"Thinking Out Loud" about Cognition in Orienteering

Bjørn Tore Johansen, Agder College, Norway
Email: Bjorn.T.Johansen=AT=hia.no

Coaches and scientists usually focus on movement execution and neglect the tactical decisions that precede them. What are athletes actually thinking about and reacting to, while making decisions on the field? Is there a way to record the athletes' thoughts? Ask the average athlete after a game and you'll get a blank stare. Is there a better way? Doctoral candidate Bjorn Tore Johansen discusses his "think out loud" technique for studying cognition in orienteering, and speculates on ways the method may be useful in training for other sports as well.


First as an orienteer, then as a coach, and now as a scientist, I have been asking myself the same basic questions: How does an orienteer experience orienteering? How does an orienteer use the map and the terrain in orienteering? What does it take to read a map? What do they really think about running out there in the forest? Is it possible to "measure" their thoughts, and would there be any advantage from doing so?

While orienteering is definitely a physically demanding sport, to the extent that a comparison is meaningful, the cognitive demands may be even more demanding. Finding one's way through unknown terrain at maximal speed with the help of only map and compass involves a number of cognitive processes: planning, thinking, remembering, recognition, to mention only a few. Various aspects of cognition in orienteering have been studied, and there have been about 20 studies published in English.

Ottosson (1996) claims that almost without exception, the published studies have adopted a cognitive-psychology or information-processing perspective. In most of the studies the method used concentrated on external behavior. In my studies of cognition in orienteering I have chosen an alternative, non-dualistic theoretical approach based on approaches that are provided by, for example, ecological psychology (Gibson, 1979), phenomenological studies of thinking (Aanstoos, 1986), and map-reading and way-finding in orienteering (Ottosson, 1987, 1996). The methodological approach I have used is the so-called think-aloud technique, where subjects are requested to verbalize their exact thoughts during an activity. This method has not been used in orienteering, or in sport psychology generally, to any significant extent. My master thesis in 1990 was based on developing this method for empirical studies in orienteering (Johansen, 1991), and I have expanded on that foundation more recently in my doctoral research.

My objectives were (a) to determine the applicability of the "think-aloud" data collection method in practical terms, (b) to determine whether the data obtained could contribute to our knowledge of the complex mental activity and experience patterns in orienteering, and (c) by using orienteering as a model, to create more knowledge about complex cognitive activity in other sports for answering questions about tactics and peak-performance or flow experiences. Why and how do such experiences occur in sports? Is it possible to explain the athlete's thinking in these situations? Often we describe the knowledge demonstrated in these peak-performance situations as tacit knowledge. How tacit, or unaware, is this knowledge?

Methods and Some Results

My doctoral thesis includes two different studies where I employed the think-aloud technique for collecting data. Study 1 included 20 subjects, and Study 2 included 10 subjects. In Study 2 I also used a post-race interview. All subjects were highly skilled orienteers (junior and senior national team runners). The test situations in both studies were carried out as a race simulation. In Study 2, I attempted to gain more information by secretly altering the subjects' maps (adding or subtracting map objects). I did this to ensure I obtained data about what kind of coping strategies orienteers use in a situation where they are lost. Here, I am only discussing the results of the first study.

After transcribing the think-aloud tapes into verbatim transcripts, the data were analyzed using well specified phenomenological procedures, where the results are achieved by bracketing, intuiting, and describing. In order to understand the subject's intentional world of lived experience, one must first arrive at it by a suspension, or bracketing, of all presumptive constructs. The next step was to grasp the essential psychological meanings of the subject's verbal reports. At the last step, the structural meanings achieved were organized into a systematic structural description in order to grasp the relations of the essential meanings through their coherence.

An example

What follows is a brief transcript from one subject's verbal report recorded during a standard section of the course. Subjects wore an audio recorder secured to their backs;

"...follow now the path until a marsh is coming up, then just move to the left, it is probably best to move ahead of the marsh and then left, there comes the marsh, runs a little bit ahead, and then up left, I'm doing that now, run up the hill a bit, can see the boulder, there it is [the control]..."

The data from this study indicate that the task in orienteering is pre-experienced by a period of map reading. During this period of map reading the orienteers extract and focus on specific information from the information-dense map. In the example above, we see the subject focuses on the marsh and its position in the terrain relative to the path and the final target (the control). This transcript exemplifies a recurring theme: orienteers are highly focused on certain terrain details. When the orienteers have a focal awareness at certain details they have built up an expectation of what they are going to meet. The subject above is focused on the marsh and is expecting it to appear in a short time. This expectation, or a pre-experienced version of the terrain, is the basis for which way the orienteers decide on the movement between two controls.

However, this expectation has no real meaning for the orienteers until, during the movement through the terrain, they can attune it with the perceptually experienced version of the terrain. Only because the orienteers are focally aware of specific terrain details or structures are they able to make a direct perception of these details in the terrain. What the orienteers perceive and perceive directly, without anything that could be called processing, can be looked upon as affordances (Gibson, 1979), meaning what a setting, an object, or an event affords in terms of possible actions (Ottosson, 1996). So when the marsh appears, the orienteer can confirm the location and thereby his or her accurate position in the terrain. Then the orienteer continues towards the final target, in this case the boulder where the control is placed.

