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Learning vs transfer

I have written many times about the importance of session or task intention. Having a clear intention is critical to ensure that the session design has a focus. Hodges and Lohse (2022) outlined practice types from a skill learning point of view - practice to transfer, practice to learn, and practice to maintain (figure 1). Focusing on 2 of these (transfer and learning), this post will discuss how they can be competing entities, and the importance of context when designing sessions. Contextual factors can include the initial skill level of athletes, the physical status of athletes, the periodisation considerations or sociocultural constraints. Therefore:


(Session intention) + (Session context) = (Appropriate session design)


Consider, for example:

  • A coach does a game with an U10 group of players, it is messy. Players are trying to figure out the best solution to solve the problem. They are learning, but does it transfer?

  • A coach plays a 4v1 shooting task with a semi-pro team. Players are succeeding (scoring goals) and the task contains key information that is present in a game. It transfers, but are players learning?

Figure 1. Representativeness as a function of task difficulty. (Hodges and Lohse, 2022)


Learning

Learning can be defined as the process of change in how a learner behaves (Chow et al, 2021), This can include how they perceive a situation, their movement coordination, or their cognitions. Learning is dependent on the functional difficulty of a task. The functional difficulty of a task is relative to a learner's initial skill level. Therefore, higher skilled learners need a more difficult task than novice learners for learning to take place.


An important consideration for coaches (and players) is the relationship they have with failure. Errors are vital pieces of information for athletes and coaches. For athletes, it is information that something needs to change to achieve success. For coaches it is important information to help gauge the difficulty of a task. For both athletes and coaches, errors can be guiding lights. See figure 2 for a comparison of learning in a task, and performing in a task.

Figure 2. Learning vs Performance


To follow up on coaches' and athletes' relationship with failure, the functional difficulty of a task is important, but something that is arguably more important is the response to the difficulty of a task (or the inevitable failure within the task). Setting a task where an athlete achieves very little success (1 success out of 5 attempts) might be a productive learning experience for an athlete who embraces failure and is resilient. For an athlete who is lower on confidence and belief, such a challenging task might be detrimental. In any case, a coach considering their athlete and being aware of how respond (or how they are responding) to failure will be key information for a coach so they can scale up or down the task difficulty.


Transfer

Transfer can be defined as being able to adapt existing movement patterns to a different set of constraints. Gaelic football players (men and women) display skill transfer when they play AFL/AFLW (read more on transfer). General transfer occurs when an athlete develops general capacities that enhance their performance potential. Specific transfer, on the other hand, requires more specifying information that is present in competition so the athlete can skillfully regulate their actions based on the surrounding information or constraints.


Transfer (of skills) is dependent on the representativeness of the training task. The representativeness of the training is relative to the competitive environment. The task design model (O'Sullivan et al, 2021) is a useful model that lists key sources of information present in a soccer game - ball, opponent, direction and consequence. This model can be applied to most team sports. There are many other things to consider for representativeness to be maximised. Coaches could consider the space a task is performed in, and how this relates to the game intensity index (GII) of a game, or worst-case GII. How does this effect, positively or negatively, the time that an athlete has to execute skills? Another consideration is the rules of a training task. A no back-pass rule is not representative, although it may challenge the athletes to improve (or learn). As such, having a clear intention is critical (see next section).


Rationalising the session intention

Learning can precede transfer. Transfer can be prioritised over learning. Learning and transfer can occur simultaneously. There are no rules to coaching. Any coach can do whatever they want. But I would also argue that copy and paste methods of coaching do not work. One of the most important contextual factors is whether the environment is development focussed, or performance focussed.


Sometimes, however, it may be necessary for a player in a development setting to learn in a non-representative environment (learning precedes transfer). An example:

  • A rugby player has been catching the ball on their chest, and this behaviour does not allow them the opportunity to offload the ball quickly when under pressure. Developing the player's ability to catch the ball with their hands can absolutely be done in a representative task (and it would be my preference to do so), but it can also be done in a non-representative task. A representative task may contain too much information that causes the given player to get overly flustered and have a potentially humiliating experience. In the below task (figure 2), the coach can challenge the players to catch and pass more quickly by shortening the distance between the start and end points. With a shorter distance, the players have to move the ball along the line at a faster rate. Players could use a different strategy to succeed in the task, like slowing their running speed to give them more time. Here, the coach needs to be aware of what they want to see (i.e. the intention of the task) and adapt according to the emergent solutions that players exhibit.

