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A Path to Overcoming Performance Slumps – applying implicit learning skills!



Sport psychology often comes down to understanding the complexities of human perception and behavior in seeking ways to optimize athletic performance. One hurdle that we continue to see with athletes is the inevitable slump that almost every athlete has faced at one point or another in their career. Utilizing implicit learning—a process that occurs without conscious awareness holds immense potential for athletes facing these performance slumps.


Implicit learning is a subconscious process through which individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and patterns of behavior and/or movement without explicit instruction or awareness of the learning process itself. Unlike explicit learning, which involves conscious effort and focus with deliberate practice, implicit learning operates beneath the surface, shaping our actions and responses through repeated exposure and experience. 


Think of a young child that watches a sporting event on TV and then goes into the yard and just performs the skill. There was no formal teaching they just “see it - do it.”


So, how does implicit learning come into play when athletes find themselves in the midst of a performance slump?


Implicit learning serves as a potent antidote to performance slumps by tapping into the athlete's intuitive understanding and muscle memory. Rather than relying solely on conscious thought and analysis, implicit learning uses the athlete's innate ability to adapt, refine, and execute skills effortlessly. 


One of the key advantages of implicit learning lies in its ability to bypass the self-doubt and over-analysis that often accompany performance slumps. By shifting the focus away from “thinking” through the entire movement, athletes can tap into their instincts, allowing their bodies to react fluidly and intuitively to the demands of the skill.


Consider the example of a tennis player struggling with their serve - a performance slump. Despite hours of technical drills that go over each detail of the movement, their serves continue to falter under pressure, undermining their confidence and performance on the court.


Through implicit learning techniques, the athlete bypasses the cognitive barriers that impede their performance and tap into the subconscious reservoir of “muscle memory” that they have accumulated over thousands of reps. 


By engaging in repetitive, natural movement-oriented practice and visualizations, they reinforce neural pathways associated with their optimal performance, gradually recalibrating their muscle memory and instinctual responses. Essentially, we’re training to focus on doing the skill, but NOT thinking about the skill. 


In the example of the tennis player, we may put a cone in the service box and ask the player to hit the cone over and over again. Then switch the spot of the cone and do the same process. The goal is visualizing the ball hit the cone, but not actually thinking about how your body does it. An athlete that already has that skill – but has lost the execution of it temporarily – can allow his/her body to take over and it will recalibrate to hitting the ball to the spot. This is what it looks like to use implicit skill training to overcome a slump!


To wrap up, implicit learning mental skills are the antidote for athletes navigating performance slumps.  Repetitions of this process creates a neural pathway back to natural and free-flowing movement. By harnessing the innate power of subconscious learning, an athlete can tap into their body’s intuitive wisdom, rediscover their passion for the sport, and rewrite the narrative of their athletic journey.


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Stuart Singer, M.Ed., and PsyD (ABD) is the Director of WellPerformance, a Mental Performance Coaching and Consulting practice, and the creator of the DoSo app https://t.co/R61vbpda4X . For more information regarding this topic, he can be contacted at ssinger@wellperformancecoach.com or follow him on X: @wellperformance, or Instagram: @wellperformance

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