Understanding Cognitive Load Theory in Sports Coaching

The principles of the Cognitive Load Theory in sports coaching context.

In sports coaching, the effectiveness of communication is paramount. Yet, have you ever wondered why some players seem to miss out on your instructions, while others fully grasp them? The Cognitive Load Theory provides an insightful answer, revealing the complexities of our working memory in retaining and processing information.

Read more: Understanding Cognitive Load Theory in Sports Coaching

The Mystery Behind Distracted Players

Every coach, particularly in football, has encountered this scenario: Explaining a tactic or technique, only to observe varied reactions from players. Some attentively absorb the details, while others seem distant, possibly distracted by a game in the background or personal issues. This inconsistency in attention and retention stems from the Cognitive Load Theory.

Diving Deep into the Cognitive Load Theory

At the heart of this theory is our working memory, a facet of the executive system. Responsible for holding onto information temporarily, it then processes it for long-term storage. However, its capacity is limited. Information is compartmentalized into ‘schemas’ and stored in our long-term memory. These schemas, neural pathways, strengthen with repetition and training. The influential Australian educational psychologist, John Sweller, championed this theory, emphasizing optimizing the limited space of our working memory. You can gain a deeper understanding of Sweller’s theory in this informative video.

Sweller’s Recommendations for Coaches

Sweller’s insights offer various practical takeaways for trainers. Most crucially, he advises presenting information in digestible chunks. If players receive insufficient context, they’ll be preoccupied with a problem, consuming too much memory space, leaving little room for new information. For instance, demonstrate a buildup tactic against high-pressing opponents to pre-solve this issue for them during games. Additionally, Sweller suggests building on prior knowledge, segmenting information, providing clear examples, and minimizing distractions. The goal? Efficiently move information from the working memory to the long-term memory without overburdening the former.

Challenging the Working Memory: An Alternative Approach

While most guidelines focus on easing the working memory’s load, some coaches, like Thomas Ruesink, a former youth trainer for PSV, argue for the opposite. In this video, Thomas elucidates the benefits of cognitively stimulating players.

Another advocate of this approach is Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea’s head coach. This Twitter thread elaborates on his tactics.

Even though our working memory has its limits, some hypothesize that, much like elastic, it can stretch. By adding more tasks and cognitive strain, the memory might expand, enhancing its storage and processing capacities. It’s a budding hypothesis with no concrete evidence in football yet, but it paves the way for future exploration.


The Cognitive Load Theory offers profound insights into the cognitive intricacies athletes face during training. By understanding and leveraging this knowledge, coaches can ensure effective teaching, fostering enhanced performance on the field.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top