The Cognitive Revolution Hits Sports

posted on: May 11, 2020
author: Anthony Pellegrino

Ink in water that resembles the brain, an obvious cornerstone of cognitive science

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Something really interesting happened in the world of psychology during the 1950s. 

Students of psychology know it as:

The Cognitive Revolution.

Before this, a school of thought called “behaviorism” was rooted in the psychological status quo.

This approach was, unsurprisingly, focused on the behavior of humans and animals. 

Think of Pavlov’s famous experiment with the dogs.

Shortly before the turn of the 20th century, Ivan Pavlov was conducting research on the salivation of dogs while eating.

Soon into his experiments, he realized that the dogs were salivating in response to other things besides the mere presence of food. 

For example, their mouths began to water upon the sight of the lab assistant that normally fed them or when they heard approaching footsteps coming from the hall.

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Pavlov realized that the dogs learned to associate other stimuli with their getting food, which had the effect of making their mouths water. 

He put this idea to the test and later was successfully able to teach the dogs to salivate at the sound of a metronome and a bell.

Jim Halpert does this very same thing with Altoids to Dwight in season 3 of The Office. Check it out:

This is what is known as “classical conditioning.” Later psychologists expanded the concept with the addition of “operant conditioning,” which is essentially the same premise with punishments and rewards added into the mix. 

There’s obviously a whole lot more to it, but that’s Behaviorism in a nutshell. 


Behaviorists believed that our behavior is all that’s necessary to explain our psychology. They regarded our psychologies as merely the relationships between certain input stimuli and their corresponding output behaviors. 

However, you may be realizing this doesn’t necessarily get the whole picture. Such an approach may be lacking in its explanatory power. As there definitely seems to be more to our psychology than inputs and outputs.

After all, we’re not just computers or robots.

This is precisely what cognitive psychologists in the 1950s were thinking too. 

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

You see, the behaviorists did acknowledge the existence of thinking (imagine that), but suggested it was merely behavior. The new cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, rejected this, claiming that cognition is capable of changing behavior, and the behaviorist model couldn’t actually explain that.

And so, various methods in computer science, neuroscience, linguistics, psychology, and philosophy merged into one interdisciplinary framework, which would later be called “cognitive science.”

This new psychological paradigm is chiefly concerned with the study of cognition, which can be broadly defined as “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” 

The cognitive approach would go onto replace behaviorism as the dominant line of research when it comes to human psychology, eventually giving behaviorism its final boot in the 1980s. 

This new approach totally changed psychologists’ attitudes towards the mind. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that this new attitude has hit sports too.

Cognitive Training & Sports Performance

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Every sport out there requires a whole range of cognitive functions just to perform at all, let alone perform them well. 

Attention, memory, strategy, emotional regulation, these are all cognitive skills that can make or break your game. 

And in the shadow of the Cognitive Revolution, computerized cognitive training has become a booming field.

While more research is still needed, “Cognitive training has shown efficacy in terms of post-training performance on cognitive testing.”

Companies such as Axon Sports and Neurotracker have already developed some cognitive training products designed just for athletes. 

As of now, thousands and thousands of performers are training with some type of cognitive training like these.

The jury’s still out on exactly how effective CT is for sports performance. But it’s crazy to think that you can attain your peak performance without tending to the mental game. 

As you can imagine, we’re big fans of the Cognitive Revolution here at PerformanceXtra. 

We recognized that the mental game is not only crucial for your performances, but it’s actually the very thing that so often determines victory. 

That’s why we founded PerformanceXtra in 2009 to fill the need for solid coaching in the area of mental performance. 

We’re here to help players actualize their peak performance by tapping into the power of their own minds and giving them a framework for success.

See what our clients have said about PerformanceXtra. Read some of our testimonials here.

Are you trying to supercharge your mental game? 

Enroll in our online course, The Great Competitor Formula, today!

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About the Author

Anthony Pellegrino is a freelance journalist, writer, and content marketing strategist. He is currently studying to get his B.A. in Philosophy at Fort Hays State University. He works as contributor to Pulse Magazine and as a freelance content creator for several marketing agencies and brands. His writing is focused on philosophy of mind, metaphysics, politics, everyday life, and content marketing.

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