A strategy that gives priority to implicit learning leads to better results in sports, and elsewhere.
One of the major differences between animals and human beings is the latter's ability for a higher level of learning and thinking. Learning and thinking are essential processes of life that go hand in hand. Can there be learning without the learner being aware about it? Science has evidence that learning can happen without learner's awareness or thinking. This kind of learning is called implicit learning. An apt example for the implicitly gained knowledge is the way someone talks in mother tongue without grammatical errors even when it is impossible for the individual to orally explain the grammar rules of the language.
Before scaling down to the intricacies of implicit learning, it is essential to know the differences between implicit and explicit learning. Explicit learning is based on the principle that the learner must have a clear cut concept of what he is learning. This kind of learning depends on verbal instructions provided by an external source and these instructions form the basis of working memory for the learner. Though the motor skills explicitly learned get automatised over the years, they invariably depend on the verbally-coded working memory pertaining to it. This verbal mode of control causes deterioration of performance under pressure situations. This is mainly because the performer tries to control the mechanics of movements involved in the performance using the explicit verbal information available with the working memory. This adverse effect on the performance is called ‘reinvestment effect'.
On the contrary implicit learning is a process whereby the learner learns about the structure of the stimulus environment, without necessarily intending to learn it, and in such a way that the resulting knowledge is difficult to express verbally. In effect, implicit learning minimises learner's dependency on working memory. This curbs the tendency of the learner to follow a hypothesis testing behaviour (that is, checking back with working memory whether the movements are correct) that causes ‘reinvestment effect'.
There are several distinct advantages of implicitly-learned motor skills when it comes to on-field sport performance. The motor skills learned implicitly are more sustainable over time than explicitly-learned skills. Moreover, implicitly-learned skills can withstand pressure situations much better than explicitly- learned skills as explicitly-learned skills can get choked under pressure as they are dependent on verbally- coded working memory. Since implicitly-learned motor skills are independent of conscious awareness, they never interfere with the flow of performance.
The theory of flow in sports clearly states that thinking of performance can interfere with the flow of performance. This is also true when it comes to the way brain functions during high level sport performance. Naturally the motor areas of the brain dominate its functioning during high intensity sport performance and when you try to think about an error or a correction of it can only be detrimental to performance flow. This paradigm shift in brain's functioning due to the thought process can break the rhythm of the performer.
Studies have unequivocally established the role of implicit learning in high class sustainable sport performance. Can there be a strategy to develop this kind of learning? Researchers have identified a few modes of training that can enhance implicit learning. One of the obvious strategies is double task paradigm in which the learner involves in two tasks, the main learning task and a secondary task that demands greater attention.
Another mode is errorless learning that gives little chance to think about the errors of an executed action. For example, bowling from a shorter distance and then gradually going longer. Providing no feedback to the learner is another strategy to learn skills implicitly.
Occlusion glasses can be used to prevent information on result of the task to reduce the influence of working memory by providing no space for hypothesis testing behaviour.
Another effective strategy is analogy training. This helps to avoid explaining the skill in multi-stages and helps in providing information through single comprehensive analogy. For example, teaching a top-spin forehand in table tennis using a right-angled triangle analogy.
Providing task-related but goal irrelevant instructions is another method in use for enhancing implicit learning. This helps in diverting the attention to some irrelevant task-related information that helps in doing away with working memory.
The major disadvantage with implicit learning is that it is a slow learning process. It is also difficult to use some of these strategies for extended periods of time. In the case of analogy training, cultural differences can come in the way. Nevertheless, it is essential to reduce the influence of working memory to nurture sustainable, robust sport performance. A learning programme dominated by implicit learning strategies will be the key to it.
Having recognised the advantage of implicit learning, many countries have included implicit learning programmes in their sport training regimes. More evidently Cricket Australia is making use of different strategies to enhance implicit learning and it is an integral part of their coaches' education programme.
The author is Associate Professor, Christ College, Irinjalakuda, Kerala.