Creativity and decision making in sport: Build a house that can withstand any storm.


“The idea came to me in a flash, because at that particular moment it was the best solution for situation I was in. There are impulses that arise because your technical and tactical knowledge has become so great that your legs are able to respond immediately to what your head wants them to do. Even if that‘s nothing more than a flash in the brain.”

 Johan Cruyff                                                  


Dying minutes of 1970 World Cup final. After brilliant sequence of passes and moves ball came to Pele at approximately ten meters outside Italian box. He controlled it for a few seconds against defender and then, without looking, rolled it out to the right, just in time for arriving Brazilian captain Carlos Alberto smashed it to the left-down corner of Italian goal. It was one of the finest moments in a history of World Cups.

However, let’s leave alone the beauty of that goal and try to understand from scientific and coaching perspective how it was possible for Pele to make that pass? What kind of qualities he possessed to be able simultaneously to keep the ball, monitor the defender and calculate Carlos Alberto speed and position without even looking at him? Are these qualities inherited or we can train that?

It looks like nowadays sport games reached their highest. Such sports like football, basketball, rugby, ice-hockey , tennis, etc., attracting millions spectators and billions of investments. As a consequence of that , furiosity of competition and level of player’s preparedness have risen dramatically. To find a gap for improvements and to gain even small advantage become more and more difficult. So, where these possibilities may still be found? Well, it is still possible in physical conditioning. In my previous article I suggested that footballers don’t achieve the limits which are set by the track and field athletes. However, probably, even greater potential can be found in decision making. For example, effectively using all possibilities of a team work can bring enormous benefits in a team games. This demands that every individual part of the system (player) will be able to act efficiently and make decisions which are beneficial for the team. It is necessary to note that such decisions should be made under tremendous physical, psychological and time pressure. In presented article I am going to discuss contemporary scientific ideas about decision-making in sport games and possible ways for developing creativity in players.

Creativity: what is it and what we really need in sport games?

Creativity may be defined as ability to produce original ideas and/or actions with flexibility and fluency. Originality refers to unusualness and novelty of creation. Flexibility is a production of different solutions for the same situation and fluency is a capability to produce such solutions effortlessly and quickly (Memmert, 2011). However, in opposite to arts, where are infinite possibilities for generating new ways and forms of expression, in sport creativity should ultimately lead to one goal – victory. And this means scoring goals and points. Hence, possibly new addition to the definition for creativity in sport is needed: it should be appropriate (Memmert, 2011). We don’t need originality if it leads to defeat. Possibly, the most important difference between creativity in arts and sports is that artist searches for and creates new ideas whereas player has to choose from already existing options one, most effective in current situation. It would be great if these decisions are original and entertain public but only if they are appropriate a player becomes a star. If they are not, he/she ends up on a bench. Perhaps, in sport, we shouldn’t separate creativity from decision-making because constantly deciding how to act and choosing the best solutions we create the Game.

How we make decisions in sport

Dual-processing theory in Psychology (Evans & Stanovich, 2013) suggests that in real life we process information and acting in two ways. One is automated, without demand of conscious attention, and we use it for well learned actions. Another way is for information and actions which demand consciousness for control. In real life we rarely use these ways separately and in most situations our actions are a combination of both ways (the most popular example is driving a car). The same is true for the sport’s field, so it would be reasonable to apply dual-processing theory there (Philip Furley, Schweizer, & Bertrams, 2015).

For better description of decision-making in the game I would like to use an analogy which seems to me appropriate in this case – building a house. In this process, architect can create different buildings from the same, standard material, let’s say bricks. Some kind of similar is in decision-making. To make and to implement our decisions on a pitch we use a building material, which are an automated and standardised skills (bricks) or even bigger automated chunks of skills (building blocks). For example, every player can dribble the ball, control it and make passes without thinking. He/she even performs automatically some tactical patterns ( combination in football). Actually, one of the main goals in sport training is to create robust and reliable automated technical-tactical skills. The next question is: what is player going to build from this material or, in other words, what kind of decisions he/she is going to make and be able to implement? Player needs to choose “project” and to realise it under severe time and opponent pressure in dynamic, constantly changing environment. Probably to build a simple and standard house is much easier, it is why this kind of decisions is predominant in the game, however they are predictable and opponents may anticipate them. So, in some cases, you should take a risk and to build something more original.

