Have you noticed that many of the things you do in your daily routine, you don’t pay attention to? They come automatically, unconsciously, and effortlessly. However, there are many others in which you have to be aware, make an effort, and try your best to do it properly.

Although coaches tend to make players understand the importance of the “what”, “how” “when” and “why”, in this blog post, I would like to convince you why it is important not to be overly aware of what you are doing on a padel court.

System 1 and System 2

Daniel Kahneman, one of the most popular psychologist in behavioral economics, popularized the concepts of System 1 and System 2 in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” According to him, we have two systems that we use to make decisions. System 1 is effortless, unconscious, very fast, and emotional. For example, think about reacting to a fast ball – it happens too quickly for a conscious decision. On the other hand, there is System 2, which requires effort, is conscious, and is more rational, but slower. Consider situations in which rivals make a nice lob and we have to decide whether to execute a lob or a bajada.

Other authors, like Timothy Gallwey in “The Inner Game of Tennis,” talk about Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the body that moves automatically, and Self 2 is your brain guiding the body on how it should move. The main idea of the book is not letting Self 2 intervene in Self 1 and just letting it flow. Although similar, Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 are more validated in academia, so I will use them for this blog post.

Which System to Use in Padel

We often hear about a state called flow, in which people claim they are not consciously thinking, and everything flows. It seems that when people talk about this state, they are referring to System 1. However, entering that state is very rare for the majority of players, and when it happens, it lasts only a few seconds or minutes. Another point that is out of this blog post and I don’t want to delve into is that if we are truly absorbed and not conscious during the flow state, how is it possible that we then become conscious that we were in flow?

Anyway, Padel is a sport that requires the use of both systems. On one hand, you have to think about what is happening in the match – for example, between points, you might be thinking about what is going on and how you could make better decisions to harm your rivals. Also, during the game, there are certain situations in which the game becomes slow, such as a lob, and you have time to think and make a conscious decision.

However, I also believe that certain interactions happen so fast that you have to use System 1. For example, in a volley battle, when you are defending fast balls or when you get a fast bajada. If you relied on system 2, you would be probably performing worse. So probably just using one or the other system all the time would not be a good idea; a combination of both would be beneficial.

One important point to raise is that it’s not entirely clear whether we are using one or the other; there is probably a mixture, but one of them is likely dominating over the other.

How This Impacts the Way You Learn to Play

We have all experienced that when starting to learn padel, overthinking about what we are doing (System 2) tends to result in worse performance than just letting it happen (System 1). However, it seems that at the beginning of learning something, we need to use System 2. Some authors call it the Cognitive state, in which we need a lot of cognition to make things happen. As time goes on and we practice more, we need less cognition, and things start to happen without our conscious effort.

I will not delve into a big debate in academia about why this happens. Just summarizing it, some authors think that when we do things repeatedly, they become automatic because they are saved in the memory. However, other authors say that it is not possible to save all things in the memory; otherwise, we would need a huge brain. They argue that what happens is that we learn to perceive much better, and then we don’t need so much conscious thinking. The reality is that it is not clear how it really works in our body, but the more we do something, the easier it becomes, and usually, with practice, basic movements need less and less System 2.

Coaches Making Players Use System 2

So what I have been thinking about is how coaches can help players find a balance between using System 1 and System 2. The traditional belief among coaches is that players need to know what, how when and why they are doing what they are doing, so using system 2. I have to admit that I was one of them, especially with the why. However, after learning about implicit and explicit learning, I started to hesitate.

Making it very simple, we learn in two ways, explicitly and implicitly. We learn explicitly when we are aware that we are learning, getting explicit feedback on how, what, when and why to do things, and having some awareness that we are learning something. Think about when you start driving a car for the first time – you are aware of everything you are doing, from seating to putting the belt, putting the gear in neutral, and starting the engine, you are using system 2 and learning explicitly. As time goes by, you get more experience, you can go from home to supermarket, talking in the phone and not being aware of everything you are doing, so you are using system 1.

In this process of learning to drive, there have been many things that you have learned implicitly too. In Implicit learning you are not aware that you are learning. Let’s think about when you started to play padel. If you had to be aware of all the things you learned, it would slow down the learning process. For example, learning to make sense of the corners – you might be aware that if the ball bounces off the back glass, you might have to start moving forward. After a few shots, you become conscious that learning is happening. But at the same time, you are learning other things implicitly, such as moving your legs correctly, reading the bounce of the ball, preparing the racket, or reading how the coach is feeding the ball, things you are not aware of learning.

So, I have a bit of a feeling that coaches want to make players aware of certain things that players don’t necessarily need to be aware of. The other day, I watched a video in which the coach was explaining how to move when you are in the back of the court. Essentially, he was explicitly teaching that if the ball is a bit short, you should move forward; if the ball is a bit deep, you should move backward, and if it is too deep, let it pass to the walls. Do we really need to make players aware of this? It is not obvious that the majority of players with decent motor skills, given enough opportunities, will figure this out without consciously thinking?

The same can apply to the “why” of things. We discuss among coaches that players need to know why they do what they do. I have to agree that there has to be a certain awareness of the “why.” However, I have my doubts about whether it is necessary or even beneficial for everything you do on the court to have a reasoning in order to do it well.

I will give you an example that made me understand this very well. Before starting my career as a coach, when I found myself playing a lot, I remember that in difficult situations at the back of the court, I tended to play down the line. That was something I just felt was right, and I was not aware I was doing it; I didn’t have a “why.” Nobody told me to do that. However, when I started coaching and thought a lot about the game, I became aware of this, and I started to teach players that when you are struggling at the back of the court, it is better to play down the line.

Now I understand that as a player I learned that implicitly, however as a coach I learned it explicitly; as a player I was not aware of the what, how, when and why I was doing it. In fact, I can tell you that nowadays when I find myself in this situation again as a player, even though I now know that defending down the line is a good option, I continue doing it, but I am still not consciously thinking that I have to play down the line; it just happens.

Learning implicitly or explicitly

So, should we learn more implicitly or explicitly? I think we are far from really understanding all this. But I have a certain feeling that we should give players more chances to learn implicitly because, by default, coaches tend to intervene, making the learning more explicit. There is solid evidence that things learned implicitly are much more robust to mental disorders like schizophrenia or Parkinson’s. But also, about choking in a match, which will be another blog post.

As a general idea, I would probably opt for the following approach: let´s consider a time scale, on the right side we have the moment when the player hits the ball, and on the left side, we have the breaks during points. So, as a coach, I would prioritize explicit learning on the left side, when the player is still far away from contact with the ball. This would include thinking about which tactics to use, how to regulate emotions, or how to communicate with the partner. The coach plays an interesting role here and can be of great help. However, as the time scale becomes shorter and shorter, so we are moving to the right side of the time scale, approaching the point at which the player is going to contact the ball, I would probably emphasize more on implicit learning.