Cognitive Abilities


I wanted to write something focussing on coaching female sports because I thought it would be something that could help encourage non-playing team members to spend more time with women, an area of sport that is growing every day but still has so much more potential to discover. I thought this article would be something that would debunk myths and prejudices held. However the more time I have spent gathering my thoughts and trying to get them on to paper the more I have come to realise that the coaching of men and women follows many of the same general guidelines.

The thing that I knew deep down all along is that when coaching either sex in any age group you have to pay attention to the same general areas that make up a sports person. The only thing that changes is the amount and the methods used to prescribe the proposed training programme to the players. The main areas of focus when considering the needs of a player should be the following (this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is quite a comprehensive starting point):

Cognitive abilities

Emotional abilities

Technical abilities

Physical abilities

Group dynamics

Both sexes need to work on all of these to become rounded athletes, however as a result of cultural, societal and biological developments over the course of human history there are some inequalities in how and how much coaches need focus on certain areas.

To further this idea we can go on to sat that within each sex everyone is different, and as a result you cannot use a single plan for everyone. When taking on a team sport your programming must be unique, specific, personalised and taking into account the stage of sporting life where the group and each player find themselves.

When designing the training programme you will it is important to have a clear understanding of how you see the way that these elements act and interact and what effects can occur when each area is trained.

I am by no means an expert on any one of these areas and I do not claim to have a single original idea. Whilst lead coaches may specialise in a certain area of their sport, it is important that they have a decent knowledge of everything that could affect the team they lead. Pep Guardiola once said, “when I coached Barcelona many people came to see me, and those close to me asked ‘why do you see them?’ And I answered: ‘You have to see them, they have given things to me, ideas are for everyone’ I have stolen as much as possible.”

What I propose in the following paragraphs are just some of my findings over 6 years of coaching, with the hope that they will help other budding coaches to think about their coaching methods and philosophies, hopefully it helps you become better and at least to enjoy your hockey a little bit more.


Cognitive abilities:


The aspect of play that really shows the difference between players lies within their heads. What do the most effective players in your team do better than the rest? They know how to use their physical and technical abilities to exploit the decisions and weaknesses of opponents. As such top players can:

  • Anticipate situations – e.g. when to hold back to intercept a long hit
  • React to unforeseen circumstances – e.g. a teammate slips when receiving and doesn’t trap the ball
  • Drive the initiative of the play – e.g. talk to teammates to position them correctly to get numerical superiority on the other side of the pitch

As coaches it is important that we continuously challenge our players by training game situations that provoke a wide variety of problems and possible solutions. This could be using video or the whiteboard, designing exercises that create similar situations, playing training games (small side or full 11v11) or the best way of training and improving is using official competition itself as a resource of continual feedback.

When designing exercises to develop the cognitive abilities of players a coach should remember to make them as unique, specific, and personalised for the group and individuals as possible whilst also taking into account the stage of development and the stage of the season everyone is at. The players need to feel as if they are learning every time they are under our charge, yet making exercises progressively more complex in a chronological order is not always the right way to go about things. We must consider the competition coming up or if we are in an exam period (when working with young athletes). One week you may find that a small sided game with 2 dynamic changes per team AND a pivot player works incredibly well, but the following week it flops because 5 players have stated to study for exams and the rest are emotionally tense for the local derby that weekend and as such their abilities to communicate and process information are reduced.

You have to know your players, get to know how they think and work because sometimes a basic exercise running around cones (whilst not stimulating any decision making) could make the players feel that they are make the same , if not more, progress as if they we’re presented with a 3v4 situation after stealing the ball after pressing in the corner because maybe emotionally they need something simple to get more basic success to feel positive.

Xesco Espar and Toni Gerona tell us in their class notes for the MÁSTER PROFESIONAL EN ALTO RENDIMIENTO EN DEPORTES DE EQUIPO that our cognitive capabilities can be grouped into 3 main groups:

  • Perception and analysis of a situation
  • Processing the information received and making a decision
  • The ability to execute the decision made

We must always be questioning our players about what has happened, ask them how they felt, what techniques they could possibly use to solve the problem, what other possibilities could occur in the proposed situation, how this situation could fit into the global match scenario…etc.

You will find some interesting results just by questioning, it could be that they have a lot of the answers but are not able to put them into practice because they are physically deficient or emotionally not ready to take the next step, or perhaps they are missing some parts of the puzzle and you can guide them to find the answers. As well as helping them fill in the gaps in their performance you make them part of the teaching-learning process. By getting the information out in the open the players become responsible for their subsequent actions, it is now not only the coach who holds the key to solving the problems but the players have this power. It is not often easy for coaches to release this control which is why we have to understand that we are not there just to give answers, we are there as developers of human potential.

Espar. X and Gerona. T give more details on more specific cognitive abilities for team sports players:

  • Processing personal information and information about the environment
  • Perceiving an object or a situation
  • Imagining and analysing said object or situation as a whole or in parts
  • Selecting the most important part of the object or situation
  • Distinguishing a pattern amongst a set of situations
  • Decode audio and visual messages
  • Process the information and make decisions
  • Generalise – situate the play within the global game
  • Give explanations
  • Resolve problems


Following the ‘complex theory’ of coaching, players are employing many systems of the body to make and execute decisions such as the visual, respiratory, digestive, reproductive, muscular, circulatory, nervous and locomotive systems (to name but a few). The way that these systems interact determines the abilities we possess, and it is important to know that one system can be connected to a range of abilities. As such, when we stimulate a system or ability we are affecting the performance of all other abilities and systems at the same time. So by definition when working our cognitive abilities we must always remember that we have the opportunity to stimulate technical, physical, emotional abilities and group dynamics all at the same time.

Keep your exercise design open to take into account the entire spectrum of abilities that will be trained. The more we understand what we are working, the better the athlete will be stimulated and the better the results in the log run.

Espar. X and Gerona. T explain that the different categories to select our information to make decisions from are:

  • Opposition players – both direct and of our teammates, and their intentions
  • Teammates – positioning and intentions
  • Space – Have a general awareness of the entire pitch with their peripheral vision and also the play in close proximity to observe teammates and opposition to see if they are accelerating, changing direction, where they have their stick etc. Recognising the density of the spaces to make the appropriate decision.
  • Time – minute of the game and of the immediate action. Understanding the rhythm and finding the adequate moment to execute.
  • Ball position and its relative danger to ours and the oppositions goal
  • Their own capabilities – Technical, physical and strategic
  • Rules – of the current competition
  • Umpiring abilities – know the characteristics of the umpire
  • Etc.


Cognitive abilities are one of the keys that forms part of a greater structure that we would call Sporting Ability:

Cognitive (tactical intelligence) + Technique (technical dominance and variability) + Fitness (physical support of the body) = Solution to the problem presented.

The better our players can situate themselves within the time of a game and the space of the pitch, understanding the density of the space to play in and the rhythm required, the better equipped they will be to play hockey.

Andrew Wilson


‘With a passion for helping people find their potential I have found myself in Spain coaching hockey seeing how much I can learn and how far I can get in this fantastic sport.’
Current hockey roles:
Assistant coach Spanish Senior and U21 Women
Video support Spanish U18 and U16 Women
Assistant coach Trinidad and Tobago Men’s and Women’s squads
Assistant coach Club Egara Ladies 1st team
Head coach Club Egara U18 and U16 girls
Coach mentor Old Bordenian Hockey Club

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