How to teach skills faster, stronger and for longer!
Last weeks' article looked at the problem of trying too hard and a resulting phenomenon called reinvestment. This is when increased effort causes you to 'reinvest in your learning' and thus you consciously control a movement or skill you'd normally do automatically. This conscious control makes your movements slow, inefficient and inaccurate compared to the automatic version. Reinvestment is usually a result of an explicit learning method.
The Implicit Way to Teach: Learning to Avoid Reinvestment
What is Implicit Learning?
Implicit learning takes place on a subconscious level, with very little (if any!) specific information regarding the movement technique. It can involve learning by discovery, copying the movements of experts, using analogies and using gaze training techniques.
Remember, reinvestment happens when your 'athlete' (I'll use this term to describe your learner!) is trying to perform at their best. In these situations, they often revert back to technique instructions and coaching points they've learned along the way, and thus end up trying to consciously control their movements.
The best way to avoid reinvestment is to not have access to such detailed information about a movement in the first place! That’s the power of implicit learning.
Implicit learning means your athlete can:
Learn a skill faster, because there is less technical detail to take on.
Learn stronger (more robust under pressure), because they can't reinvest in instructions they never had.
Learn longer, because there is less information to remember and retain between coaching sessions.
Implicit Learning Strategies
How did you learn to walk? I expect your parents didn’t sit you down and teach you about foot strike patterns and knee flexion when you were 12months old? You learned by discovery – trying out the movement and finding out what works and what doesn’t. You don’t worry about the technical stuff; you just learn to repeat the acts and movements that result in the outcome you seek (praise and rewards!) and ignore the movements that don’t work or bring about negative results (a sore bum!).
This is learning by watching and copying others. Watching experts lets you view the movement as a whole entity, rather than breaking it down into separate elements. Again, there’s very little consideration for specific technique and thus little conscious effort to control or manipulate your movements, even during the learning phase. Admittedly this isn’t always the easiest way to teach complex skills, but it’s a highly effective implicit learning technique.
Analogies are a fantastic method for teaching more complicated movements in an implicit fashion. Analogies work by lumping lots of information about a movement into one succinct metaphor or visual aid.
Imaginative coaches and teachers have come up with brilliant yet simple analogies to describe to their athletes how they want them to move. My junior tennis coach told me to draw a ‘C’ with my racquet before hitting a forehand (I was probably about 8 years old). This one simple instruction carried so much information that I was completely unaware of:
I naturally got ‘side on’ to the ball to be in a position to draw my ‘C’
The ‘C’ shape encouraged me to transfer my weight through the shot
My backswing was consistent and well timed
I had to move my feet to ensure my contact point is at the end of my ‘C’
I naturally hit the ball with top spin as my racquet moves from low to high at the contact point (the end of the 'C')
There are probably many more helpful implications from this one instruction too. The point is that over 20 years later, my forehand remains my best and most consistent shot. I don’t fear using it under pressure because when my brain decides to reinvest, all I think about is drawing a ‘C’ shape with my racquet – even my brain can keep up with that!
I’ve talked about the powers of gaze training in previous posts. Gaze training is also an implicit way to teach a skill. Directing an athlete's gaze to the right place at the right time is a very efficient way to gather the information they need to perform a movement - their brain can formulate better movement plans to solve a problem so there’s less need to learn all that technical information about the skill.
Gaze training does not involve lots of instructions, in fact in the example of Quiet Eye training (see my previous post for information about this), just one instruction is enough – e.g. “look at the target for the count of two before you move.” You can even take this a step further with implicit guidance such as lighting up a target when it’s time to look at it. The idea here is to subconsciously train you where to look and when without any instructions at all - coaching a youngster to catch with a ball that has blinking lights in it is a great example of implicit guidance.
Here’s a little exercise for you to try…
Mark two dots on a piece of paper. The goal is to draw a straight line between the dots.
Trial 1: Technical Instructions (Explicit)
Take your time to think about what your pen technique is, so we can make this your best effort:
Are you holding your pen with a comfortable but firm grip?
Is your thumb or wrist going to be in the way?
Should your palm be touching the paper?
Do you need to use your other hand to steady the paper?
Is your forearm or elbow relaxed or will it restrict your movement?
Check your line as you go – are you doing OK or do you need to concentrate more?
Trial 2: Gaze Training Instructions (Implicit):
Fixate your eyes on the target dot.
After two seconds of aiming, draw a line to your target dot.
...Which line is straighter?
...Which line was easier to draw?
And for those who've already learned a skill explicitly?
Obviously, if you’ve already learned technical instructions about a skill, you can’t purposely forget them. However you can still replace them with a simpler instruction or cue that summarises your movement (such as an analogy or a gaze strategy). If you notice you tend to reinvest when performing a particular skill, or you feel you are susceptible to pressure, have a go at coming up with a new cue you can concentrate on in those clutch moments instead.
Much of mainstream coaching involves breaking down a movement and teaching each of the technical aspects of a skill in turn. This method consumes a lot of mental processing power in the learning phase, but with practice your athlete can transfer the instructions into an automatic act. This explicit learning however opens an athlete up to reinvestment. This is when they try and consciously control what would normally be an automatic movement. Conscious control causes slow, inefficient and uncoordinated movements as your brain is overwhelmed with information about a skill. Reinvestment usually happens when you are under pressure (or trying too hard) to perform well.
Implicit learning is a way to avoid reinvestment. The theory behind implicit learning is to reduce the technical instructions as much as possible in the learning phase. Therefore, if reinvestment happens, an athlete's brain has much less information to process and therefore the conscious thoughts are less likely to interrupt the movements with reminders about technique. Your athlete's movements can therefore remain fluid and autonomous. Examples of implicit learning are discovery learning, mimicking movements, analogies and gaze training.
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