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Does implicit learning improve performance under pressure?

Does implicit learning improve performance under pressure?

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Whilst you can’t have diamonds without pressure, we’re sure that a lot of athletes would rather not feel it during their performance.

This type of stress is inevitable at any level of sport given its competitive nature, with different athletes feeling the pressure to different extents. This make the ability to keep composed crucial – yet many athletes struggle to cope under these conditions and have been known to choke.

Choking happens when athletes believe they don’t have the ability to perform at the level required, despite showing in practice that they are more than capable of doing so. No matter how many times they’ve shown they can do it, sometimes the pressure can take over and leave athletes anxious, causing a drop in their performance.

So, how do you make sure this doesn’t impact your athletes on game day? There are two possible answers to this – but one strategy may be significantly better at helping your athletes thrive under pressure. So, here’s what you need to know as a coach…

What is explicit learning?

When athletes learn a new skill, it usually begins with you, the coach, giving them some sort of instruction – this is explicit learning. In psychology, we call this the “verbal-cognitive stage,” where the athlete will get information about the skill and how to knowingly control their movement.

Once the athlete has processed this information and can carry out the skill, they will move into the autonomous stage. This means that they will be able to perform the skill automatically without really thinking about what they’re doing.

This is the more traditional way of coaching – giving the athlete detailed instructions in the hope that they will take it all in, and eventually, be able to perform the skill like it’s second nature.

What is implicit learning?

But what if you didn’t need this verbal-cognitive stage and could give your athletes less knowledge in the beginning?

This implicit type of learning involves taking away the clear instructions you may be used to, so that athletes have limited awareness of their control of the movement. With less information, they will have less processing to do in their minds, and so less idea of how they are actually performing the skill.

The idea is that the athlete is unaware that some logical thought process is taking place in their brain. Instead, they are unintentionally and unconsciously learning. In this way, you can by-pass the verbal-cognitive stage and go straight to the autonomous stage.

To do this, you can use an analogy – for instance, you might tell a netball player to shoot as if they were trying to put biscuits in a tin on a high shelf. This way, the instructions are reduced to just one vague rule – lift the ball so that it’s high enough and accurate enough to get it into the net. This gets rid of all the technical stuff, so the athlete has less to process.

Another way you could use implicit learning during training is to introduce a second “distractive” task. This will take the athlete’s attention away from the main skill, making it more automatic. For example, try shouting simple arithmetic tasks at them to answer whilst they are learning a putt in golf, a serve in tennis, etc.

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Why should you foster implicit learning?

So, if coaches have been giving explicit instruction for as long as coaches have existed, what is the advantage of incorporating this new implicit way?

Well, when athletes experience pressure, it’s easy for them to focus on irrelevant cues, such as the crowd or any worry they might be feeling. If they have to process all the instructions you gave them about how to perform the skill on top of this, it can be really overwhelming for the athlete and can send them into a negative performance spiral.

Often when the pressure gets too much, athletes will try to control their emotions by thinking about the information you gave them during practice about how to perform the skill, in an attempt to reassure themselves that they know what to do. In reality, this can just overwhelm them so much that they can lose control of their movements.

When athletes don’t have these instructions to think about because their coach has used implicit learning strategies, they can reinvest their energy into reducing their anxiety and feelings of pressure. They know they can perform the skill automatically without really thinking about the instructions of how to do it. They can also focus on other elements of the competition, such as the movement of the opponent, thereby giving them an edge and increasing their performance.

What does the research say about this?

Don’t just take our word for it – take sport psychology researchers’ word, too! Out of 10 studies into implicit and explicit learning, seven showed that implicit learning resulted in better athletic performance and success.

The other three studies showed no performance changes depending on the amount of pressure the athletes were under – not a negative effect. However, every athlete is different and will react differently to the two learning strategies. The way we see it, a 70% chance of increasing performance is good odds, and a 30% chance that performance won’t change isn’t a terrible risk to take.

Final thoughts

Knowing how to cope under pressure is what separates the good athletes from the great ones. As a coach, you can employ implicit learning strategies to help your athletes move towards the latter range.

To summarise, try using an analogy or distraction techniques during training to make your athletes perform their skills more automatically. Remember, you don’t always need to give them super clear instructions if you know they are safe to experiment on their technique, but ensure you use the learning strategy that you know will benefit your athletes.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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