Who is an architect?

To continue our analogy with the building process it would be really useful to know who is actually in charge. Who is an architect responsible for choosing the project and supervising its realisation? Possibly it is responsibility of Working Memory (WM). WM can be described as: ”… the cognitive mechanisms capable of retaining a small amount of information in an active state for use in ongoing tasks” (Philip Furley & Wood) . WM integrates sensory information (what we feel, hear and see) ,our online processing system (short-term memory, where we can keep limited information for the short period) and our experience (long-term memory, where information is kept basically forever). The close analogy may be RAM in computers, though mechanistic approach probably not completely appropriate. WM capacity seems to be positively correlated with fluid intelligence (ability to deal with new tasks), reasoning and learning (Yuan, Steedle, Shavelson, Alonzo, & Oppezzo, 2006). Debates about WM structure, functions and its role in processing information are attracting more and more research in present time. It is beyond the scope of this article and beyond my qualification to debate WM in details. For purposes of this article it is important that WM may be responsible for deciding what the house should be built, choosing appropriate bricks and blocks, monitoring execution and making necessary adjustments. All these it manages to do in seconds or even in a split second . It is not completely clear how it makes that. However some guesses are possible.

How it may work

So let’s go back to Pele’s example.

Before he received the ball he made a quick look at Carlos Alberto position and noticed the beginning of his move (from Carlos Alberto recollection). Then Pele didn’t look at Alberto any more however continued to track him mentally by having visual image of Alberto movement in his WM. He kept the ball and controlled Italian defender , mostly automatically that didn’t tax his WM too much because his skills of controlling the ball against an opponent were learned to perfection. The bigger is automated part of processing the more attention can be allocated to the information which is most important at the moment. So Pele, due to his great instinctive technical and physical capacities, had enough resources of WM to process his captain’s movement and to calculate time and place of his arrival. He used his experience (long-term memory) for such calculation because similar situations he already met and train before (from Pele recollection). Actually, he did something similar in previous game against Uruguay: . Finally, he (again automatically) adjusted power and direction of his pass making the ball to meet Carlos Alberto in the perfect time and spot for the killer’s shot.

Now we can see that a lot is going on behind simple and beautiful decisions. However, even this is oversimplification of processes which are going in player’s mind in a few seconds of decision making and its realisation. Why player gives the ball to one teammate while, at same time, ignores call from another? Do technically more advanced players make better decisions? What can impair our decision-making?

Hiring an architect

Now imagine that you are an employer who wants to hire an architect for multiple building projects. You are going to interview candidates. So what in their abilities you will be interested most? . Possibly, you will be interested in their knowledge of working materials (bricks and blocks). Definitely you will ask about experience. Don’t forget that your architect will be working under tremendous pressure. It will be direct physical contact with an opponent, time constraints and psychological stress. Another important thing is that your architect has to build house quickly in dynamic environment and to choose most appropriate in particular circumstances project. So he/she has to have abilities for multitasking: monitoring current situation, keep in mind tactical development which is currently beyond his visual field and at the same time searching his library-experience for possible suitable project. So, will you be interested to check this? Is it possible to test that beyond a playing ground?


