Sports Science Quarterly – Q3 2022

Every quarter we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this edition we look at motor learning and performance under pressure, the impact of COVID-19 on training, deceleration, the relationship between injury history and performance, burnout, and much more.

As always, the full Sports Science Quarterly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Quarterly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Motor learning and performance under pressure

Quick Summary – How athletes learn can have important implications for how they perform at the highest level, especially when under pressure. Some research suggests that “errorless learning”—learning where errors are reduced and hence performance is a bit more unconscious—may support performance under pressure.

We kick off this month with a paper that is seventeen years old, but which explores a concept I think could be really interesting; that of errorless learning. Typically, when we learn a skill, we utilize hypothesis testing; we come up with an ideal movement strategy, use it, and then determine whether or not it was effective—using the results to update our future movement strategies. This process is obviously quite cognitively taxing, and requires us to use our short-term memory to store information on the skill we’re attempting to carry out. This process enables us to develop declarative knowledge of a skill, which means we can describe the process to other people. However, alongside this declarative knowledge, we also develop procedural knowledge—knowledge which is hard to put into words (as an aside, this procedural knowledge may well be what elite athletes develop during their career, but struggle to pass on in their own coaching). The difference between declarative and procedural knowledge is important because, in certain situations, the cognitive processes associated with declarative knowledge can impair procedural knowledge. A common such situation in sport is performing when under pressure, with the idea being that one of reasons athletes sometimes fold under pressure is because the task becomes too conscious.

As such, researchers developed the idea of being able to attain procedural knowledge without developing declarative knowledge—something called implicit motor learning. Early research, from the 1990s, suggested that implicit motor learning allowed performers to be resistant to the negative effects of psychological stress and secondary task loading—both of which would be important to athletes. However, people who have learnt a skill implicitly as opposed to explicitly often exhibit lower levels of skill performance. This led researchers to update their theory, where they suggested that one potential reason that implicit learning was effective is that there were fewer errors in developing the skill, which reduced the burden on working memory and freed up cognitive processes. What if we reduced errors in motor learning – could we still then utilise explicit learning methods? That’s what this study sought to explore.

To do this, the authors recruited 35 university students (both men and women), and randomized them to either an implicit-explicit motor learning group, or an explicit only learning group. The skill being learned was golf putting, something none of the participants had any previous experience in. The experiment was comprised of two phases; a learning phase and a test phase. During the learning phase, the participants completed 400 practice trials, comprised of 8 blocks of 50 trials. For block one, participants attempted to putt the ball 25cm from the hole; in each subsequent block of practice, they moved 25cm further back. Those participants in the explicit learning group were given six instructions related to putting technique; participants in the implicit-explicit learning group only received these same instructions prior to the fourth block of practice (i.e., half their practice was without instructions on technique).

During the test phase of the study, the participants had three lots of 50 trials of putts from 200cm away from the hole. In the middle 50 trials, the researchers played high and low tones every one second from a computer, and the participants had to count the number of high tones; this was a way for the researchers to provide an increased cognitive load.

So what were the findings? Well, both groups got progressively worse at putting the further away from the hole they got, and there were no real differences between the groups in terms of putting performance during practice. During the testing, the explicit only learning group were slightly more successful during the two tests without the need to have to count computer bleeps; during this trial, their performances degraded substantially, whilst the implicit-explicit group actually began to perform better. This supported the authors hypothesis that errorless learning enhances performance when there is increased cognitive load on the athlete, likely because it requires less use of short-term memory.

This all suggests that the use of implicit learning methods, with practice constrained in such a way that errors are reduced, reduces the cognitive load of executing a skill, and allows performers to be better under either pressure or increased cognitive requirements. This could have important implications for how we develop athletes who are able to perform with pressure, and demonstrates how we need to start thinking about how we teach athletes new skills in a bit more detail. Having read all that, you’re probably thinking “great, but how do I actually use implicit learning in my coaching practice?” Fortunately for you, a 2007 paper from Jamie Poolton and Tiffany Zachry explores just this—if this is an area that interests you, I’d strongly recommend checking it out.

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