Learning Styles: The Explicit Truth

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Maintain a neutral lumbar spine, extend the ankles, knees, hips, and keep your arms long you ‘orrible little man!

Learning styles have become a buzz phrase in coaching recently with many National Governing Bodies adding content to their coaching courses which suggests a need to section athletes according to whether they learn best by Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic methods.

However, there are is an increasing body of evidence that refutes the theory and this video (by a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist no less!) sums up the problems with VAK learning styles well.

So, unsurprisingly, the task will dictate the dominant learning style – sports skills should predominantly be presented in kinaesthetic and visual styles whereas learning to speak French would mainly be auditory. Trying to group athletes by these learning styles is not only a waste of time but potentially harmful for their development if you are trying to talk them through a skill because a written test identified them as an auditory learner when what they really need is to attempt it!

National Governing Bodies seem to have bought in to this heavily and a Coach recently told me that the learning style questionnaire was the first activity they did on the Coach Educator course for his sport. Hopefully they are all critical thinkers who will see the problems associated with this………

The truly ridiculous thing is that there are two proven learning styles that every coach should be made aware of yet hardly any coaching courses reference despite the fact that the coaching methods they teach rely heavily on one of these methods in particular.

Explicit and Implicit Learning

  • Explicit learning is characterised by:
    • A large set of rules and knowledge of how to perform a skill
    • Conscious processing of these rules by the athlete
    • The athlete is able to explain, when questioned, how a skill is performed
  • Implicit learning is characterised by:
    • Subconscious learning of skills
    • Lack of verbal instructions
    • The athlete is unable to explain, when questioned, how a skill is performed

The methods used in every coaching course I have attended sit heavily in the explicit learning style and on first glance this appears the sensible approach as it provides a methodical approach to teaching and subsequently checking for understanding or learning by the athlete. Giving rules to follow prior to and during practices or games (coaching cues) and questioning afterwards where the athlete is expected to repeat back said cues are explicit methods that most coaching courses espouse.

Implicit learning is far more difficult to implement as it requires critical and creative thinking to shape the training environment in order to produce the desired movement outcome and makes it hard for the coach to assess how much the athlete has learnt due to the blurring of lines between motor performance and motor learning. As Richard Magill stated in his book on motor learning “We do not directly observe learning; we directly observe behaviour…..we we must make inferences about learning from the behaviour we observe.”

An example of implicit learning would be an athlete performing hill sprints or jumping backwards prior to a sprint which will naturally put them into an inclined body position suitable for accelerations rather than telling them what to do.  This video gives a good explanation:

So how is this important for coaching?

What you don’t know can’t hurt you

Sport is by its nature competitive. Competition creates pressure and pressure can create disruptions in an athlete’s performance – otherwise known as Choking.

Jonah Lehrer provides a good review of how and why choking occurs in sport – click here to read it. Richard Masters, in his 1992 paper Knowledge, Knerves and Knowhow, created the term Reinvestment to explain this process. The more rules and explicit conscious knowledge an athlete has of a skill, the more likely it is that they will reinvest under pressure and choke.

There are lots of examples of this as Jonah Lehrer pointed out and it tends to happen far more in skills that are predominantly discrete, self paced and closed (See Understanding Skills for a description of these terms). Golf and Olympic Weightlifting are particular examples that spring to mind. It happens so often in golf that it even has its own term for the phenomenon, the Yips. One only needs to look at the vast array of internet forums dedicated to athletes analysing their technique in these sports to see why.

Added to this is the explosion in new technology and apps that allows us to film and dissect sporting skills which may be good for a coach to identify faults but if the feedback is too explicit or the athlete watches too much of their own performance (thus creating their own explicit feedback as they overanalyse their movement) it can lead to reinvestment.

Richard Masters and various peers have studied several methods of combatting reinvestment such as performing a secondary mental task (random letter generation) which overloads the working memory and prevents the athlete accessing the task relevant explicit knowledge. Another useful strategy is the use of analogies which chunk information together so that instead of 12 pieces of information explaining what to do with the wrist, forearm and shoulder the Basketball coach teaching a free throw simply says “Put your hand in the cookie jar”. This also gives the athlete an simple external focus or outcome to achieve rather than an internal focus of what to do with their body and how to achieve it.

However, prevention is better than cure. There are an increasing number of coaching methods being developed to use implicit learning techniques such as Constraints Based Coaching and Teaching Games for Understanding, which I will look at in future posts, but coaches need to understand the reasoning behind these methods. There is no point creating a practice such as the cricket fielding position one in the video and afterwards giving the player lots of explicit feedback, which I have seen done.

It can be a frustrating process for the coach as the explicit methods are so ingrained in our sporting culture and it often takes athletes longer to acquire a skill this way. Once acquired though, the skill is much more stable and resilient to pressure. Arthur Reber has even gone so far as to argue that as actions came before words in our evolutionary history that implicit motor learning is the most natural way for humans to learn motor skills.

As I mentioned in my post on Overcoaching, coaches cannot play the game for the athlete and due to differences in height, weight, limb lengths and so on athletes will vary in the way they perform a skill.  As a result coaches need to allow athletes to find their own way of solving the puzzles of how to achieve the sporting outcome required of them. Who cares if they can’t tell you how they did it?

Addendum

I should point out that I strongly believe there is a time and place for everything and am not advocating an implicit only approach. Many factors such as where the athletes sit on the novice to expert continuum, their training age, playing level and so on will affect the approach taken.

Simon Nainby is an Accredited Strength & Conditioning Coach and Tutor, Sports Massage Therapist, RFU Level II coach and an Assistant Athletics Coach. He has worked for a number of professional and semi-professional teams and he currently acts as a coaching consultant through Underground Athletics to a wide range of athletes from rugby players to Olympic Lifters. He provides physical preparation training and support in order to maximise sports performance. This consists of strength, speed and power training combined with recovery support to create a periodised programme which is essential for athletes to perform to their potential.

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