by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
The USA Sevens was held recently in San Diego and was a fantastic weekend of sevens rugby. The United States team did better than it has ever previously done, and each and every match offered something for an implicit learner. Implicit learning occurs in sport when athletes learn from observing elite athletes prepare and compete.
This form of non-verbal learning, also called associative learning, differs from the traditional ways athletes learn how to prepare and perform. Typically, we learn by having someone explain to us what they want us to do, demonstrate the desired skill or concept before we try to perform the movement or task ourselves. This traditional form of learning is followed up with verbal feedback by a coach as to how we have done in executing the skill or task. At the USA Sevens, there was an opportunity to observe 16 international sevens teams warm up, compete, and cool down.
A large amount of research exists on cognitive development and how we motor learn. Implicit learning stems from the theory of cognitive development and supports implicit learning as a sound method when teaching skill acquisition. This is based on the notion that verbal explanations, if done poorly, can confuse the learner.
Many young rugby players watch their sport in what might be called “spectator mode”. In this mode, they watch matches to be entertained. Implicit learners are athletes that watch elite athletes with greater curiosity, and ask questions as to why something happened.
The venue for the sevens tournament, Petco Park, was configured so all of those in attendance had the ability to watch the best players and teams warm up, compete and cool down. What a great opportunity to get a peek at how rugby’s professional players operate. I hope that the young rugby players in attendance took advantage of this and whether they knew it or not at the time, were implicit learners.
How did Kenya warm up? What activities did the New Zealand team perform prior to their matches? How much stretching did the United States team do during their pre match routine? Implicit learners are curious and likely not only watch closely, but might have taken down a few notes of things they have observed. For players who are trying to improve, why not pay attention to those that make their living playing our sport?
Ask elite athletes, regardless of the sport, whether they have ever learned something from other athletes, and I believe you will find many have instances of learning by watching other elite level players.
I was an implicit learner in rugby long before I even knew what an implicit learner was. I always wanted to know the best hookers in the world do right before they threw the ball into the lineout? How did the best players prepare for a big match? Even as a professional player, I was always trying to borrow whatever I could from greats like French flanker Laurent Cabannes, or Welsh lock Gareth Llewellyn, winner of 92 test caps.
It is good to be curious, especially when elite players are on display here in America.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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