How to Use Critical Thinking In Sports

Written by VersusTue Oct 25 2022
How to Use Critical Thinking In Sports

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the ability to know how to respond to your opponent in the moment comes down to your ability to make cognitive decisions that your body has to follow.We usually hear the term “critical thinking skills” in the context of work and education. But critical thinking skills can help us in every aspect of our life.Every athlete knows that sport is not a purely physical activity. The mental components of sport range from resilience, motivation, and passion, to strategy, discipline, and wit.Like any athletic skill, critical thinking requires practice.

Imagine you’re in the final moments of a game, and it’s a nail biter. Your team is barely up, and the next few plays will determine the outcome of the game. From the looks of things, those final few plays are going to come through you to determine the outcome of the game. Whether you’re a shortstop, a defensive back, a midfielder, or a hitter, the ability to know how to respond to your opponent in the moment comes down to your ability to make cognitive decisions that your body has to follow. Said another way, succeeding in high pressure situations starts with critical thinking skills. 

What are critical thinking skills?

We usually hear the term “critical thinking skills” in the context of work and education. But critical thinking skills can help us in every aspect of our life, not just in the workplace or classroom. With the right knowledge, critical thinking skills can enhance your athletic performance and take your game to the next level.

So, what are critical thinking skills? According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way. People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.” Essentially, critical thinking is the ability to skillfully seek out information, process it, and then use it to guide belief and action.

Why is critical thinking important for athletes?

Every athlete knows that sport is not a purely physical activity. The mental components of sport range from resilience, motivation, and passion, to strategy, discipline, and wit. And while hard work can get you far, it is critical thinking that will carry you over the finish line. 

When athletes think critically, they can accurately evaluate their past and present performance, make decisions that support their athletic development, communicate more effectively with teammates and coaches, and maintain curiosity about the game that keeps them striving for excellence. At the elite level, these skills are what differentiate the good athletes from the great athletes.

Developing your athletic skills through critical thinking:

Christopher Dwyer, PhD, has broken down critical thinking into three main components: analysis, evaluation, and inference. If you want to use critical thinking to enhance your athletic performance, developing these three skills is a good place to start. Let’s take a look at what each of these components involves.

  • Analysis is the examination of the structure of something, often of an argument. In sport, we can use performance analysis to gather objective information about the events (or structure) of a previous game, race, or match. This can involve collecting observational data from video records, for example, or it can be achieved through reflection, meaning that athletes and coaches can draw on their memories for information about what happened. This might include noting which plays were executed, how many shots scored, how many missed, the time each lap took to complete, or which skills or movements were relied upon the most. Once we have the data, it’s time to evaluate it.
  • Evaluation is the systematic judgment of data- the process of deciding its worth and significance. This means looking at the information that we’ve gathered and deciding what it means. If a team relies heavily on a certain play, and that play rarely results in a goal, is that play serving the team? Or if they’re having difficulty executing a play which theoretically should work, where are they going wrong? Is the issue one of coaching, or player error? If a team consistently wins at home, but struggles in away games, what does that mean? Perhaps we have data which tells us that, overall, players sleep less prior to away games. After the data has been evaluated, the next step is to make inferences about those evaluations.
  • Inference is the process of forming conclusions based on a body of evidence, and it allows athletes and coaches to seek solutions based on those conclusions. If we use the example of the team whose players sleep poorly before away games, and which loses more often when they play away than when they play at home, it’s possible to infer that travel disrupts their sleep, resulting in worse athletic performance. At this point, coaches and players can use this information to make decisions about how they manage travel, and look for solutions. Perhaps they can arrive a day earlier, leaving more time to adjust. Maybe they could use a sports psychologist to brainstorm strategies for helping the team get more rest. Whatever they choose, they will be one step closer to winning more games. Through this example, we can see how the process of thinking critically leads directly to solutions that improve performance.

Critical Thinking Exercises:

Like any athletic skill, critical thinking requires practice. Here, we’ll look at some common critical thinking exercises that you can adapt for use in sport.

  • Reading Exercise: Take a magazine and choose a few articles that interest you. After reading each one, make a list of the key facts, ideas, and concepts in the article. Look at what you’ve noted for each article, and search for links between them. Can you draw any conclusions about the opinions of the authors and the publication? Adaptation: Do this exercise with a sports publication. Seek out articles that offer detailed analyses of various teams. Look for links between action and performance. Try to evaluate the opinions of commentators. Do you agree with their assessments? Why or why not? Form your own opinion about why a team or athlete is performing the way they are.
  • Tell it to an alien: No, this doesn’t involve tinfoil hats. Choose 5-10 theories that you find interesting. Then, put on your acting cap, because you’re going to play two roles- yourself, and the space alien. Start by explaining one of the theories to the alien, keeping in mind that the alien knows nothing about earth. Then, stepping into the alien’s role, respond to yourself with a question, trying to force yourself to think about things you may not have previously considered. Repeat this back and forth until you feel that you’ve explored the topic in detail. Adaptation: Simply choose topics and theories relevant to your sport! For example, try explaining a complex strategy to the alien, pushing yourself to explore how and why that strategy works, and what happens when it fails. This way you’ll be in a better position to successfully use and execute that strategy.
  • Writing exercise: Keep a detailed log of your training and competitions. Consider the decisions you made and how they resulted in success or failure. Look for links you may not have considered between actions and results. Track how practicing certain things leads to improved outcomes. Look for trends in your life outside sport that may have affected your performance.

Developing critical thinking skills with your athletes:

As a coach, there are several ways to bolster critical thinking in your athletes. Here are a few strategies that you can start to use immediately.

  • Communicate: Focus on improving communication between teammates, as well as between team members and coaching staff. Working together effectively to find solutions increases team cohesion, and helps to get everyone’s heads in the game.
  • Reflect: Look back on games and practices together with your athletes. Ask them to think about what happened before you jump in with your own theories. Help them accurately reflect on their performance by engaging them with critical questions.
  • Feedback: Practice supportive feedback based on curiosity. When you give them instructions, ask them to be curious about why you’re doing so, and how those instructions will help them. Ask them for their own thoughts on how they can improve, and engage with them in self-reflection, offering direction when they get stuck.

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