Deep Dive: Implicit Learning in Elite Soccer Training

 Soccer coach teaching implicit learning techniques in Barcelona

Implicit learning has steadily risen to prominence in soccer coaching circles. Take, for instance, the insightful perspective of Alfred Schreuder, Barcelona’s assistant coach, and Ronald Koeman’s right-hand man. Schreuder notably applies this learning technique with the world-class likes of Messi, Busquets, and Ter Stegen.

Read more: Deep Dive: Implicit Learning in Elite Soccer Training

Schreuder’s Approach to Training Global Superstars

A recent illuminating article in the AD shed light on Schreuder’s candid reflections about his role. As he expressed, training players of supreme caliber necessitates a unique approach. Instead of adopting an overtly dominant or directive stance, the key lies in guiding players towards desired behaviors implicitly, seamlessly integrated within training drills.

Strategies Used by Top Coaches

Many elite coaches, including Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel, have employed unconventional methods to encourage implicit behavior. For instance, Tuchel had his Dortmund players train holding tennis balls to prevent shirt-pulling and pushing, thus reinforcing defense using their feet. This tactic addressed Tuchel’s concern over unnecessary fouls during matches. In professional circles, this technique is known as implicit learning. Contrarily, explicit learning involves direct instructions, like Tuchel advising against shirt-pulling. Various facets encompass implicit learning, including observational, differential, analogy, and directive learning. Two frequently associated terms are errorless learning and external focus.

A Closer Look: Directive or Steering Learning

Building on Schreuder’s insights, directive or steering learning stands out. In such a scenario, coaches craft situations compelling players to adapt and learn. Through specific tasks or modifying training areas to align with objectives, players can be subtly steered. Schreuder offers an example: to encourage players to push forward from the back, he draws a line on the field. Only when team A’s players cross it does scoring count for them.

Balancing Explicit and Implicit Learning: A Neural Perspective

Jing Yang and Ping Li’s groundbreaking study titled “Brain Networks of Explicit and Implicit Learning” illuminates the necessity of balancing both learning forms. Solely relying on implicit methods might speed up skill acquisition, but understanding underlying concepts may elude learners. Conversely, while explicit learning ensures comprehension, applying learned concepts may pose challenges. Integrating both ensures athletes grasp the rationale and can subconsciously execute. The researchers utilized fMRI scans on 43 participants to discern brain activation during both learning types. Both invoked frontal brain regions traditionally associated with reasoning, memory, and creativity. Explicit learning primarily activated the ‘insula,’ a region merging sensory experiences with emotional context, while implicit learning engaged the Ventral Striatum, the brain’s reward center.

Reflections and Takeaways

It’s worth noting that these learning forms aren’t novel and are widely implemented in soccer and other sports. However, insights from Jing Yang and Ping Li’s study can enhance coaching methods, prompting reflections on unconscious training effects and necessary explicit explanations for comprehensive understanding. Directive or steering learning emerges as a viable technique. Stay tuned for more insights on other learning modalities in future posts!

Beek, P.J. (2011) Nieuwe praktisch relevante inzichten in techniektraining. Motorisch leren: het belang van randomvariaties in de uitvoering. Sportgericht, 63, 5, 30-35


Yang, J., & Li, P. (2012). Brain networks of explicit and implicit learning. PloS one7(8), e42993.

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