Implicit Teaching

Implicit Teaching – an Alternative to Explicit Methods

From – Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

By Rick Reis – Stanford University 

Instead of a detailed explicit description of a tennis skill, the implicit approach uses far less words and encourages exploration and guided discovery to access feel.

Educational researchers suggest we have an overemphasis on memorization and left-brain analytical skills. They believe our right-brain capacities to create, discover and truly problem solve become sidelined.  To which, creativity researcher and author Sir Ken Robinson responds, “We are educating people (players) out of their creativity (on court).”

Stanford Nobel Laureate in Physics, Carl Wieman, “Changing the way science (tennis) is taught is not easy.  We are trying to make a fundamental culture change …from the idea of imparting knowledge to developing thinking (playing) capabilities.”

As I continue to investigate tennis teaching methods and how we share with others, more and more I see players who can describe aspects of their game with more competence than they exhibit on court.  Somehow, they cognitively know the game, but not in the expression of unconscious feel, and I think this may stem from the preponderance of our explicit approach.  

Bruce Elliott, “Intrinsic (the favored approach) occurs when you design drills that will achieve the desired end.  However, it demands the coach develop creative drills that will achieve the desired technique.”  Some suggest that skills acquired implicitly are more fluent, coherent, and stress resistant. Further, in some instances implicit methods are simpler in acquisition and more enjoyable.

In a fascinating podcast from the Guardian Long Read entitled “Why Athletes Choke” a concept evolved about differing performance from skills trained explicitly or implicitly.  Under pressure, perhaps facing the “choking feeling” explicitly trained skills often return, revisit, and somehow reinvest the words from those lessons (not always successful) where implicit skills do not reinvest and search for the words and concepts, as there were none.  Said another way, explicitly trained and learned skills may be more susceptible to the dreaded choke.

As regards “solving problems” consider no-man’s land.  The term describes a situation where many players avoid this area, as well as avoiding the development of skill in this area.  The incoming ball could be high or low, volley or half volley, floating or quite fast, diving with topspin or sailing, swing volley or blocked.  With these variables one could not truly explicate the varied options and techniques.  And remember, there are many ways to hit the ball. So somehow this area of the court is not amenable to explicit approaches, and for whatever reason few players seem willing to explore and even play within this area.

Left brain right brain.  Explicit implicit. Teacher centered learner centered. Some coaches may be more skilled with explicit approaches, others may be more skilled designing implicit drills.  In my experience some players are more willing to problem solve, others prefer if not request more explicit instruction.  But the question remains about “educational culture” and how our game is taught and played.  

Perhaps coaches might try the following, “Don’t speak too much during your training session. Create an exercise that will do the talking for you.”


  • Donald McDonald

    Reply Reply October 19, 2022

    When I took up table tennis I realized the most important part of the swing was to keep the ball on the racquet for as long as possible. So to hit a topspin I hit the ball on the outside tip of the racquet and rolled the racquet over the ball at contact. I did the exact opposite on a slice, hit with top outside and slide it under the ball. In tennis, the same thing works. In the serve, you hit with the inside tip of the racquet. In “dead hands” you mention the “carry position” but are not sure about what it was. Is it perhaps the open racquet face that lengthens the contact time? I know this seems anathema but it really does make the game much easier.

    • antony

      Reply Reply October 20, 2022

      Yes on lengthening contact – Jim

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