Rushall, B. S. (1995). This excerpt is the rationale for: Exercise 8.2 "Task-relevant Thought Content" in Rushall, B. S. (1995). Mental Skills Training for Sports (pp. 8.13-8.14). Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.


The major portion of competition thinking should concentrate on technical and tactical aspects of the sport, for example, the technique features for a segment, positional play, effort levels, and movement precision. It is recommended that approximately two-thirds of the thoughts of strategy content should be task-relevant.

There are two stages in a contest that require different forms of task-relevant thinking. In the early stages of a competition when fatigue is not evident, task-relevant thinking has to be modified. It is likely that the thinking of specific, detailed technique features that control physical movements would cause performance to worsen. This is because of the phenomenon known as "cognitive interference" (when one thinks of what they are doing when performing a highly skilled activity in a non-fatigued state, the thoughts interfere with the efficiency of automated skilled performance). When an athlete is fresh, task-relevant thinking should be limited to tactical and decision-making content (e.g., anticipation, recognition of relevant cues) and general capacity features such as smoothness, length, evenness, rhythm, etc. The detailed technique features of physical actions should be left to the automatic neuromuscular patterns that have been developed through training. However, at the onset of the next performance stage, which is usually signaled by the first hint of fatigue, it is necessary to begin to concentrate on specific, detailed technique thoughts along with other task-relevant items. This is required to avoid any accumulated fatigue causing a loss in technique efficiency. The transfer of control to conscious thinking about skilled activities should maintain performance efficiency and form. As a competition progresses and fatigue increases, task-relevant thinking should gradually include increasing amounts of specific technique content so that performance efficiency is sustained.

The focus on task-relevant information is intended to ensure that all resources available in a competition are used fully and in the most efficient manner possible.

The nature of task-relevant thinking will depend upon the sport and the individual athlete. It will be less extensive in some sports that require repetitive attempts (e.g., shooting, shot-putting, ski-jumping, power-lifting) than in more involved team games (e.g., Australian Rules football, soccer, beach volleyball). It will even differ between seemingly complex team sports particularly with regard to fatigue. For example, in baseball and cricket, fatigue is not incurred to the extent that is exhibited in lacrosse or rugby. Consequently, in those former games task-relevant thinking will be focused on attention, tactics, and decision-making factors rather than the execution of skills. On the other hand, a lacrosse or rugby player might have to consciously think of the aspects of a running action if speed is required when fatigue is high.

The task-relevant content should be extensive rather than being too brief. Two procedures should be used when thinking of prepared items. First, the content should be cycled through so that there is no dwelling upon any particular item to the extent that complacency in concentration occurs. Second, a variety of ways of thinking about each item should be developed. This allows a different thought structure to be employed each time an item is cycled. For long competitions, it is almost impossible to have a new way of interpreting each item on every occasion but there should be sufficient alternatives to avoid the repetition becoming boring. Thus, the challenge is for an athlete to develop task-relevant content that features changing thought-control emphases that result in keeping thoughts vital and alert.

When task-relevant information is developed it should be extreme in detail. Athletes usually think in such general terms that thoughts have little meaning for the form or efficiency of performance. For example, "driving the legs long" in running is too vague to produce performance control in a contest. What needs to be planned for eventual thought control is a variety of detailed features of the leg drive, such as, pushing off the toes, keeping the foot on the ground for a longer time period, driving the toes backward, and letting the knee and thigh travel further behind the hips. That level of detail will directly affect the form and efficiency of the leg drive and will result in performance alterations. When task-relevant information is planned, it has to be of sufficient detail that when it is thought, it directly affects performance.

A major problem that occurs with strategies is the phenomenon of "deadspots." These occur when a strategy is being enacted and for one reason or another, the athlete's mind goes blank. Some major causes of this are: i) the athlete has prepared too little content and there are insufficient thoughts to fill the contest time, and ii) there has been too little variety in the thinking resulting in the athlete's loss of thought intensity and concentration. The latter problem produces non-directed thought intrusions that indicate a loss of control. Effective strategy use requires concentration on the tasks of the sport. If that concentration is interrupted, it usually is necessary to enact a "dead-spot recovery routine" to regain control. That usually involves concentrating on some preferred, safe, and competent action that is part of the segment plan. It serves as a re-entry point for regaining concentration.

Task-relevant thinking reduces an athlete's uncertainty, and interpretive distraction, and performance deterioration. As it is developed, and the athlete's technical competency changes, so will the task-relevant content. This strategy content is perhaps the most changeable feature of competition strategies and should be refined continually.

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