Selecting cognitive tasks for an athlete's cognitive training plan is often the most tricky part of the programming process for coaches and teams. Many suffer from paralysis by analysis because there are so many tasks to choose from, and there are many variables to take into consideration. Is the plan well-rounded? Which combination of tasks is best? Is the athlete loaded correctly? We have so much to consider.

Most cognitive tasks impose varying levels of each cognitive demand so we have categorized the cognitive task based on the dominant cognitive demand.

  • Memory

  • Attention

  • Response Inhibition

  • Decision Making

The 5 step task selection process is as follows,

  • Identify the cognitive demands for your athlete's sport.

  • Create a Baseline Test.

  • Analyze the Data.

  • Create the Cognitive Training Plan.

  • Perform a Baseline Comparison.


Step One

Identify the cognitive demands for your athlete's sport.

Here, the first step is to think about your athlete's sport. You need to read the list of demand definitions below and put yourself into your athlete's shoes. Go through the list of demands below and think about how they apply to your athlete when they are competing. This will give you an idea of which demands may be key for their sport and position.


Memory is the ability to consciously hold and use information.

Is your athlete required to consider various tactical options in their mind and select the best one depending on what unfolds during the game?


Attention involves focusing mental awareness on relevant environmental cues and maintaining that concentration.

Is your athlete required to stay focused for long periods, such as being able to ignore irrelevant information, change their attentional focus, or pay close and continuous attention to what’s going on around them?


Response Inhibition refers to the ability to suppress inappropriate, irrelevant, or suboptimal actions.

Is your athlete required to inhibit responses during a game, such as not responding to an opponent’s feint (i.e., “not tricked into buying a dummy”)?


Decision-Making is the cognitive process resulting in the selection of an option or a course of action among several possible alternative options.

Is your athlete required to constantly make decisions based on new information becoming available?

ALL cognitive tasks require decision-making.

We have classified pure decision-making tasks as cognitive tasks without added memory or inhibition components.


Once you have identified the most dominant demands of your athlete's sport, order the list of demands starting with most dominant to least dominant. Most athletes will require all demands to some degree but not equally. Here you decide the order from most dominant to least dominant to lay the foundation for the next step, designing the baseline.


Step Two

Create a Baseline Test.

Now that you have identified a dominance hierarchy of cognitive demands for your athlete's sport it is time to build a bespoke baseline test for them. The task selections will be based on your athlete's current cognitive capabilities as follows:

  • Select 2 tasks from each of the categories from your athlete's dominant category list.

  • If your athlete only has one dominant category, they may have 4 tasks in their baseline.

  • If you have found your athlete's cognitive demands are spread fairly evenly, select 1-2 tasks from each list with a maximum of 6 tasks in their baseline.

DO NOT overthink this step. The purpose is to collect data to estimate where their current capabilities are. This is the point where coaches begin to overthink which task to select, focus on the cognitive demand, and adapt the load of the tasks as needed. Soma Analytics gives coaches the ability to make even an easy task difficult with specialized training modes.

For Example,

You may select a very basic cognitive task with a minimal cognitive load but apply a specialized training mode to adapt the task in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • Maintain heart rate in a particular heart rate zone during the task.

  • Have the task adapt based on performance.

  • Have the task adapt based on heart rate variability (HRV).

  • Extend the task duration based on errors.

  • Have the athlete respond to a secondary task stimulus.

Specialized Training Modes allow you to take any cognitive task and manipulate the cognitive load.

Cognitive demands need to be continually incrementally increased or few gains are seen. (Bergman Nutley et al. 2011, Holmes et al. 2009, Klingberg et al. 2005)

Cognitive demands list and corresponding cognitive tasks.

Baseline Guidelines

We suggest the following when creating a baseline test,

Cognitive Task Selection

  • 2 cognitive tasks per cognitive demand.

  • a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 6 cognitive tasks per baseline test.

Remember you need plenty of data in order to make good decisions. Baselines that are too short (with not enough tasks) will not allow you to pinpoint where your athlete is struggling because the tasks are not long enough to tax them sufficiently to tire them out. Also, short baselines will not give you enough data in terms of the number of responses (i.e., micro-decisions).

However, we should be mindful that baseline assessments are also training their brain and so we need to load them carefully according to the stage of their year-long season. Here we must strike a delicate balance of obtaining the data needed, without disrupting the athlete's training regime.


Baseline Duration

The length of their baseline will depend on where they are in the season. We want to get the information we need and not overload them in the midst of their current training program.

  • Off-Season 45-60 min

  • Pre Season 30-45 min

  • In Season 20-30 min

Task Duration

Use the cognitive tasks you have selected, to make up at least the minimum time requirement for your baseline.

