Choke or Panic? Implicit or Explicit Learning?

Ran across an interesting article from the New Yorker today (see it here). It’s kind of long, but so are most New Yorker articles. The subject of the article is why athletes/professionals sometimes fail under pressure. This post is so I can reference the article later and reference it to other topics. It’s over 10 years old (2000), but still relevant. I’m keeping my eye out for more modern theories.

When someone panics they revert to instinct. When someone chokes they have reverted over thinking. Another interesting point the article makes refers to stereotypical expectations. But another interesting theory in the article about is “implicit learning” versus “explicit learning.” Implicit means you’re learning without realizing it. Explicit means you know you’re purposefully learning.

The was referenced in a comment to help further explain why Lance is failing in this year’s (2010) Tour de France, but it made me think about how people learn to ski. Most seasoned ski instructors know there is often a natural, or instinctive, fear that students bring with them to the lesson. The article talks about how when someone begins to panic they are unable to focus. But I also couldn’t help but think back on some of my own experiences with successes and failures, but one in particular was my pursuit of PSIA Level III as a ski instructor. I always felt like I was a good instructor, but I could not understand why I would choke in front of a PSIA examiner.

I know one thing for sure, when I’m in a challenging skiing situation, I’ve learned to not over think it. It’s got me wondering about all other aspects of life’s challenges. Do you rely on instinct, or intellect? It seems instinct can be good or bad, but implicit learning is better in the steep and deep. Once you have implicitly learned something, does it become a part of instinct?


  1. Bert Middleton on October 5, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Hey Rick, I love this post. I think about this all the time.

    Whether right or wrong, I equate intellectualism with masturbation. Not that there is anything wrong with critical thinking and figuring things out but way to often it seems to turn into an ego thing.

    Learning implicitly, especially in the steep and deep, is the way to go. Instinct rules!

    So my vote is; Yes . . . when you learn something implicitly it becomes instinct.

    It’s going to be one, big phat winter! I can feel it!

  2. rickyb on October 5, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Hey Bert, Yes hopefully it will be a really phat one! Glad you liked the post. I’m hoping you see the related article in Wired I referenced in my next post. May affect how we race. 🙂

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