Good architect knows what kind of material he needs for his/her project and what he/she really has. Yes, this material is to the some extent standard, but its quality and design are different for different players. For example, every player can control the ball. However, as Cruyff put it: “… great player does that with one touch, good player with two and bad one needs three”.The more robust, diverse and fine-tuned technical and physical skills player possesses the more original and effective may be his/her decisions. Decision-making architect calculates what kind of project can be realised in particular environment. This includes analysis of current tactical position, prediction of opponent’s actions and player own ability to implement the decision. Then architect chooses the option that has chances for success though it may be risky and/or original. It is called “affordance” of the action. Some researches argue that decision-making are inseparable from the calculation of affordance (Craig & Watson, 2011). This process of calculation is mostly unconscious and experts “think with their legs”. Possibly, we are even unaware about decisions that we have no chances to realise.


Not only skill’s availability influences our decision making. The great role has our previous experience which is stored in long-term memory ( LTM). Most researchers found that expert players, though are not superior to beginner in general perceptive abilities, nevertheless, in sport-specific environment, are able to act much more quickly and efficiently. In real game, player’s WM rapidly compares current situation with the LTM’s library of the previous similar ones and chooses most suitable solution supported by earlier positive feedback. Of course, situations are always different but many patterns inside them are more or less similar. Another quality of high-level players is that they don’t search their libraries randomly. They know exactly on which “shelf” possible solution may be. This refers to their ability to extract valuable cues from current information, make correct prediction about situation’s development and connect this information with exact needed location in LTM. The bigger library player has and the better his extraction’s abilities the more chances he has to extract closest similar example from LTM and implement most effective solution almost automatically. This experience is not only what do we know theoretically but what we actually did before. The theory of embodied cognition suggests that we better understand actions and situations when we have previous experience of physically acting in them (Beilock, 2008). Of course, experts have much more actions and information in their libraries thus their decisions are quicker and better.

Attentional control

Another very important role of our architect is to maintain attention to relevant stimuli while to ignore irrelevant. In a game player is often overwhelmed by information’s flow and isn’t able to make effective decision without filtering it. Filtering process is not necessary based on the salience of the stimuli (e.g. who louder calls for the ball) but on working memory content. It is called biased competition (Philip Alexander Furley & Memmert, 2010). WM biases competition between different attentional stimuli towards that one which is considered more relevant. This WM bias may depend on player’s personality, previous experience or coach’s tactical guidance, however there are other factors which can influence it. Among those are emotional state, stress and ability to suppress automated responses. Situations in the game are always different and sometimes player needs to ignore tactical guidance and overturn instinctive actions. Possibly, players with greater WM capacities are better in that.


Stress may greatly influence decision making process. It can be done in three ways. First of all it can break the bricks. Possibly this may sound strange because bricks are automated skills and shouldn’t be vulnerable to stress. However it may happen through the process of reinvestment (Masters & Maxwell, 2008). Under stress athlete directs his/her attention towards execution of skills which should otherwise be performed automatically. That can impair fluidity and coherency of the action thus compromise realisation of decision. Then, through a negative feedback, this failed realisation can bias future decision-making process. Athlete may be afraid to choose risky decisions again, due to lack of self-confidence. Interestingly, in case of reinvestment, time pressure may be even beneficial because athlete just has no time for reinvesting. It can be worse when he has time to think (e.g. when taking penalty or tennis serve).

Second way of negative stress influence is flow of unrelated thoughts which may reduce WM capacity. It is similar to giving WM an additional task. While WM is trying to cope with these distracting thoughts, it has fewer resources, available for primary task (making decisions). Perhaps, this is a reason for making the simpler, intuitive decisions under stress. Some coaches have opinion that more creative players are more vulnerable to stress. From my point of view it is not true. Probably, impairment of decisions for creative players may be more noticeable than for players who made only standard choices in every situation. Secondly, if standard decisions are not working under pressure, non-creative (low WM) players may struggle even more, because they have no other options in their arsenal.