  • 5 min

  • 10 min

  • 20 min

Specialized Training Modes

Apply specific modes depending on the goals you want to set for the mesocycle.

🔗 Learn More

Example Baseline

Attention

  • Double Mackworth - 5 min

  • RVIP - 5 min

Inhibition

  • CMSIT - 5 min

DRT Mode applied to CMSIT

Memory

  • 4 Choice Flanker - 5 min

  • 2 Back - 5 min

  • PASAT - 5 min

TSM Mode applied to 4 Choice Flanker & 2 Back.

Total Baseline Duration - 30 min


Step Three

Analyze the Data.

Once your athlete has completed the baseline test, have a look at their data and identify their strongest and weakest cognitive tasks for that cognitive demand. The best tool for this is the Profiling Tool in Soma Analytics.

The Soma Analytics profiling tool gives you percentile breakdowns for each cognitive task across all measures. Performances are categorized into Elite, Average, and Poor.

This profiling tool gives coaches insights into their athlete's cognitive performance and makes it easier to see at a glance, how an athlete performed in their baseline test. Therefore, we suggest you use Soma Profiling to assist you in your decision-making process when creating your athlete's cognitive baseline and training plan.

Generally speaking, if your athlete falls in the elite range for all the cognitive tasks you have selected for their baseline test, you may have underloaded the baseline (i.e., made it too easy for them). You will need to find harder or more intense tasks for that cognitive demand or apply a specialized training mode to increase the load on the athlete's brain. Most athletes will struggle with at least two areas of cognitive training when they begin. If your athlete is acing everything (i.e., universally performing at an elite level), go back and create a new and more difficult baseline for them before you move to the next step.

🔗 How To Vary Cognitive Load With Specialized Training Modes.

Soma Profiling Tool

Learn More

🔗 How To Integrate Cognitive Training.

🔗 How To Optimize Your Athletes Error Detection.

🔗 How to Assess Your Athlete’s Attentional Capacity.

🔗 How To Manipulate Cognitive Load With Task Duration.

🔗 How To Manipulate Cognitive Load With Task Intensity.

🔗 Understanding your Athlete's Cognitive Data.

🔗 How to Interpret your Athlete’s Cognitive Data.


Step Four

Create the Cognitive Training Plan.

Based on the data from the baseline test you should now see your athlete's strengths and weaknesses and can now begin selecting cognitive tasks from the cognitive demands you want to focus on during the current mesocycle. This step is usually a hurdle for most people, who ask themselves “Which cognitive task do I select?” It is best to try and not overthink at this stage – remember that this is an interactive process – you may need to adapt the plan, sometimes more than once, to optimize it for your athlete.

When designing the cognitive training plan we suggest focusing on your athlete’s weakest cognitive demand and then building their cognitive training plan by adding elements of the stronger cognitive demands, with a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of weak to strong demands. For example, if your athlete performed "poor" in the tasks chosen from the attention demand in the baseline, and "average" in the tasks selected from the inhibition demand in the baseline, your training plan could contain 2 attention tasks for every 1 inhibition task.

This means the cognitive training plan is not just focusing on their weaknesses or strengths but rather is a mix/blend of both. Remember that you are only as good as your weakest link but you still need to maintain and update your strong cognitive skills. A broad program – made up of core demands that comprise cognitive demands that need improvement as well as cognitive demands that need maintenance - is the proven key to success.

Adapt the load to the current season.

We suggest that you adapt your athlete’s plan to fit in with the phase of their season: sessions should be relatively long, medium, and short in the off-season, pre-season, and in-season, respectively.

Select tasks from the cognitive demand you want to focus on and apply the principles from these loading guidelines when deciding on the session durations and intensities in the plan.

Just like in physical training there is NO magical cognitive training task. Instead, the magic is in the reps, sets, rest combinations, and layers within a training plan. The same principle applies to cognitive training. Apply sufficient intensity, duration, and a specialized mode that increases the cognitive load on your athlete's brain. Track the data (i.e., check how well they are performing on the task) and adapt (revise the plan) as needed.

Cognitive Training Plan Loading Guidelines

  • Session Duration is the total length of each cognitive training session.

  • Task Duration is the total length of each cognitive task.

  • Frequency is the number of times the athlete performs their cognitive training per week.

Off-Season

Session Duration

  • 40 minutes

Frequency

  • 3-4 sessions per week

Task Duration

  • 10 min, 20 min, 30 min

Pre-Season

  • Session Duration

  • 30 minutes

Frequency

  • 3-4 sessions per week

Task Duration

  • 5 min, 10 min, 20 min

In-Season

Session Duration

  • 20 minutes

Frequency

  • 3-4 sessions per week

Task Duration

  • 3 min, 5 min, 10 min

When building your athlete's cognitive training plan we suggest selecting 3-4 cognitive tasks per cognitive demand with a maximum of 12 cognitive tasks per mesocycle. This arrangement will ensure that there is some but not too much variation of tasks in the cognitive training plan. You do not need dozens of different tasks during a single training cycle, but instead, you want a small battery of targeted cognitive tasks with sufficient load.

