Skill Automaticity in Sport: Coaching Strategies to Minimise 'Paralysis by Analysis'
Issue: Volume 29 Number 2
The nature of attention and automaticity in sport
Watch a skilled athlete completing a task from their sport of expertise and it’s easy to become spellbound by the ease with which they operate.
Whether it’s an experienced golfer taking a putt to win the championship or an elite cricketer hitting a pace bowler for six, there are numerous examples of individuals who perform with extreme control and precision, seemingly without any significant effort. The term commonly used to describe this phenomenon is 'automaticity'.
In the sporting domain, names such as James Hird and Roger Federer are often cited as athletes who have practiced to a point where they can operate in a largely automatic fashion, without having to invest large amounts of attention to execute the skills from their sport. Contrast this with a beginning athlete and you can start to appreciate the importance of automaticity in sport. A beginner typically devotes large amounts of attention and conscious thought to a task, attempting to process each of the various steps required to perform the skill.
To illustrate this point, consider a novice athlete learning to hit a tennis ball. In the early stages, there are a lot of steps to think about including watching the flight of the ball, judging the speed and bounce, moving into position, swinging the racket as instructed, and of course, making contact with the ball and hitting it back into court. Then, over a gradual period of time, and with large amounts of practice and experience, they may develop to a point where they no longer need to think about each of these step-by-step components and can achieve each of the aforementioned skills without large amounts of conscious attention, and hence, operate automatically. This 'frees-up' some of their attention, allowing it to be directed to other factors, such as watching an opponent’s movements to anticipate the direction of the shot.
What happens when an experienced athlete thinks about skill execution?
In recent times, researchers have investigated the nature of automaticity and its link to attention in skilled athletes. Basically, if a skill is well-learned, it is said to occur without conscious attention to the step-by-step components of the skill (Beilock et al. 2002). This can speed response times because the information doesn’t have to be processed in small, individual units (Masters et al. 1993). Instead, the skill is run off as larger chunks of information that occur without constant attentional control (Masters et al., 1993). Further research has shown, however, that when experts with skills that normally operate in an automatic fashion are asked to focus on the movement mechanics of their action, skill performance is significantly degraded (Beilock et al. 2002). For example, if an expert soccer player was asked to focus on 'kicking the ball off the laces', their performance is likely to suffer.
It is believed that instructions that refocus a skilled player’s attention to the step-by-step components of a skill, cause the performer to consciously control the normally efficient automatic processes, resulting in skill degradation and what is colloquially referred to as “paralysis by analysis”. The more complex the skill, the greater the disruption is likely to be (Masters et al. 1993). Competing in a high pressure situation, such as hitting a golf putt to win a major championship, can also lead to this sort of skill breakdown (Masters et al. 1993).
What can coaches do to help prevent paralysis by analysis?
Given the potentially detrimental effects of paralysis by analysis during sporting performance, it would seem important for coaches to use appropriate strategies to avoid this occurring in their athletes. If players are given instructions that are explicit and highly skill-focussed, or if they are likely to perform in high pressure environments, they may devote conscious attentional control to their performance, possibly resulting in skill breakdown. Yet, paradoxically, coaches must still provide some form of feedback and instruction in order to facilitate learning and acquisition of a skill. Therefore, the challenge for coaches is to develop approaches that provide pertinent information to players to refine their skills but to also avoid triggering paralysis by analysis. The following strategies may help to achieve this.
Strategy 1: cue words
A cue word could be used to take the athlete’s focus away from the performance of the movement but still direct their attention to an important, information rich element of the play (Magill 1998). In striking sports such as cricket, the batter could be asked to focus on the release point of the bowler’s hand by using cue words such as 'release point'. This will encourage the batter to watch an area that provides useful anticipatory information, taking the emphasis away from their own performance, and reducing the possibility of skill disruption. This strategy could be applied in other sports such as baseball, tennis and squash, as well as during penalty situations in hockey and soccer.
Strategy 2: alternative focus
For players with largely automated skills, it may be a good idea to direct their focus to other elements of performance such as strategies they could use during the game, including game plans and the potential outcomes of a decision (Beilock et al. 2002). For example, between deliveries, a cricket batter could direct their attention towards potential gaps in the field for scoring opportunities. For relatively closed skills such as swimming and rowing, athletes could be encouraged to focus their attention on implementing their race tactics to minimise conscious control of skill execution.
Strategy 3: analogy learning
Providing a general idea of how to perform a skill using an analogy, rather than a detailed set of instructions, is another approach that is common in many sports. For example, asking a table-tennis player to imagine they are running the bat along the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle when performing a topspin forehand, approximates the movement of the shot and encapsulates the important information, but does not provide excessive detail about the step-by-step components of the skill (Liao & Masters 2001).
In summary, well learned skills are thought to become highly automated, allowing them to be processed and performed with minimal amounts of conscious attention. When instructions and thoughts direct specific attention towards these processes, a normally efficient and automated performance can be disrupted. Cue words, strategies or analogy learning may be useful methods to direct attention away from performance, allowing the skill to occur with minimal disruption.
Beilock, SL, Carr, TH, MacMahon, C, and Starkes, JL 2002, 'When paying attention becomes counterproductive: impact of divided versus skill-focussed attention on novice and experienced performance of sensorimotor skills. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 8, pp6-16.
Liao, CM. & Masters, RSW 2001, 'Analogy learning: a means to implicit motor learning', Journal of Sports Sciences, 19, pp. 307-319.
Magill, RA 1998, 'Knowledge is more than we can talk about: uimplicit learning in motor skill acquisition'. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 69, pp. 104-110.
Masters, RSW, Polman, RCJ, & Hammond, NV 1993, Reinvestment: a dimension of personality implicated in skill breakdown under pressure', Personality and Individual Differences, 14, pp. 655-66.