Recently, burpees were among my exercises in a quick home workout. The next day, my two-year-old daughter got our attention to show us her partially developed burpee. The following morning, she did a burpee very well. The video below is a couple days later when I thought to record, she is past her peak performance at this point, but still without any instruction or further observations.
This is an example of implicit motor learning, defined as unintentional learning. See and experience, then try. The contrast is explicit motor learning, where the learner is following clear instructions. 1) feet shoulder width apart 2) Knees bent 3) right hand under the ball, etc.
There are studies that compare performance results between implicit and explicit learning settings. The experimental settings for the studies feel a little awkward because explicit and implicit learning work together in real-world settings. The results of the studies do provide some ideas as to how we can be intentional in structuring learning environments. A few themes from studies I have read are:
- Explicit learners will initially improve faster, but implicit learners will catch up and be just as effective
- Implicit learning leads to better performance under pressure and better retention
- Explicit learning hurts performance under pressure because the performer is processing the distinct steps as opposed to just performing.
- Explicit learning better prepares a performer to self-correct and refine
- Analogy cues (knees to trees for a tennis swing) and observing another learner before trying are applications of implicit learning that enhance performance.
Implicit learning is not a novel idea to anyone, whether we consider a younger sibling developing skills from playing with their older sibling, or a talent hotbed such as the jazz ecosystem in New Orleans. How we include implicit and explicit strategies into sport environments does deserve intentional thought.
As a PE teacher, I learned the elements of many skills in many sports. I had my share of coaches and teachers who spent a great deal of time breaking skills down into small pieces. Needless to say, I have coached many sessions where young eyes glaze over while I talk through each point.. Below are a few ways I have incorporated the idea of implicit learning in recent years, hopefully moving in the right direction.
Use fewer cues to teach a skill
I now use 2-3 cues to teach a skill where I previously used 4-5. So now I might say:
- Shooting hand directly under the ball with elbow pointing at the basket
- Take a deep knee bend and come up into your shot
Most athletes will fill in the rest from intuition and observation. I can correct with the additional elements of the skill with the athletes who need it. Adjust the stance, follow-through with your wrist, non-shooting hand on the side of the ball, etc. With less instruction, the athletes are more quickly active and having fun. Less information to process. More repetitions.
Patience and more space between feedback
Understanding the athlete is piecing together my instructions with what they have in their mind’s eye and their current ability, it makes sense they will require time to put it all together. Some may not even get it while I have them in the current season/session. Repeating cues too frequently may cause them to become frustrated and anxious. I try to give athletes more space between feedback to keep trying and figure it out.
Mixed Ability Play
Playing with better athletes allows a developing athlete to see skills and concepts performed all at once and begin to put some of those higher level pieces together. The more developed athletes will also benefit, as they pause to consider the how and why of their performance, and build out their explicit understanding. I have tried to create mixed ability with soccer where there is not already an organic soccer culture and have found challenges. Talented athletes are often seeking good competition, a relaxed game with developing athletes may not be of interest to them. Many parents want their children to play in traditional leagues, and attending what appears as a pick-up game may not meet their expectations. Despite the challenges, I believe it is worth pursuing. In my experience, integrated opportunities are common in areas where an activity is fully developed.
Think System and Culture
Sport development, and talent development of all kinds, works best when there is a thriving ecosystem for that activity. There are many people who can perform at a high-level. The expert performers organically challenge each other to keep growing in the craft. Children are always present on the fringes, watching, and maneuvering for an opportunity to jump in. Developing performers begin to play with the experts, who further provide informal guidance and mentoring. The activity is present in different forms, from elite performance to pure fun. It is ingrained in culture and identity. Actionable steps are difficult to identify to create such a robust environment, but if we have this picture in mind, I believe it can facilitate dynamic ideas and strategies.