And finally, changes in attention under stress conditions can influence a decision-making process. Attentional Control Theory (Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007) predicts that stress makes our attention being more driven by stimuli than goal. Thus distracting stimuli (shouting on the pitch, opponent’s deceptions, etc.) can become more significant. Sometimes, stressed athlete has “tunnelled” attention which is focused on most threatening stimulus and cannot see better options, beyond his/her very narrow attentional spectrum. This is in accordance with the previous point of limited WM recourses under stress. In this case this is attentional resource. In both cases however, more powerful WM memory can be helpful in maintaining attention despite distracting influence and may have enough resources to process wider spectrum of information.

General WM abilities

There are batteries of computer or paper based tests which aim to investigate general WM abilities. These include ability to keep in mind information (short-term memory), to keep attentional focus at information in short-term memory and, at the same time, process another information (multitasking) and ability to control attention. We can test ability to keep visual or phonological information as well as ability to solve different kinds of problems (Shipstead, Lindsey, Marshall, & Engle, 2014). However the question is: are all these tests relevant to our architect’s job – to make and implement decisions in sport games? Are general WM abilities relevant to its domain-specific responsibilities?

Another problem is how we can scientifically evaluate decision-making itself. Most common sport science method is to present video image of tactical situation which is frozen moment before decision should be made. Player makes his/her decision and then panel of experts evaluate it. I don’t think this static method reflects dynamic and changeable environment in the real game. Some researches tried to address affordance and embodied cognition issues in these tests (e.g. included some physical actions not only verbal response) but I have doubt that it can be done to the same extent as in dynamic, real game situation. So, in my opinion, success on the pitch though is a subjective indicator, remains the best criteria of player’s decision-making effectiveness.

There were attempts to investigate relationship between general WM capacity and its specific ability – to make decisions in sport. As is often the case in Sport Psychology the results are controversial. For example, Furley and Memmert found no correlation between general WM capacity, and decision-making (P. Furley & Memmert, 2015). The latter was tested by frozen video pictures and panel of experts. However, the same group of researchers found significant correlation between WM and ice hockey player’s ability to make their own appropriate tactical judgements and actions even despite inappropriate coach’s instruction (Philip A Furley & Memmert, 2012).The reason for controversy in all these findings may be hiding in the nature of the decision-making task. Some tasks, for example, supressing interference from irrelevant stimuli or not to follow blindly coach’s instructions, may benefit from higher general WM capacity whereas other (e.g. choosing original tactical solution) may not. Another reason may be that our architect’s abilities are highly specific and their knowledge and skills, which are relevant to their field, do not always transfer to general WM capacity or vice-versa. Finally, it is impossible to separate in real life player’s decision-making capacity from his technical skills, experience, physical conditioning and tactical education. In summary, it is more likely that some specific rather than general WM capacities may give the advantage in decision-making process at the sport field. Thus, when you interview architects for the sport’s job, possibly, it makes no sense to give them a pen and paper, give them a ball instead.

Training WM

Well, in real life we are not hiring our architect to do the job. We have what we have. So, important question is: whether we can train WM or not?

Training for improving general WM capacity

There are some computer’s based methods which claim to increase WM capacity. Most promoted of them is Cogmed software. Trainees perform series of exercises included visual-spatial tasks, phonological tasks, mental arithmetic and so on. Some authors questioned effectiveness of Cogmed programme for improving WM capacity (Shipstead, Hicks, & Engle, 2012). Others argue that such training can improve WM capacity, as measured with standard tests but not improve fluid intelligence. It seems that intelligence may be influenced not only by WM capacity but by other factors as well (Yuan, et al., 2006). In reference to the sport games, I have doubts that exercises on the computer’s screen are related to the real-game situations. However people say that Messi was invincible in PlayStation and, in his autobiography, Cruyff claimed that he was good in mental arithmetic. I am not sure that it is the reason of their greatness. But if player has time and desire for playing computer games or doing math then, why not?

Sport’s training

As it was stated before decision-making depends on interaction between different factors and demands technique, physical qualities and experience. Possibly the best way to develop these is sport’s training itself, if such training promotes and facilitates creativity.