Harmony (flow experience)

In the example above, the subject's pre-experienced version of the terrain  melts together  with his perceptually experienced version of the terrain during movement. The two versions harmonize  with each other and throughout the entire performance the subject's expectation is dynamically developed for further movement towards the final target (the control). In this stage of harmony the orienteers have a perceived certainty of their own location in relation to their interpretation of the whole situation. They experience a kind of  flow  that I believe is similar to flow experience or peak performance situations in other sports.

"When Flow Stops" (break down experience)

The results reveal also that some orienteers experience a stage of non-harmony during running. These orienteers have, according to their verbal report, a less focal awareness on certain terrain details and therefore a less accurate expectation. They experience uncertainty during movement. A non-harmony stage appears when the orienteer's perceptually experienced version of the terrain gives no meaning, or at least in the beginning very little meaning. They are not able to make an exact location of their present position in the terrain. They now experience a break down and loss of performance time. Following break down we see reflection and through additional map-reading they start thematizing information for a location of their accurate position.

Another example

This out-take is from the same subject but in another place in the course. It illustrates a break down experience followed by reflection and reorientation.

"...here is the big path coming in front of you, checking the direction, hey, what is this, move a little bit further here, see if this is correct, this is a bit strange, here is the path, the path against the little cabin, follows that, what is this, no, [curse], this isn't, damn it, damn it, this is not right, what is wrong, back to where I came from, stand in the cross, triangle cross, yeah right, running now in the right direction..."

Other Characterizations

I found minor differences between female and male orienteers. The females are more accurate in their map-reading, and they build up a more detailed expectation. However, when the task is experienced as difficult, the females become more passive and defensive in their running than the males. Recordings of females include phrases like; "...there are few details to go by, this is going to be difficult..." At the same leg in the course males report phrases like; "...here I have to used the compass, be accurate with the direction...". In certain situations the male orienteers show more offensive and active tactics in their running.

Implications for Other Sports

My results suggest that the think-aloud method can be a viable research technique when it is paired with a phenomenological procedure of data analysis for describing cognition in orienteering. Hopefully it will also prove useful as a powerful method for collecting data for analyses of other complex sports activities. Focal awareness of specific details, rapid matching of expectation and perception, and execution of appropriate physical movement might serve as a generic cognition-centered description of the court mastery of Michael Jordan or Larry Bird, the dominance of Anja Andersen in handball, or the field vision of Eric Cantona in soccer. If we understood what they are thinking (focusing on and perceiving?) during a game, could we use the information to "teach" the flow experience?

I will consider the example of soccer in a little more detail. Today it is commonly accepted that a football goal-keeper reaches peak game performance near age 30, because it takes years to acquire sufficient tactical experience rather than the physical skills. Despite this excessive development period, few appear to be questioning the overall training methods for young goal-keepers, at least in Norway. To accelerate the learning curve in the future, instead of focusing training on strength and technique acquisition, we may need to focus more on processes that constitute aspects of cognition--planning, decision-making, and problem-solving--to obtain the right actions in the different tactical situations during a game of football.

In training young goal keepers to improve their tactical experience it is possible to focus more on the following:

1. Studying relevant situations on video and guide the young athletes by giving them tasks of different character. For example, you could stop the video in a certain situation and let them predict what happens next, or let them decide a goal-keeper's next relevant move or appropriate action.

2. Practicing the same tactical training by creating overloads situations where, for example, six forwards play against three defenders. This is much more relevant to goal keeping in real games than repeated practice with one shooter approaching the goal.

3. Combining live overload situations created in practice with the think-aloud technique while video recording the goal keeper. By combining video analysis with simultaneous "think-aloud" recording the coach and athlete together can better recognize the tactical mistakes that proceed unsuccessful movement solutions. If a coach can hear the thoughts that preceded the athlete's tactical actions, the coach might have a better chance of correcting the technique problem at its source.

Finally I want to emphasize that I have presented only a glimpse of the results from my studies of cognition in orienteering. The whole investigation will be published as a doctoral thesis in 1997.


Aanstoos, C.M. (1986). Phenomenology and psychology of thinking. In P.D.Ashworth, A. Giorgi, & A.J.J. Koning (Eds.), Qualitative research in psychology (pp.79-116). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.

Johansen, B.T (1991). Self-report data during "think-aloud" technique in orienteering. Scientific Journal of Orienteering, 7, 48-56.

Ottosson, T. (1987). Map-reading and way-finding. University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Doctoral thesis.

Ottosson, T. (1996). Cognition in orienteering: theoretical perspectives and methods of study. Paper presented at the 1st annual conference of the European College of Sport Science, Nice, France, May 28-13, 1996.

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