Theory of mind and mental time travel: all in a day's work as a performance analyst



Earlier this year, I explored some the theory of mind literature.
For some time now, I have been thinking about how we induct people into performance analysis and analytics practices in sport and engage in conversations with them about augmenting coaches’ and athletes sensory experiences of training and competition. The theory of mind literature helped me think in a different way about these conversations.

They are for me conversations about performance analysis and analytics as a service. I see explicit discussion of a theory of mind to be an essential component of these conversations.
My thoughts have been focused by Harry Frankfurt’s (1982) paper, The Importance of What We Care About.

A person who cares about something is, as it were, invested in it. He identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced. Thus he concerns himself with what concerns it, giving particular attention to such things and directing his behaviour accordingly. Insofar as the person’s life is in whole or in part devoted to anything rather than being merely a sequence of events whose themes and structures he makes no effort to fashion, it is devoted to this. (1982:261)

Within this quotation there is reference to directing “behaviour accordingly”. A performance analysis and analytics service is a co-production and requires sensitivity to others as well as to ourselves on a daily basis.

A Theory of Mind

Forty years ago, David Premack and Guy Woodruff observed “In saying an individual has a theory of mind we mean that the individual imputes mental states to himself and to others” (1978:515).
As Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan Leslie & Uta Frith (1985) point out “the ability to make inferences about what other people believe to be the case in a given situation allows one to predict what they will do”.
Helen Gallagher and Christopher Frith (2003) draw attention to the scripts that pertain to specific contexts as we impute mental states and make inferences:

Our ability to understand the behaviour of others in terms of their goals and beliefs requires that we have some expectations as to what these goals and beliefs are likely to be. These expectations derive from our general knowledge of the world, from our specific knowledge of this person and from our observations of what he or she is doing. Of particular relevance is the kind of knowledge of the world that is referred to as a script. Scripts record the particular goals and activities that take place in a particular setting at a particular time. (2003:78)

In their more recent discussion of understanding the minds of others, Pascal Molenberghs, Halle Johnson, Julie Henry, and Jason Mattingley (2016:277) note “a critical skill in everyday life is the ability to decode and react appropriately to social signals from other people, including cues to their mental states”.  They add that a theory of mind “refers broadly to our capacity to understand others’ mental states, and to appreciate that these may differ from our own” (2016:277).
Performance analysts who are embedded in sport contexts have the opportunity to explore these differences in mental states, often under stressful time constraints. My interest is in how we prepare ourselves and others for these experiences by engaging in explicit discussions about codes and scripts.
I think there is an exciting dimension to these discussions that enables us to talk about the mental time travel opportunities we have with our service.

Mental time travel

One of the early epistemological foundations of performance analysis of sport was that our role was to augmented coaches’ fallible memories of events (Ian Franks and Gary Miller, 1991). The move from cine film as a permanent record of an event that had to be sent away to be developed to domestic video recorders shifted this augmentation to near real-time (Keith Lyons, 1988). We started to find ways to share video in training environments and to edit the video for lapsed-time viewing (Peter O’Donoghue, 2006).

After four decades of augmenting coaches’ and players’ memories, now may be a good time to explore the literature about how we augment the future as well as the past.
I am particularly interested in feedforward and have written about Peter Dowrick’s seminal work. Peter has looked in detail at the construction of future events.
There is an extensive literature about mental time travel and my hope is that some of the neurocognitive discussions available to us can inform our service to sport. Some of the foundational ideas in these discussions are provided by Thomas Suddendorf and Michael Corballis.

Thomas and Michael note that:

Mental time travel comprises the mental reconstruction of personal events from the past (episodic memory) and the mental construction of possible events in the future. It is not an isolated module, but depends on the sophistication of other cognitive capacities, including self-awareness, meta-representation, mental attribution, understanding the perception-knowledge relationship, and dissociation of imagined mental states from one’s present mental state. (1997:np)

They consider mental travel into the past and into the future. They distinguish between declarative memories (semantic and episodic) and implicit memories. They add:

semantic memory has to do with general knowledge about the world, of the sort that is normally common to people of a given culture, whereas episodic memory represents the individual’s personal experiences. Where semantic memories transcend space and time, episodic memories are linked to particular events in one’s personal past that are spatially and temporally located. (1997:np)