Though even standard training process does improve decision-making through the gaining technical skills and by creating experience, it may be not enough for developing an effective decision-maker.

Unfortunately, standard coaching practice very often separated skills acquisition and decision making. When coaches teach technique, they often create artificial environment where objectives of technique’s implementation are vague and opposition and/or challenges are not presented. It makes learning easier at the start but later learners will be struggling with execution of these skills in real situations. Yes, I stated before that only that decisions can be made which can afford necessary skills for its implementation. However this is two-ways process. When child starts to learn sport game his/her library’s shelfs are empty and it will be useful to put new acquisitions (technical skills) on the right shelfs (situations where skills can be used) straight away. This means that when we teach kids technique we should create situations where these skills are helpful , thus situational challenges demand gaining technique which can resolve the problem. I can call this “created need”, borrowing this term from economy. Doing that, we can integrate skills acquisition into decision making process and vice-versa. That makes both processes more implicit and natural. Of course, this method demands from coaches to be creative and to invent exercises which although challenging but, at the same time are feasible for learner thus encourage searching for new decisions and technique with positive outcome.

Another problem with the standard training is “over teaching”, when coach gives instructions on every step of his/her students. That can directly influence kid’s WM development by narrowing their attention. High- class players have broader attentional spectrum then the ordinary ones, thus they can see options that are hidden from others. Instructions facilitate focused attention which may make life easier at the beginning but later may be detrimental. In opposite, coach who creates exercises which developed broader attention and freedom of creativity in his/her students is working for the future (Memmert & Furley, 2007).

It is important that developing creativity starts early in the childhood when plasticity of the brain, number and density of connections between neurons are very high (Wass, Scerif, & Johnson, 2012). Then creative thinking will be integrated into the player’s mind. Between age of 7 and 10 children are very susceptive to divergent thinking and ready for exploration (Memmert, 2011). Coaches should avoid too much structure in their exercises at the beginning and encourage children actively search for solutions, not just give solutions to them. Though such training sessions look less organised, only then creativity becomes natural. You can introduce structure and tactical discipline later.

Training imaginary abilities

When we consciously imagine an action we activate the same brains areas involved in unconscious planning and execution. It is called Functional Equivalence. Of course, there is not complete equivalence between imagining the action and actually executing it but overlapping is significant. So, the tantalising possibility arises: maybe we can train creativity and decision-making inside our minds, without performing that physically? Well, probably imaginary is not substitution for decision-making training on a pitch but definitely can assist it (Cumming & Williams, 2012) .

Imaginary in sports training can be helpful in two ways. First is psychological, when imaginary can facilitate self-regulation. This can improve decision-making through increasing stress- resistance and might be helpful in controlling attention. The second way is that we can imagine actions that are still difficult for us in reality thus facilitate learning. Even more, sometimes our imagination can create new experience.

Teachers and coaches can improve imaginary abilities in their students

Observation of the best examples may be helpful. Perhaps it is not accidental that great football cultures like, for example, Brazil and Argentina, continuously produce great players who share the same creative traditions. Filming young athlete’s performance can help them to learn imagining themselves from third-person perspective thus allowed different angles and perspectives of image. It would be useful to learn to create detailed image which may include weather, surfaces, clothes and equipment thus make imaging more vivid and real. Teaching imagination should use wide range of modalities: visual, auditory and tactile. Individual approach is a necessity. Teaching children art, painting and music may be useful for their sport success as well. Movement’s diversity is necessary. Children 5-6 years old can already perform movement’s imaginary (Cumming & Williams, 2012). However, because they are not kinesthetically skilful their movement imaginary are not fully developed till 14 years old. Hence, a cultivation of wide and comprehensive movement skills can help to improve kinesthetic imagination and through that to facilitate creativity.


Orient philosophy becomes increasingly popular in the West in recent times. Not surprisingly that the key method of oriental spiritual practices – meditation draws a great attention in the field of sport as well.

