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Multi-Tasking in Sports 

What is Multi-Tasking?
       Multitasking by a human is the ability to simultaneously handling more than one task at a time. The term is derived from computers that can run two or more software programs, allowing the user to easily copy and paste data between programs. The programs that are active on the screen can continuously process data in the background with any noticeable loss of processing speed.

       Learning how to perform complex motor activities requires an individual to focus on developing a wide range of automatic muscle skills/responses in order to perform the technical aspects of performing complex jumps, spins, turns, edges, and other movements associated with each discipline of figure skating.

      Research is being performed on the actual learning process in sports. To become more effective in teaching skating skills, coaches need to become familiar with the actual process an individual, of any age, must perform to acquire sets of motor skills.

      Athletes in some sports (i.e. figure skating, gymnastics, diving. etc.) express the belief that they receive the maximum benefit from private instruction rather then from group instruction. This is interesting since the vast majority of classroom education from elementary school to post graduate seminars is delivered in a group setting.  Most team and individual sports (football, track and field, tennis, swimming, etc. in high school and college are taught in groups as opposed to an exclusive individual/personal coaching environment.

      There also seems to be a widely shared opinion that top skaters excel in multi-tasking, especially as the sport has moved towards emphasizing the presentation aspect as a necessary quality to succeed in international competitions.

Multi-Tasking in Sports
      Our culture seems to idolizes the multi-tasker. As a society, we are obsessed with the concept. Our quest to pursue the illusive multi-tasking seems to be rooted in an urge to keep up with others. We are continually seeking to achieve increased efficiency/productivity and multitasking appears to be the most popular method to achieve this goal.

      Multi-tasking can be a major source of anxiety and frustration when an individual is not able to concentrate well and focus. Such individuals are urged to first acquire to ability to focus on one task at a time and do this using full attention. Then adding an additional task one at a time. Gradually working over weeks or months to achieve a form of multi-tasking.

      There is research that supports that multi-tasking tends to reduces efficiency, inhibits creativity, and can damage an individual's mental and physical health, contribute to communications lapses, rudeness, and employee stress. Multi-tasking has been reported as a cause of serious workplace mishaps, such as from incorrect doses of medication and other treatment errors in hospitals. These are often reported as "human error", but are really cases in which the person has been distracted or their attention shifted to a non- relevant task.

     Research has indicated that the ability to multi-task, performing several tasks at once, is very limited.

Professor Earl Miller of MIT studied the brain activity of volunteers as they performed several different tasks simultaneously. That study revealed that, though the volunteers were appeared to be focusing on all tasks at once, their brains had actually zeroed in on only one or two tasks at a time.

The study found there was minimal brain power being exerted for each task, and the power that was being used, came in brief, unproductive spurts. (From the NY Daily News - Stop the multi-tasking madness! Attempting to do it all can cause neurological damage: studies by Issie Lapowski.)

      Multi-tasking has other negatives:

Multi-tasking like this also makes learning new information virtually impossible. A study by Professor Russell Poldrack, a psychologist at the University of California, compared the brain function of people who study with a distraction, like the TV, to people who study with no distractions.

He found that the information the distracted participants studied actually traveled to a different part of the brain than the information the other volunteers studied.

      Research published in Neuron in June reports -

“We found that a key limitation to efficient multi-tasking is the speed with which our prefrontal cortex processes information, and that this speed can be drastically increased through training and practice,” according to Paul E. Dux, a former research fellow at Vanderbilt, and now a faculty member at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Before practice, the participants showed strong dual-task interference, a slowing down of one or both tasks, when they attempted to perform them together. However, as a result of practice and training, the individuals became quicker at doing each of the two tasks separately and also at performing them together effectively becoming efficient at multi-tasking.

The MRI data indicated that these gains were the result of information being processed more quickly and efficiently through the prefrontal cortex. (From PhysOrg.com - Training can improve multi-tasking ability by Melanie Moran.)

For individuals who must perform multiple tasks in rapid succession or concurrently, it is recommended that your first train yourself to perform individual tasks separately and then together. The result should be an overall improvement when putting them all together. 

      It seems to be physically impossible to reach a point where a brain can sub-consciously “chunk” the information (data) processing into such small pieces that approach true multi-tasking of an inorganic computer.

      When attempting activities requiring concentration, avoid multitasking and interruptions, research shows it takes us at least 20 minutes to regain our previous concentration level after an interruption. Check out the Information Overload Research Group.

      Figure skaters are expected to perform multiple tasks that require significant attention and cognitive processing. It is possible to increase our efficiency of tasks, such as multi-revolution jumps and advanced spins.

Recommended Reading:

Brain Posts: Are Athletes Better Performers Outside Sport?  Sept. 21, 2011 ... This batter then need to use visual skills, timing and motor skills making a ... type of sport specific skill: "Do athletes perform better in non-sport tasks that ... The authors wanted to know if athletes with specific sport training would ... performance variables that translate to other non-sport multitasking setting.

Do Athletes Excel at Everyday Tasks? We extended the sport-cognition literature by using a realistic street crossing test. The results showed that athletes had higher street crossing success rates than non-athletes, as reflected by fewer collisions with moving vehicles.

Can Participating in Sports Make You Better at Everyday Tasks Sept. 25, 2011 ... Can playing sports help improve attention, memory, and multitasking? ... But can these sport specific abilities transfer to every day multitasking activities?

References:

Towards safe and productive human multitasking Dec. 3, 2011 ... Become a better multitasker through participating in sports!  Multitasking symposium The Science and Art of Brain.

Charles Poliquin's Blog - Sports Improve Cognition,  Mental Processing and Multitasking  Oct. 7, 2011 Play a sport and improve your brain processing and multitasking ability. There's evidence that athletes do better at everyday tasks.

Ambidexterity - Two Things At Once - Southpaw Ambidextrous   It is the ability to use both your hands with equal ease or facility. It is quite advantageous in certain sports and martial arts to be able to use both sides of your body equally.


Resources:

The following internet links have been gleaned from personal communications
combined with information from public institutions and athletic organizations/
associations that have a web presence with information concerning team and
individual sports programs:
  
Learning Considerations
PDF  Attentional Focus
PDF  Spatial Disorientation
PDF  Effects of Mood on Performance
PDF  Confidence through Motivation
PDF  Transfer of Learning Issues
   

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