How it is that an expert footballer can play a perfectly weighted 50 yard pass cutting through the oppositions defence when under immense pressure. Swap them with a considerably less skilled player like myself more often than not I would play a ‘wrong’ pass or get caught in possession. Questions are asked as to what key mechanisms distinguish between experts and their less skilled counterparts regarding, perception and the resulting thought processes (Mann et al. 2007).

Research findings have shown that an expert performer’s superior anticipation to some extent can be explained by their ability to recognise sport specific structures or patterns (Wiliams et al. 2006). Demonstrated in a notable study by Chase and Simon (1973), expert chess players could more accurately recall patterns of chess play in comparison to less skilled counterparts. This ability to recognise and recall such patterns of play have been replicated across numerous other sports (football, basketball).

As an athlete progresses within their sport, this accumulation of experience leads to what is known as ‘chunking’. A chunk is based within the Long Term Memory, and as a pattern is recognised this triggers the retrieval of a chunk which holds specific information regarding that situation.   For example if asked you to memorise these two sequences:

1.    19459992013

2.    37810494539

The first sequence would be considerably easier to memorise if the sequence is broken down into,

1945—999—2013

Therefore rather than remembering 11 numbers you will remember 3 pieces of information. Within football, a performer recognises a pattern of play and is then provided with information in which they can make an appropriate response. Whether that is to make an appropriate run, play a pass or dribble with the ball; ultimately there exists an endless list of options available to them.  It is the expert’s superior ability to plan and build dynamical situations on the fly which separates them from a less skilled player (Kintsch, 1998). This ability is explained by the Long Term Working Memory (LTWM) which increases the interaction between each memory store and allows for an increase in memory performance once associated with significant cues. Thus experts have superior retrieval structures, furthermore, provides numerous options to the individual enabling evaluations to occur and as a result improve quality of decisions made (Ericsson et al., 2000). The LTWM (McRoberts et al. 2009) consists of:

  • Monitoring statements – descriptive statements of current events.

Example- “A central midfielder has the ball”

  • Evaluation – positive/negative/neutral forms of a monitoring statement.

Example- “He played the ball into the box nice and early”

  • Prediction – statements which predict the following moments.

Example –“He looked like he was running into nowhere”

  • Planning – consider and filter through alternative options which may arise.

Example-“I thought he should have played it down the line”

Research has found experts compared to less skilled counterparts will process more evaluation, prediction and planning statements, whereas a less skilled player processes more monitoring statements (McRoberts et al. 2009). Within game situations this allows experts to plan further courses of action, predict alternative pattern of movements, evaluate the suggested ideas and ultimately execute the movement perceived to be the most appropriate.

Ultimately, an expert performer has an enhanced ability to:

  • Recognise the environment.
  • Evaluate the current situation
  • Plan particular paths of action
  • Predict the outcome of such action
  • As a result will perform the most suitable movement pattern.