Don’t overload the players: a guide to cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory is a psychological theory that every coach needs to know about. Sports psychologist Matt Shaw of Inner Drive guides you through a quick overview of what it is and how you can use it to help your athletes learn better.

Cognitive load theory places an emphasis on our working memory. This is where we hold and process new information, such as skills and instructions. If learning is to take place, this information needs to be passed from our working memory to our long-term memory. However, there’s a catch.

Our working memory has a small capacity, so it cannot hold large amounts of information. This means an athlete can only process so much new information at once. Too much can lead to cognitive overload, which hinders how much learning can take place for your athletes.

With Cognitive Load Theory, coaches can acknowledge the overload dilemma and present information to their athletes in a way that aids and accelerates that transfer to long-term memory without overloading the athlete.


Athletes may experience cognitive overload in training for several reasons. By being aware of some of them, it helps you to best support your players in their learning and understanding.

Here are three of the reasons:

The skill is taking too long

When a task is taking too long to complete, or a skill is taking too long to learn, your athletes may not fully engage with it.

They can start to feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to successfully complete it. This may result in cognitive overload slowing down the process.

The skill is too difficult

When a skill appears difficult and complex, athletes may feel intimidated. This can activate your players’ fear of failure and result in them taking little action to complete the skill.

There are too many choices

When there are too many ways an athlete can learn a skill, your players may feel unsure about the best way to go about it. Too many choices can leave an athlete feeling overwhelmed and result in cognitive overload.


  • Break down longer tasks and skills. Setting smaller goals within a skill is a great way to ensure athletes have a clearer direction and don’t feel overwhelmed.
  • Break down difficult skills into smaller chunks. Tackling one very difficult skill may be less manageable than tackling a handful of easier tasks.
  • Highlight a clear path. Make sure to give players a clear plan for completing a skill. This is probably even more important for beginners who cannot draw on past experiences to aid learning.


Different ideas have been developed in relation to Cognitive Load Theory to help improve learning and reduce the chances of overload.

There are three main concepts that are important for you as a coach to know:

  1. The Redundancy Effect
  2. The Split Attention Effect
  3. Emotional Control

The Redundancy Effect

When an athlete’s brain suffers cognitive overload, this has negative effects on their learning. Because their working memory is clogged up with unnecessary information, the athlete may only transfer the irrelevant or redundant information to the long-term memory and not the key learning points. This is the Redundancy Effect.

This causes your athletes’ working memory resources to be used inefficiently therefore hindering their learning. To reduce this, you should try:

Be clear and concise with any instructions or feedback. It’s important your athletes remember the important parts and not the redundant bits.

Reduce the words and animations on PowerPoint slides. This can cause distraction for your athletes and lead them to focus on the wrong things.

If you are showing key information on a screen, don’t talk over it. Give athletes time to understand and absorb it first.

The Split Attention Effect

The Split Attention Effect is best thought of as an act of juggling, where each item of information represents one ball. If you ask a novice juggler to use one too many balls, some balls will inevitably get dropped. In the same way, if you ask your athletes to refer to different sources of information simultaneously when learning something, this creates extra load in their brain. Switching between tasks takes time, effort, and energy.

So, what can you do to limit this from happening?

Use one source of information during any demonstrations. Be clear about what you want athletes to pay attention to, whether it be your voice or the action in front of them.

Use integrated diagrams. Integrating words within a diagram reduces load and boost memory.

Emotional control

There is also an additional factor of feeling stress and pressure when playing in matches. This stress can overload the brain and cause performance to weaken. This can lead to an athlete experiencing negative emotions which can decrease their confidence and motivation. Because of this, cognitive load has been described as closely related to the emotional state of an athlete.

This makes it highly important to help athletes learn to control their emotions when there is a lot of information to take it.

Five ways for athletes to better control their emotions

  1. Use music
  2. Practise helpful self-talk
  3. Use positive imagery (e.g., imaging successfully scoring a conversion)
  4. Reframe their negative thoughts (e.g., instead of “this is a really hard team, we are going to lose” try, “this team is difficult, so we are better able to test our skills)”
  5. Take deep breaths

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