I did it without thinking

1 October 2014

Rich Masters

Unconscious thoughts: Professor Rich Masters says implicit learning can produce good results.

Delegates at last week's international cycling symposium got a lesson in unconscious thinking.

Professor Rich Masters from the University of Waikato told the audience of cyclists, coaches, support personnel and academics gathered at the Avantidrome in Cambridge that often when athletes "don't think" they produce better results than when they try to focus hard on everything they've learned.

He first showed how the eyes and mind play tricks on people's perceptions; how surroundings, preconceptions, fear and anxiety all influence how people perceive and interpret things, which can then affect their performance. "But when people use unconscious thought they are often much more accurate in how they see and judge things," Professor Masters said.

The professor is an experimental psychologist who recently joined the University of Waikato after 13 years at the University of Hong Kong where he was Director of the Institute of Human Performance. His work in the field of implicit motor learning is widely recognised in disciplines that require movement, such as sport, surgery, rehabilitation and geriatrics.

Conscious abilities over time

And the older generation will be pleased to know that while their explicit conscious abilities may slow with age, their implicit unconscious abilities often are less affected over time. Professor Masters has conducted research with young and old to prove it and says that implicit learning is more immune than explicit learning to psychological pressure, distractive multi-tasking, fatigue and ageing.

Some of the ways people learn implicitly are through observation rather than instruction, through doing secondary tasks alongside a difficult activity, through analogy, subliminally, by not working towards results, and through errorless learning – that is, creating steps or situations where people can't fail but slowly build up their skill, almost without realising what is happening.

Cycling symposium

Professor Masters' talk was one of many during the two-day cycling symposium run by the University of Waikato with support from Bike NZ, High Performance Sport NZ and the Home of Cycling. Delegates heard some of the latest innovative advancements in research, coaching practice, performance monitoring, sport nutrition, training and technology, all with a focus on enhancing cycling performance.

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