Improve your Working Memory to Improve Your Game

Imagine this. You’re playing a basketball game and the score’s 89-90. Your team’s losing and with 15 seconds left your coach calls a timeout. He tells you what to do for the last play: “I want you to pass the ball to Kevin, then cut to the basket using the screen (John) positioned on the high post in order to release yourself from your defender, while Kevin passes the ball to Mike, from whom you receive the ball under the basket’*. You’re already under a ton of pressure. That information may be too much for you to process. If you’ve felt overwhelmed in similar situations, it may be because of your “working memory”.

Screen Shot 2021-01-18 at 6.37.24 PM.png

Working memory differs from long-term short-term memory. Here are some examples to understand the distinctions:

  • Long-term memory =  memories stored for a long time - like the first day of kindergarten or your best friend’s birthday.

  • Short-term memory = memories stored for up to 30 seconds - like writing down the equation to the area of a trapezoid your teacher just presented.

  • Working memory = short term memories that are being used to process further information. For example, when reading, you are using working memory to link the information you are reading to previously stored information 

Athletes in high-pressure situations do better when they have a larger working memory capacity. Professional football players need to memorize plays that are the size of a dictionary, and then they need to translate that into action on the field by visualizing that in the mind. By using their working memory, they can process all that information while staying focused. So even when there are noisy fans or other distractions, they can make good decisions and avoid impulsive errors. 

A shot of Tom Brady’s play-call wristband.

A shot of Tom Brady’s play-call wristband.

Working memory benefits in processing and performance skills also helps athletes when they’re provided with new and confusing information. They have a larger, more refined capacity in which they can internalize new data and instructions. In short, working memory helps athletes with making decisions and paying attention. A good working memory + practice = one component to success. 

If you know your memory isn’t the best (for example, if you always lose your keys or cell phone, or you want to join a conversation but you forget what you wanted to say), you can cultivate it to perform better in sports and in life. Here are some techniques.

Break large tasks into smaller sub-tasks: Focus on one or two of them before moving on to the next set. If you are learning a new play in practice and seem to forget the next step, chunk what you have to do into easier steps. Say you want to improve your jump shot. Rather than trying to simultaneously address all the individual components of a jump shot that you need to refine, and confusing yourself in the process, try first focusing on your footwork. Then move onto your follow-through, release point, etc. The more single-minded you can be in your efforts to improve, the faster you can better those behaviors.

Develop routines: Create a routine when you return home from school. Place your cell phone and keys in the same place every time, as soon as you walk in the door. Routines can be used in sports too when you are at the batting pitch or a routine before diving into the pool.

Practice working memory skills: Train your brain by writing down six unrelated words. Start by trying to remember the first two words without looking at the paper, and add another word as you succeed. Experiment with various ways of remembering information. To remember lists with many items, visualize them, or create a mnemonic so that the first letter of each word spells out a phrase. This may help with plays that you have to remember or player profiles you need to keep in mind.


Reduce multitasking: Do one task at a time. Multitasking shortens attention span. But you may be asking how a quarterback in football can possibly avoid multitasking- the plays, tracking the defense, and the sounds of teammates. Hone your focus around individual queues. Train yourself such that, every time you hear one of your linemen shout a directive, you know to stop thinking about your receivers and just focus on team communication. 

Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness exercises (breathing, meditation) improve memory by helping you to focus. 

Finally, listen to our podcast with Ron White, USA Memory Champion, and Brain Games’ guest, and see what tips he has to share!

*(example courtesy of researchers Philip Alexander Furley and Daniel Memmert)

Works Cited

Bailey, Eileen, and Eileen Bailey. “Improve Working Memory: Brain Training Tricks.” ADDitude, 9 Sept. 2020,

Buszard, Tim. “How Does Working Memory Influence Performance under Pressure?” Skill Acq Science, 21 July 2018,

Buszard, Tim. “What Is Working Memory and How Is It Related to Sport?” Skill Acq Science, 21 July 2018,

D;, Furley PA;Memmert. “Working Memory Capacity as Controlled Attention in Tactical Decision Making.” Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine,

“How Important Is an Understanding of Decision Making to a Sport Psychologist Interested In Using It in Their Work With Athletes? - BelievePerform - The UK's Leading Sports Psychology Website.” BelievePerform, 24 May 2013,

Ruiz, Steven. “Tom Brady's Play-Call Wristband Is Proof NFL QBs Have the Hardest Job in Sports.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 6 Oct. 2017,

Treadway, Dan. “Brain Games: A Top Neuroscientist Explains How Difficult It Is to Master an NFL Playbook.” Sports Illustrated, 4 Aug. 2014,

“Working Memory: A Complete Guide to How Your Brain Processes Information, Thinks and Learns.” Scott H Young, 2 May 2019,


How Chess Helps Your Mentality in Conventional Sports


5 Sport Psych Myths Busted