What Is Cognitive Load Theory?

What Is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory is a psychological theory that every referee, and those coaching officials, needs to know about. If you are not already familiar with this theory, this Blog is a quick rundown of what it is and how to apply some of the key principles to refereeing.

Cognitive Load Theory – An Explainer

Cognitive Load Theory highlights how working memory has a limited capacity. Working memory is where we hold and process new information. For learning to take place, this information has to be transferred to long-term memory.

That sounds simple enough; however, there is a bottleneck between the two, meaning that information that doesn’t get transferred across is ultimately lost and forgotten. Cognitive Load Theory is all about acknowledging this bottleneck and presenting information to referees in a way that aids and accelerates that transfer to long-term memory.

How Can Cognitive Load Theory Be Incorporated Into Your Refereeing/Referee Coaching?

Different concepts and ideas have been developed in relation to Cognitive Load Theory to help improve learning and reduce the chances of overload happening. These are important for you to know yourself and as a coach of officials to help you improve your methods and boost learning. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

The Redundancy Effect

When a referee’s working memory becomes clogged up with unnecessary information, the brain suffers from what is known as cognitive overload. In this bottleneck, the official may only transfer the irrelevant or redundant information, not the key learning points.

The Redundancy Effect often hinders learning due to this inefficient use of working memory resources. For referee coaches, this means that you should:

  • Be clear and concise with any instructions or feedback. Remember: you want officials to remember the important parts, not the redundant bits.

  • If formally presenting to a group, then reduce the words and animations on your PowerPoint slides.

  • If you are showing key information on a screen, then don’t talk over it. Give referees time to understand and absorb it first.

The Split Attention Effect

The Split Attention Effect occurs when people have to refer to two different sources of information simultaneously when learning something. This creates an extra load on their brain, as switching between tasks takes time, effort and energy.

It is best thought of as an act of juggling, where each item of information represents one ball. Ask a novice juggler to use too many balls and inevitably some will get dropped. So, what can you do to limit this from happening?

  • Use one source of information during any demonstrations. Be clear about what you want officials to pay attention to.

  • Use integrated diagrams. Integrating words within a diagram reduces load and boost memory.


Scaffolding is a method whereby you gradually remove support as the learner begins to progress. It helps to guide referees to learn independently and manage their load. This is important when it comes to different levels of learners: some are newly qualified officials, and some are experienced referees. You can use this to offer different levels of support.

  • Novices or beginners benefit greatly from worked examples. In practice, this can be showing the learner a visual representation of the skill being successfully completed through a demonstration or video and working through the steps with them.

  • Intermediates benefit from completion tasks. They are similar to the worked examples mentioned above, but are only completed partially – the learner can then complete the rest of the task themselves. An example of a completion task would be a skills-based drill that gets progressively harder each round.

  • Experts benefit from independent tasks, which are more suitable for learners who are fully proficient with the skill. At this stage, the information is in their long-term memory, allowing more space in their working memory to help solve the problem. Allowing them to independently problem-solve drills whilst still being available when they ask for help will contribute positively to their expertise.

This method of coaching is beneficial because it provides officials with enough structure so as not to not overwhelm them at their current level, but still stretches them enough to expand their knowledge.

Emotional Control

There is also an added factor of feeling stress and pressure when refereeing. This stress can overload the brain and lead to a decline in all cognitive functions.

Research shows that experiencing an interference or overload on cognition is strongly associated with poor performance relating to memory and processing.

If officials are dealing with a high cognitive load then it can be mentally exhausting and bring about poor performance. This can lead to a referee experiencing negative emotions, which in turn can affect their confidence and motivation. Because of this, cognitive load has been described as closely related to the emotional state of the official.

Given that referees perform under a variety of cognitive loads, we think it’s important to help officials to learn how to control their emotions when there is a lot of information for them to take in. Here are 10 ways that referees can control their emotions better:

  • Use music

  • Think about self-talk

  • Use relaxing imagery

  • Challenge self-handicapping thoughts

  • Learn to face their fears

  • Relax their body

  • Learn from others

  • Develop self-awareness

  • Reframe their negative thoughts

  • Take deep breaths

Final Reflections

Every official and every referee coach is different, so think about how you can integrate these tips into your coaching and refereeing. Remember that Cognitive Load Theory is all about acknowledging the bottleneck between the short and the long-term memory.

Being aware of the Redundancy Effect, the Split Attention Effect, and using worked examples and completion tasks to incorporate scaffolding into your coaching and officiating should really help.

At The Third Team I work individually and in collaboration with different professionals where I have developed workshops and 1-2-1 sessions associated with Resilience and Mental Toughness Development to help referees. The workshops and 1-2-1 sessions are interactive, where referees are encouraged to open up and share their experiences to help themselves and each other.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about my workshops or 1-2-1 sessions and how I could help you or your officials.

Best Wishes,

Nathan Sherratt Signature

Nathan Sherratt

Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team

Nathan Sherratt Blog Headshot
Nathan Sherratt

Nathan Sherratt, Referee Educator, Resilience Trainer and Managing Director of The Third Team.  A Mental Toughness Practitioner based in County Durham, North East England.