Once this is complete you will need to ensure you have a periodization model for the training plan to avoid any performance plateaus and thereby keep your athlete moving in the right direction. Just like physical training, you must push your athlete to make them progress. This plateauing happens because humans learn how to perform any cognitive task that is completed multiple times. Importantly, repeating the same task with the same load each week will not improve your athlete's performance.

🔗 The Principles of Undulating Periodization and Cognitive Training.

🔗 The Principles of Cognitive Progressive Overload.

Training Plan Example

Progressive Overload Mesocycle

  • Increase Task Intensity/Duration: Weekly

  • Cognitive Tasks: 12

  • Mesocycle Duration: 4 weeks

Week 1

Session 1

  • Sustained Attention - 5 min

  • RVIP - 5 min

  • Double Mackworth - 5 min

Session 2

  • Colour Shape Task - 10 min - Intensity 60%

  • Task Switching - 10 min - Intensity 60%

  • TLDB - 10m - Intensity 60%

Session 3

  • MSIT - 10 min

  • 4 Choice Flanker - 10 min - Intensity 70%

  • Dots Task - 10 min - Intensity 70%

Week 2

  • Session 1 - Increase Task Duration

  • Session 2 - Increase Task Intensity

  • Session 3 - Increase Task Intensity/Duration

Week 3

  • Session 1 - Increase Task Duration

  • Session 2 - Increase Task Intensity

  • Session 3 - Increase Task Intensity/Duration

Week 4

  • Session 1 - Increase Task Duration

  • Session 2 - Increase Task Intensity

  • Session 3 - Increase Task Intensity/Duration

  • 48-72 hours of Rest

  • Retest Baseline


Step Five

Baseline Comparison

Once the training plan has been completed you must analyze the data. Soma Analytics gives you the ability to get a breakdown of each cognitive measure per task as well as the overall change in cognitive performance. You can now identify which demands improved and which demands need to improve and therefore should be targeted in your athlete’s next cognitive training plan.

🔗 Understanding Cognitive Baseline Data.

🔗 How to Interpret your Athlete’s Cognitive Data.

Repeat.

These are the 5 steps needed to select the best tasks for your athlete's sport. Do and repeat. Below we have included more detail on each cognitive demand and recent research shows that the dominant cognitive functions depend on the type of sport.



FAQs

Frequently asked questions.

Am I just improving on the task? How does this cognitive training transfer to sports performance?

The cognitive task can be viewed as a stimulus that targets a specific cognitive demand. As your brain adapts to the stimulus during learning you might notice that you process information faster and more consistently and therefore improve your performance on the cognitive task just like physical exercise training.

Correct loading and periodization, ensures that you do not allow the athlete to fully adapt to the cognitive stimulus. The specialized training modes allow you to deliver a wider and more diverse range of training stimuli to the athlete. This is just like physical training where you may apply different tactics to an exercise to increase the load on the athlete, such as chains, bands, negatives, etc.

Brain Endurance Training (BET) can decrease perception of effort so athletes can mentally and physically outperform their competition. By analogy, this form of cognitive training gives the athlete a stronger and more powerful neural engine than their competition. BET has also been proven to improve athletes’ neural efficiency in exercising, reflected in how much oxygen their pre frontal cortex needs when performing a physical task.

Can I select any task from the cognitive demands list?

Yes, you may select any task from the cognitive demand you want to focus on for the mesocycle.

Why do I need such a large selection of cognitive tasks?

Every task has slightly different parameters and what one athlete finds easy another athlete will find difficult. Our brains are unique.

Are all tasks equally demanding?

Even though the tasks will target a specific cognitive demand the task load can vary.

Rather than changing the task is it better to apply a specialized mode to increase the load of the task?

Yes, that is a good option. You can select a mode that fits with the athlete's goals before changing tasks.

Can I leave core fundamental tasks in each program but vary the duration/intensity so the athlete does not plateau?

Yes, once you have identified fundamental tasks for your athlete's ongoing performance we suggest keeping these in their program. Make sure you also apply specialized modes to keep your athlete fully engaged in these fundamental tasks.

Do I really need to be specific with my task selection? or can I just do a bit of everything?

This is not advisable. Try to be as specific as you can with the cognitive demands you want to focus on for the mesocycle.


Athletes have different dominant cognitive functions depending on the type of sport.