They quote Endel Tulving:

The owner of an episodic memory system is not only capable of remembering the temporal organization of otherwise unrelated events, but is also capable of mental time travel: Such a person can transport at will into the personal past, as well as into the future, a feat not possible for other kinds of memory (1993:67)

Endel adds that in episodic memory “retrieval of past episodes usually recodes, or updates, the information” (1984:225) and that episodic memory is self-knowing (autonoetic) (1985:3).
Thomas Suddendorf and Michael Corballis quote William Friedman too:

in spite of the common intuition that chronology is a basic property of autobiographical memory, there is no single, natural temporal code in human memory. Instead, a chronological past depends on a process of active, repeated construction.” (1993:44)

Thomas and Michael propose:

Mental travel into the past demands some level of self-awareness, an imagination capable of reconstructing the order of events, an understanding of the perception-knowledge contingency, an ability to meta-represent one’s knowledge, to dissociate from one’s current mental states and to attribute past mental states to one’s earlier self. (1997:np)

They suggest in regard to mental time travel into the future:

it seems reasonable to suppose that basically the same mechanisms might be involved in imagining the future as in constructing the past. Time travel into the future is in a sense an extrapolation from time travel into the past, similarly involving the ability to escape the influence of the current mental state. (1997:np)

They add that it is important to distinguish between mental time travel into the future from anticipatory behavior. In their discussion of future events, they propose:

the real importance of mental time travel applies to travel into the future rather than into the past; that is, we predominantly stand in the present facing the future rather than looking back at the past. (1997:np)

In a subsequent paper, Thomas and Michael observe:

Mental time travel is evident in voluntary behavior that solves a problem that the organism will encounter at a future point in time, where future entails that the problem is not already manifest. (2007:302)

They add:

the crucial selective advantage mental time travel provides is flexibility in novel situations and the versatility to develop and adopt strategic long-term plans to suit individual selected goals. (2007:302)

This more recent work has important implications for how a performance analysis and analytics service might contribute to the longer-term flourishing of coaches and athletes. Preston Thakral and his colleagues (2017) note that episodic memory and episodic simulation “are associated with enhanced activity in a common set of neural regions, often referred to as the core network”.
If our service embraces feedforward (as I think it must) then we will be able to develop our understanding of how episodic simulation can “positively impact a variety of psychological functions, including far-sighted decision making”. (Preston Thakral et al, 2017:35)
We will need to be mindful too of the issues surrounding the reactivation of episodic memory and retrieval induced distortion (Donna Bridge and Ken Paller, 2012; Donna Bridge, Neal Cohen and Joel Voss, 2017):

Retrieval rarely provides a complete and precise account of prior events; rather, recall often includes both veridical and erroneous information. Therefore, if retrieval promotes storage of retrieved information, memories could come to include information learned during the original event and information activated via erroneous retrieval. This scenario could account for gradual memory distortion, or even mostly false recollection, after multiple recalling and retelling episodes. (2012;12144)


The theory of mind and mental time travel literature provide important contributions to discussions about what it is to be a performance analyst and to provide a service to sport. My aim in writing this post has been to consider how our practice can develop by explicit engagement with the issues raised by the literature.
I see the engagement with neurocognitive issues as the next step in the development of a community of practice in performance analysis and analytics. I think this engagement positions performance analysis and analytics in an educational technology space.
There is a temptation, as we access more sophisticated digital technologies, to position these technologies as the essence of what we do. I believe the most powerful relationships with coaches and athletes occur in the context of personal learning journeys.
Our educational role positions us to reflect on performance and imagine how it might be in the short, medium and long term. The craft of performance analysis and analytics is to weave these reflections and imaginations into the augmentation we offer as a service.
In recent years, much of my work has been involved in working with coaches to explore what coaching is and what their role might be in the flourishing of others. In doing so, I think I have started to consider a theory of mind and engaged in time travel with them.
I think I should have started these conversations with myself and coaches much earlier in my performance analysis and analytics career. I am hopeful that this post contributes to conversations you might have about performance analysis and analytics as a service.

Photo Credits

Atlas Collection Image (San Diego Air and Space Museum, no known copyright restrictions)
Training (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)
Bristol Then and Now (Paul Townsend, CC BY-NC 2.0)


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