• Dr Lottie Miles

Trying Too Hard: The Irony of Reinvestment

We are constantly seeking an autonomous ‘flow’ in sports and exercise skills. That is, smooth automatic movements that require almost no mental effort. It’s a lovely feeling!

But have you ever got to a point when you try too hard - suddenly the flow is gone, your limbs become heavy and your movements are jerky and arduous? This often happens in 'clutch moments' when performing at your best is most important: A movement or skill you’ve performed a thousand times without a second thought in training becomes the hardest thing to do - do you remember Gareth Southgate's weak penalty kick in the semi final of Euro 96!

This problem can often be traced back to the way you were taught the skill.

Explicit Learning

Explicit learning is an active effort to study and learn a technique. This is a thorough way to learn, and is very popular in sports coaching - movements are broken down and explained, demonstrated and practiced – does that sound familiar?

Mastering technique with the use of explicit instructions is a conscious and mentally demanding process. You go through the loop of instruction, practice, instruction, practice, over and over again. Each time you (and your coach) refine how you move whilst gaining more knowledge about the ideal technique. Eventually your movements will become autonomous and effortless.

The problem with explicit learning: Reinvestment

When you have explicit knowledge of a technique from all the instructions and knowledge gathered during your learning phase, you are susceptible to a phenomenon called reinvestment. This is when you are capable of performing the skill autonomously, but instead you attempt to consciously control your movements to better align with the technical instructions... you try too hard!

When you’re reinvesting in a movement, your brain has to work overtime to recall the instructions and then send tonnes of messages to your limbs about how they should move. This is an inefficient, slow and uncoordinated way to move – nothing like the effortless, autonomous flow we are seeking which bypasses the conscious thought process all together.

Try it now - walk a few paces whilst trying to consciously control the movements of your legs – it’s tricky right?! Your brain is completely consumed with figuring out how you should move and as a result your movements become jerky and disjointed… not to mention you’re no longer paying attention to where you’re actually going!!

The instructions that you so diligently studied and learned to master your technique become the cause of your downfall.

Why does reinvestment happen?

Ironically, reinvestment is a symptom of trying to perform at your best. When you want to perform well, you try harder. A natural symptom of effort is conscious control - so you revert back to what you’ve learned about good technique and try to reproduce it. This brings all those technical instructions crashing back to the front of your mind.

Have you ever been performing really well in a training session, only to have things fall apart the moment you realise your coach is watching you? This is because you’re reinvesting in all the knowledge bombs your dear coach imparted on you in the past hour – your brain is checking in to make sure you’re doing what you’ve been taught, and in doing so, it’s disrupted your autonomous flow – bugger!

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are many ways to teach or learn skills to avoid reinvestment. You can even correct an instinct to fall back on technical instructions by using something we call implicit cueing.

Next week I'll introduce you to the implicit way to learn. This coaching technique is great for adults and children who struggle to learn new skills. It's also a fantastic way to protect performers from the effects of pressure.

sport mentality

by dr Lottie miles