Athletes in interceptive sports demonstrated advanced

  • Visuospatial functioning and processing speed.

Athletes in strategic sports showed superior

  • Executive function

  • Working memory

  • Cognitive flexibility

Athletes in static sports demonstrated

  • The fastest visuoperceptual processing.

This study’s findings help us understand the cognitive characteristics of athletes in interceptive, strategic, and static sports. This understanding can be used to spot and recruit athletes based on their cognitive skills.

🔗 Learn More


What is Working Memory?

Working memory is the ability to consciously hold and utilize information. Working memory is a crucial aspect for many sports. It has been found that individuals with a higher working memory are better able to stay focused on a particular task. A study in Sweden found that elite athletes scored higher on working memory tasks than amateur athletes. The researchers believe that this was because an enhanced working memory helps athletes process and comprehend what is going on during the game. Having a strong working memory allows an athlete to continually change and adapt their own game plan, while also predicting their competitor’s plan.

🔗 Attention, working-memory control, working-memory capacity, and sport performance: The moderating role of athletic expertise.

🔗 The role of working memory in sport.

🔗 Attention, working-memory control, working-memory capacity, and sport performance: The moderating role of athletic expertise.

Memory Tasks

  • Task Switching

  • Spatial Span

  • PASAT

  • TLDB

  • 2 Back

  • Visual Digit Span

  • Tachistoscope

  • PVSAT

  • Colour Shape Task

  • 4 Choice Flanker


What is Attention?

Attention is the ability of an athlete to keep resources concentrated on a task. This is important because athletes are exposed to an infinite number of variables in their sport, so they must athletes can focus on only the stimuli that are relevant. It is often also called focus or concentration. Attention involves focusing mental effort on relevant environmental cues and maintaining that attention.

There are many forms of attention which can be classified into:

  • Focused attention: is having the ability to focus on one task for an unlimited amount of time without distraction.

  • Sustained attention: is a process that enables the maintenance of response persistence and continuous effort over extended periods of time.

  • Vigilance: the process of paying close and continuous attention. It is often described as a quality or state of alertness or watchfulness. Vigilance can also be thought of as the extent of readiness to detect, or the likelihood of detecting, a stimulus that is imperative to safety.

  • Selective attention: involves focusing on a specific stimulus while ignoring other competing or distracting stimuli. Selective attention can be conscious or unconscious. Often a person can be selectively attending to an object without realizing it, especially if he or she is an expert in the particular task where attention is required.

  • Divided attention: refers to instances when an individual must conduct multiple tasks at the same time, and the tasks compete for limited attention resources. This situation is often referred to as multitasking and can be very dangerous since attention resources are strained when an individual attempts to complete multiple tasks simultaneously.

  • Alternating attention: refers to instances when an individual switches attention between tasks that require different thought processes.

  • Attentional control: refers to an individual's capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore.

Attention Tasks

  • Visual Reaction Test

  • Audio Reaction Test

  • Multi-Object Training

  • Eye-Hand Coordination

  • PVT

  • PVT-B

  • Anticipation

  • Posner

  • Time Perception

  • Mackworth

  • AX-CPT

  • RVIP

  • 4 Choice Reaction

  • 0 Back

  • Attention Switching

  • Double Mackworth


What is Response Inhibition?

Response inhibition refers to the suppression of actions that are inappropriate in a given context and that interfere with goal-driven behavior. It has been shown that athletes acting in dynamic environments exhibit superior motor inhibitory control based on sensory stimuli.

Response Inhibition Tasks

  • Go No Go Visual Test

  • Go No Go Audio Test

  • Stroop Test

  • Switched Attention Test

  • Dynamic Vision Trainer

  • Visual Stop Signal

  • Audio Stop Signal

  • Inverted Stroop

  • Switched Stop Visual

  • Audio Stop Signal

  • Visual Inhibition

  • Sustained Attention

  • Audio Choice Go No Go

  • Visual Choice Go No Go

  • AV Choice Go No Go

  • Numerical Inhibition

  • MSIT

  • Simon Task

  • Incongruent Flanker

  • Flanker Compatibility

  • Tactile Motor Go No Go

  • Visual Motor Go No Go

  • Audio Motor Go No Go

  • AV Motor Go No Go

  • Dots Task

  • Spatial Stroop

  • CMSIT


What is Decision Making?

Decision-making is the cognitive process resulting in the selection of a course of action among several possible alternative options. Decision-making in sports plays an important role in individual performance. When compared to novices, experts are described as being able to read the game better, to demonstrate superior game intelligence, and appear as if they have all the time in the world to perform an action.

Decision Making Tasks

  • Visual Choice Test

  • Audio Choice Test

  • AV Choice

  • Congruent Stroop

  • Visual Search

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