Meditation can be described as a complex of emotional and attentional regulatory training (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008)

Possibly one of the mains goal of this practice is developing of mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is a mental mode characterized by full attention to present-moment experience without judgment, elaboration, or emotional reactivity” (Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong, & Gelfand, 2010)

In relation to training attention there are basically two styles of meditation: focus meditation and open monitoring meditation (Lutz, et al., 2008). Former associates with concentration of attention on chosen object whereas latter refers to unemotional and nonreactive online monitoring subject’s thoughts and experiences without paying attention to something particular.

Meditation can help decision-making by reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts and negative emotions (Jha, et al., 2010). As was mentioned before these thoughts and emotions, especially in stressful situations, can decrease WM capacity and impair a decision-making process. These are benefits from open monitoring training

Another great advantage from meditation is that it develops ability to control attention against distraction and concentrate on chosen goals. That may come from focused attention training.

Interestingly, focused attention training can help in imaginary (Kozhevnikov, Louchakova, Josipovic, & Motes, 2009), visual discrimination and attentional vigilance (MacLean et al., 2010).

Despite the fact that meditation is a very serious and difficult practice which demands high level of concentration, children can learn some simple form of it as well. This may include exercises on breath control, sensory activation, thought mindfulness, body and emotions awareness (Napoli, Krech, & Holley, 2005). Authors found that meditation significantly improved children’s ability to control attention which is important part of the decision-making process.

Arts and music

Some researchers suggest positive correlation between WM capacity and ability to apprehend art and create improvisation in music. For example, Sherman with colleagues found that subjects with greater visual WM capacities can understand painting better (Sherman, Grabowecky, & Suzuki, 2015) . Higher WM cellists could create better improvisations (De Dreu, Nijstad, Baas, Wolsink, & Roskes, 2012). The latter was connected with the better attentional abilities in higher WM individuals. Does this mean that exercising arts and music we can improve WM? Well, this doesn’t follow directly but such idea is plausible. In any way, art and music can facilitate comprehensive development which is good thing for any person, including athletes.


Now we can see that decision-making in sport is very complex process. It integrates many variables which interacts with each other and influence an outcome. These variables are: WM capacity, experience, availability of technical skills and physical potential, tactical education, emotional state and stress-resistance.

To some extent the quality of these variables may depend on genes. For example, Miller and colleagues suggested that WM capacity for processing information is limited by oscillatory brain rhythms (Miller & Buschman, 2015). Possibly, this is inherited limitation. Players, who became great, usually, possess valuable physical assets, which may be in some part inherited as well.

However, it is clear that creativity may be and has to be trained.

Highly creative player has to possess great technique and his/her physical abilities should be perfect. In contemporary sport you have no chances to implement creative ides without being strong, endurable and agile. This can be trained. Ecologically valid training, when exercises are designed to mimic real-game situations, is the best way to integrate skills acquisition into decision-making. Children have to learn technique together with the simple tactical patterns. Coach has to develop exercises which widen player’s attention not narrowing it. This means less coaching instructions. Let kids make their own decisions and mistakes.

In my opinion player may benefit from being a comprehensively developed person. Being educated in arts, practicing meditation and imaginary skills can improve decision-making through the divergent thinking, emotional and attentional control and stress-resistance.

And finally, right motivation for practicing sport which is based on self-development, exploration and generosity rather than on desire to win at any cost can release pressure and frees player’s mind for creativity.

It looks like everything is more or less clear with creativity in sport? Ok, then can you have a look at this:

I read about this episode when I was a child and imagined how it was in reality a hundred times. I watched it for the first time in the film “This is Pele” when I was already twenty and it was far beyond my expectation. Do you see that he deliberately aimed to the far corner predicting that defender will be running to cover more obvious aim – near corner? Amazing!  Now I am a sport scientist and experienced coach and I know something about decision-making in the game…

So, how he did that? I don’t know…


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