Figure 2. Passing drill.


Other times, it may be necessary to prioritse transfer over learning. For example:

  • Match day -1, a soccer coach wants to ensure players are confident going into an important game. Players are not challenged to adapt throughout the session (to minimise errors), so the coach uses tasks which contain key elements of the game, but do not pose a difficult challenge for the players (see figure 3). With the intention of the session to ensure confidence is high and there are high levels of transfer, it is important that the challenge point is low-moderate, and the representativeness is high. Using the task design model to determine the representative value, the task

An appropriately skilled player can be challenged to adapt (learn) in a highly representative task (practice to transfer in figure 1). Here, there is learning (the player adapts), and there is transfer (the player becomes attuned to specifying information). In football, one option would be to play an 11v11 game. In rugby, Gaelic football or hurling, it could look like a 15v15 game, or a 5v5 game in basketball. Crucially, there are so many other factors that a coach must take into consideration when deciding on training content, so these are just examples. A highly representative task could also be 1v1 or 2v2 games, in appropriate spaces with appropriate challenge points. In general, coaches are limited by their own creativity, and there are an infinite number of ways to change a task to challenge a player to adapt/learn (i.e. modified STEP model). However, coaches are more limited in how they can change a task while still retaining high levels of representativeness (see here for more).


Example: increasing representativeness and challenge.

To illustrate the various ways a coach can progress a task, I will step through an example. Each step below leads on from the previous. This is just one example of the range of progressions that can be made to any task. As mentioned throughout, the session or task intention will dictate if the progression is suitable or not. With any change in constraint, the physical, perceptual and/or cognitive demands will be altered greatly or slightly.


Starting point: Basketball warm-up. A game of tag for a basketball training session - a squad of 10 players. 8 players trying to evade (attackers) the 2 players "on" (defenders). Full court. 1-minute repetitions.

  • Increase challenge (for attackers): make the space smaller - half court game.

  • Increase the challenge (for attackers): increase the number of defenders - 6 attackers v 4 defenders.

  • Increase the representativeness: add a direction - instead of tag, the game is now bulldog/red rover. Attackers now have a destination to get to rather than just evading defenders in open spaces, and there is no set time limit - each play takes on a life of its own until all attackers have reached the destination or have been caught.

  • Increase the representativeness and challenge: give all attackers a ball each. They now must dribble from one end of the court to the other without being dispossessed by a defender.

  • Increase the challenge (for defenders) but decrease the representativeness (for all players): All players (attackers and defenders) now have a ball. Defenders are looking to successfully dispossess the attackers, without losing control of their own ball.

  • Increase the representativeness and challenge (for attackers): add a consequence. If an attacker is dispossessed, they become a defender. For the remaining attackers, they now have an ever-increasing challenge (more defenders).

  • Increase the representativeness (for the defenders), decreasing challenge (for the attackers): if a defender successfully dispossesses an attacker, they become an attacker.

  • Increase the representativeness: Attackers have 1 ball between them. They must work as a team to move the ball from one end of the court to the other. The defending team must prevent them from doing so. If the defending team win possession, they must bring the ball to the opposite end they were defending (the defending team become the attacking team).

  • Increase the representativeness: change the scoring system. Instead of just working the ball to the end line, the attacking team must score in the basket.

  • Increase the representativeness (for all players) and increase the challenge (for the attacking players): make the teams even - instead of 6 v 4, create a 5v5 full court game.


Summary

Practice to Learn and Practice to Transfer (figure 1) are two separate but interrelated things. Coaches can incorporate either, or both into their sessions, providing they take contextual factors into account, such as the initial level of their players, or the periodisation considerations.


Reference

Chow, J.Y., Davids, K., Button, C., & Renshaw, I. (2021). Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003247456

Hodges NJ, Lohse KR. An extended challenge-based framework for practice design in sports coaching. J Sports Sci. 2022 Apr;40(7):754-768. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2021.2015917.






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