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What Are Neurocognitive Skills?

Neurocognitive skills refer to the mental processes our brains use to

Take in – give meaning to – organize – manipulate – store – retrieve – apply and act on

information from the outside world. Neurocognitive skills also include the processes that help us to learn, solve problems, collaborate and create.

Did You Know?
Neurocognitive skills are the foundation for learning, and cognitive strengths and weaknesses impact the learning process and ultimately our performance in sport and life. 

ANYONE can optimize their performance

Fortunately, neurocognitive skills are not something we are born with and can never develop any more of. Neurocognitive skills can be enhanced with the right kind of comprehensive integrated neurosensory training.


It is now accepted that expert performance in sport is dependent on perceptual and cognitive skills as well as on physical and motor capabilities.

The model of Cognitive processing illustrates some of the critical steps in learning and classifies functions into five main stages of processing

Reception is the initial step in the learning sequence and involves taking in information through our sense: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

The enormous amount of information available to our senses is too much for our brains to manage, so our brains decide what information is important and relevant enough to be processed further and discards the vast majority of it that isn’t relevant or important.

Our brains take just fractions of a second to determine what is relevant and what to discard, and we are not even aware of it happening; this processing is all nonconscious. In order to do this, we depend on cognitive skills such as the ability to efficiently gather visual and auditory inputs and various attention skills that enable us to focus on certain stimuli while screening out others.

Information is rapidly compared, sorted, organized, and then filtered to enable relevant information to flow through to other processes.

At the next stage of the learning sequence, information selected in the Reception stage is further processed to identify and interpret it. This requires retrieving stored information from memory and integrating it with the new information in order to ascribe meaning to the incoming information. Here, we must also put visual and auditory information together to create a meaningful whole, keep items in a sequence and understand where things are in space and time relative to other things.  Again, these processes occur within fractions of a seconds, up to a few seconds, and are performed nonconsciously.

Memory is essential in all phases of information processing and is integral to any ability to manipulate information, compare, comprehend, and learn. In fact, if we can’t remember something, we can’t really be said to have learned it.

 Memory skills range from immediate to long-term depending on the duration of time information is stored, as well as the physical brain structures used to retrieve it.

 The only stage at which we are conscious of the information is when we are holding it and manipulating it in working memory.

 Working Memory refers to our conscious processing and the ability to hold information actively in mind while we think about it.  Just as our brains screen and discard most information at the reception stage, much of the information held in sensory memory or immediate short-term memory is then discarded.  It is only if we decide to think about information, holding it and manipulating it in working memory that it has a chance to end up being stored in long-term memory.

Working memory is one of a special class of cognitive skills referred to as executive functions.

Executive functions are the directive capacities of our minds, so we call this stage of cognitive processing Direction.

The other two executive functions are:

 – Inhibitory control: essential for self-regulation

 – Cognitive flexibility: which is how we reorient our thoughts when the rules of the world around us change, when we look at things from different perspectives or or when we shift from an external focus to internal reflective thinking.

Executive functions are often likened to the conductor of the orchestra who directs all of the instruments to produce a coordinated musical experience.

Like the conductor of an orchestra, our executive functions direct what is going in our brains to enable us to make decisions and take actions.

The thinking stage of processing is the stage at which we use cognitive skills like analysis and complex reasoning. These skills, which often read like lists of 21st Century skills, are also called higher order executive functions.

The result of the thinking stage is some kind of output and this is the stage at which we achieve comprehension, make decisions, plan for the future, solve problems and take actions.

It's a Non-Linear Integration of Skills

While all of these stages of processing seem like discrete steps or functions, our brains do not process information in a linear fashion. It is our brains’ ability to coordinate all of these processes together that accounts for learning and intelligence.  Cognitive skills are the foundation for learning, and cognitive strengths and weaknesses impact the learning process.

It has been estimated that cognitive skills account for 60% of the variance in academic performance, greater than factors such as instructional quality or focus on achievement.

Thus, athletes who struggle with reading, math and other academic tasks, as well as their sport perfromance, often do so because they have weaknesses in one or more cognitive skills.

The Importance of NeuroCognitive Skills in Athletic Performance

In many instances, mental blocks can be traced back to a cognitive weakness. That’s why we’re so passionate about neurosensory assessments and training. We see the difference it makes in an athletes performance profile.

Everything we do, including sports, relies on a foundation of cognitive skills. The following examples illustrate the role that certain cognitive abilities play in athletic performance.

Sustained Attention: Virtually all sports require sustained attention and focus. Consider the baseball outfielder tracking a fly ball, the gymnast performing a routine, the football player executing a play and staying focused on the player he is trying to tackle, or the track athlete waiting for the sound of the starter’s gun.

Selective Attention: Being able to screen out irrelevant stimuli and to focus on the important aspects of a situation is vital in sports – for example, in hearing a teammate’s instructions but ignoring the sounds of the fans or in focusing exclusively on the basket despite the waving and attempts by fans of the opposing team to distract a player from making a basketball free-throw.

Flexible Attention: The ability to shift quickly and smoothly from one activity to another is essential in many sports. An example is moving between offensive and defensive modes in basketball, soccer or hockey.

Visual Span: Being able to take more information in at a glance and the effective use of peripheral vision, particularly in combination with visual discrimination, can enhance visual search techniques (spotting the ball or another player on the field/court.)

Visual Discrimination: Distinguishing small differences – from the angle of the opponent’s racket to subtle shifts in the position of a lineman – can enable an athlete to anticipate and prepare for the appropriate action.

Visualization: The ability to create a mental map of the state of game play is a key area of expertise for players in virtually any team sport. Being able to sense (see in one’s mind) where players are, where they are moving and where opportunities exist often sets great athletes (football quarterbacks, tennis players, playmakers in basketball) above their peers.

Long-Term Memory:  This is the type of memory we are most familiar with. It involves the ability to acquire knowledge, such as the playbook in football, soccer, basketball and other team sports.

Working Memory:  Working memory refers to the ability to hold multiple pieces of information in one’s mind while manipulating them. Adjusting one’s golf swing to account for conditions (wind, lie, etc.) or evaluating novel or unforeseen circumstances when a play goes wrong in football or basketball are examples.

Visual-Motor Integration: The ability to use the eyes and hands together efficiently, as in catching or hitting a ball, aiming at a target or coordinating actions with team members.

Timing and Rhythm: The ability to perform rhythmically and in split-second timing is inhere in sports like crew, any sport performed to music, and even a golf swing

Planning: Sports involve planning at multiple levels – from the longer term plan to get ready physically and mentally for game day to the “seat of the pants” planning of how to get the ball down court or players in position for a volley ball attack.

Decision Speed: Split-second decisions are a hallmark of athletics and the ability to quickly make a decision, based on the most relevant information, is tested constantly in sports, every time an athlete responds to an opponent’s action. Hesitation gives the opponent a chance to attack or regroup, whereas quicker decisions can provide a small but often important advantage.

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