Self-regulation – a cognitive skill to monitor progress?

According to Richards (2011), “self-regulation refers to the process in which individuals monitor, manage, and control their behaviours, thoughts, emotions, and interactions with the environment, including task performance but also including social interactions”. Due to its large scope, self-regulation allows individuals an opportunity to understand how responses can be coordinated across a wide range of different coping skills and strategies (e.g., self-talk/self-instruction, cognitive restructuring, humour, etc.).  With such a broad focus, self-regulation enables an individual to understand the loss of control which could be linked with a night of heavy drinking following a failure, lashing out at someone, or other less desirable behaviours which are frequently witnessed across a variety of performance domains. By adopting a self-regulatory approach, individuals are able to develop coping skills and potentially avoid such lapses and episodes from occurring more frequently, reducing the likelihood of them becoming significant negative influences. Chen & Singer (1992) define self-regulation as “actions occurring during the actual performance of a cognitive task that allow an individual to control or direct his own activity through self-imposed rules or regulations that better adapt his performance to different circumstances or surroundings”. The primary function of self-regulation has been viewed as the ability to think meta-strategically, in other words, thinking about what you are thinking. For example, a student receives a lower grade than predicted and the student is confused and disappointed. As the student leaves school, thoughts are based around achieving his/her other predicted grades and the potential danger of receiving yet another low grade. As he/she takes in all the information and makes a decision, meta-strategic processes run simultaneously allowing him/her to check how this is going. For example, imagine the teacher offered suggestions on how to be more proactive with revision over less proactive ways. The student’s ‘ideal’ concept of how he/she should operate in these situations includes consultation and consideration of absorbing advice and using it to their benefit. Meta-strategic thinking flags a warning sign informing the student that their current revision technique (e.g., re-reading lots of information, not acting upon advice) deviates from his/her ideal. He/she is then able to quickly change their actions, act upon the advice given (matching their ideal) and proceed to making a decision. This concept has also been referred to as a negative feedback loop (Carver & Scheier, 1981), in which the current situation (e.g., revision technique/decision-making) was comparing what the student ought to be doing, and the mismatch became an impetus for action.

Meta-strategic thinking (a component of self-regulation) can be separated into different activities, with some of the functions are listed below:

  • Monitoring:
    • How am I doing? Do I feel how I want to feel before an exam or performance?
  • Plan and select responses:
    • I feel a bit tense. I need to go for a walk/do some light stretches
  • Organise and execute response
    • I’ll go for a 15-minute walk and do some stretches using the usual stretch routine I use before a light training session
  • Evaluate consequences:
    • I feel fine now but a bit thirsty (this last comment would trigger further monitoring against what the performer would like as an ideal)
  • Learning:
    • I might think about putting this into my plan for performance

Positive motivation akin to confidence and optimism in preparation for a task is another component of self-regulation. When working with athletes and/or individuals it is important that they are expected and/or trained to self-regulate. This will then increase their confidence in their ability to implement this cognitive skill effectively and also ensure that they are more likely to choose and persist with adopting this approach going forward. Being able to self-regulate effectively by promoting positive motivation will enable the individual to see repeated episodes of self-belief (confidence) which will support them in developing and maintaining this approach. Teaching individuals to use and incorporate process goals as opposed to outcome goals is one way to achieve this.

Behavioural management is the final component of self-regulation which can include the ability to manage the environment and others effectively. Despite research suggesting that emotional intelligence is important for individuals to deliberate (e.g., Zizzi & Deaner, 2003), the concept of self-regulation already recognises the important function of this activity. For example, when performers are receiving training in problem solving and assertiveness as part of their coping programme, they will need to manage behaviours in order to effectively organise the environment. This is an important part of self-regulatory training.

For any individual or performer, this is clearly a valuable yet potentially underutilised skill which enables athletes to monitor their progress and gives them ample opportunity to take control. This is especially important as individuals become more independent, needing to review their own progress and execute their own strategies to achieve the desired outcome. With such large support networks, individuals are often able to rely on others for advice and direction, but by utilising self-regulation themselves, they will become more aware of how their brain functions, and as a result, how it impacts upon their behaviour and performance.

ReferencesShow all


Carver, C.S., & Scheier, M.F., (1981). Attention and self-regulation: a control theory approach to human behaviour. Springer, New York.

Chen, D., & Singer, R.N., (1992). Self-regulation and cognitive strategies in sport participation. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 23, 277-300.

Collins, D., Button, A., & Richards, H., (2011). Performance Psychology: A Practitioner’s Guide. Elsevier.

Zizzi, S.J., & Deaner, H.R., (2003). The relationship between emotional intelligence and performance among college basketball players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 262-269.