practice builds declarative memory.
This would be the moment to make the distinction between declarative memory and procedural knowledge: “Declarative memory is something you can talk about describe. The kind of memory skills that go into memorizing the names of plays or who is supposed to go where.
“Part of that learning is going to be skill acquisition, where practicing again and again will make it become more automatic – this is procedural knowledge. Sometimes lay people refer to it as ‘muscle memory’ but this is a misnomer because the memory is not in the muscles – it’s in the brain and it’s a certain kind of learning where the motor cortex and premotor cortex, cerebellum, the basal ganglia; these cortical and subcortical regions interact in a way that helps you to learn a new skill, whether that’s riding a bike or playing a musical instrument.
The Rissman Memory Lab researches mnemonic – memory-related – techniques, which Rissman defines as: “the little tricks you can apply to make the information much more likely to stick and make it more deeply connected.”
This leads us on to the method of loci, or the memory palace technique. “This is used to take advantage of the fact our memory system has evolved mostly to help us navigate the environment,” explains Rissman. “We’re very good at visual memory; we remember routes to get to and from various places, whether that’s for food, safety or shelter. We have a good ability to conjure up vivid mental imagery.
“The memory palace technique involves mapping out a familiar route such as your daily commute or even walking through your house. You take the thing you want to memorize, say, for example, a play, and you know the play has a name and you’re going to put it on the driveway. You’ll put another one on the stoop in front of the house, another on the stairs; maybe another in the bathroom.
“It can be hard at first because you’re not familiar with using the strategy but once you’ve done it you can get pretty good and be surprised when you walk through this memory palace in your mind, hours or even days later, and everything is right where you left it.
“What you’re doing is finding non-spatial information – words or numbers – in these spatial locations and that environment is the scaffolding to both strengthen your memory of the non-spatial information and help you remember in a specific sequence; putting them in a route gives you a timeline, gives you an organisation that can help you remember those individual details in order.”
Retrieval and testing
The memory palace is but one memorization technique. Rissman says: “There are others that involve trying to remember someone’s name or where you left your keys. If someone introduces themselves you may not recall their name in five minutes but if you can connect it somehow – think of what their name rhymes with or who else has that name or think of a symbol – that can make it more memorable.
“Any effort you do to link it with other knowledge or think about it in an elaborate way will make it more retrievable later because you’ll connect it with other pieces of knowledge in your mind that will serve as retrieval cues.
“We store a lot of information but we don’t always have the route to get that information. When you’re doing a crossword puzzle, you might remember an actor’s name or the name of a river in France; you would know if it’s multiple choice but you can’t think of it now and the problem is not that the knowledge isn’t there, you just don’t know how to get to it.
“Having more routes, these inroads, helps you pop from one thought to the next through these associations. That’s really key. All of these strategies involve taking a piece of arbitrary knowledge and associating it with other things, to more richly integrate it into the network.”
Rissman suggests that this is most effective way to strengthen memory is through retrieval or testing – not that people always understand how this best works.
“When you give people information to study they often feel like they’re testing themselves but they don’t always go through the exercise of quizzing themselves and really forcing themselves to retrieve.
“Even if you come up empty you sort of remember what the play was or what it was called, but if you’re not testing yourself you’re not getting that benefit, that act of searching through your memory. Coming up empty helps to create the retrieval route and once you get the correct answer through feedback it not only updates the memory with the correct information but it also becomes more encoded in your memory than it would otherwise have been. It’s called the ‘testing effect’.
“When you retrieve a memory at its weakest point, nearly forgotten but not quite, and then you study or re-practice it, the strengthening you get has the biggest long-term effect.”
Goal-directed cognitive control
The Rissman Lab also investigates the influence of goal-directed attention and its impact on memory.
He delves into the topic with the Leaders Performance Institute with a view to changing bad habits or effecting change in performance: “Cognitive control in general is the act of processing information in a way that doesn’t rely on automatic association. You see a word and read it, that doesn’t take much control; if you’re driving along a simple route that you drive every day, it doesn’t take much control.
“The control is trying to monitor an ongoing process and intervene to override a pre-existing association and do something else; to monitor what’s happening and do something else. And the reason you’re going to change it is to accomplish a goal.
“In baseball, for example, players will routinely fling out a bat or they may continually fall for the inside slider, they swing for it and they can’t lay off. So exerting control would be overriding that urge to swing when certain cues will tell you what’s going to happen and you’ve built up an unhealthy association or an unhelpful habit of acting a certain way that keeps leading you to the wrong outcome.
“To change that you need control, you need to inhibit what we call a preponent response, an automatic response – in order to do something else to accomplish the goal.”
Plenty of food for thought for coaches but, as Rissman explains, the athlete is key, particularly when it comes to memorization. “They can be overwhelmed when memorizing information like a playbook because they might have had negative experiences in a schooling setting. Coaches should encourage them not to think of memory as a fixed ability.
“It is true that it comes more naturally for some than others but that’s an unhelpful attitude and anyone can use their memory more effectively.”
The Platypus Institute has teamed up with the Leaders Performance Institute to drive the growth of neuroscience in the sport and high performance space.