In sport, transfer of learning is generally defined as the influence of previous experience of performing a skill on the learning of a new skill or on performance of the same skill in a new context. This influence may be positive or negative. Positive transfer occurs when previous experience of performing a skill is beneficial for learning a new skill or for performance of the same skill in a different context. For example, a hockey player might reasonably expect that previous experience of striking a ball with a hockey stick will transfer positively to learning a golf swing, and most golfers hope that practicing their swing in the car park before a round will transfer positively to the golf course. Negative transfer occurs when previous experience of a skill inhibits learning a new skill or disrupts performance of the same skill in a different context. For example, groundstrokes in tennis, which are best performed with a relatively firm wrist, usually transfer negatively to squash shots, which are best performed with a flexible wrist, or vice versa. In this entry, testing and assessing transfer of learning in sport, theories of transfer, and the significance of transfer in sport are discussed.
Testing for Transfer
Researchers commonly use a simple experimental design to test for the influence of previous experience of a skill on learning a new skill (intertask transfer) or on performing the same skill in a new context (intratask transfer). One group of participants (the experimental group) practices the first skill and a second group (the control group) does not practice. Both groups are then tested on either a second skill (sometimes called the criterion skill) or in a different context. Any pre or post differences between the groups on the second test maybe attributed to positive or negative transfer.
There are many ways to quantify the amount of transfer from one skill to another skill or from one context to another context. Although no method is infallible, the most common method used by researchers is to compute the percentage of transfer, which is the proportional difference in performance scores of the experimental and control groups on the second skill or context:
To illustrate, a researcher might conduct a transfer experiment to examine whether learning darts for 1 week enhances or inhibits archery performance. The researcher can use a transfer test to compare the archery performance of an experimental group that practiced only their darts during the week immediately before or a control group that was prevented from practicing. Performance during the first ten trials of the archery task might reveal that the experimental group strikes the bull’s-eye of the target on an average of four occasions, whereas the control group strikes the bull’s eye on an average of one occasion. Applying the above formula,
the experimental group shows 60% transfer, suggesting that they perform 60% better at archery compared with the control group. The amount of transfer is usually estimated on the first few trials of performance because performance by the control group on later trials may be confounded by the practice that group is receiving. If the measure of performance indicates that lower values represent better performance (e.g., error, speed), then the formula should be modified by reversing the numerator.
Theories of Transfer
Research on transfer of learning began more than a century ago, when studies were conducted to examine the theory of formal discipline, which proposed that studying formal disciplines, such as Latin, logic, or mathematics, caused positive transfer to thinking in general by training the mind’s faculties. William James, however, tested the principle on himself by memorizing a new poem each day. His ability to learn new poems was not improved by this self-imposed case study. Later, Edward Thorndike, his student, as well as Robert Woodworth, further refuted the theory of formal discipline, arguing that good thinkers are more likely to study such disciplines so when they are successful at other disciplines, it only appears that they have benefited from their earlier studies of formal disciplines. Nevertheless, some evidence continues to support the concept of formal disciplines transfer. For example, it has been shown that learning probability statistics improves general reasoning skills.
Identical Elements Theory
Thorndike later formulated the theory of identical elements, in which he argued that earlier learning is only advantageous if the second task to be learned has elements that are identical to those of the first task. The amount of transfer thus depends on the similarity between the elements of two skills or of two performance contexts. The problem with this theory was that it did not specify what the elements were or how their similarities were to be assessed. Two possible ways to specify an element in the context of motor learning are that (1) it is any observable movement component of a skill, such as the swing of the leg in a kick; or (2) it is any task-specific coordination dynamic, such as the synergy of the elbow, wrist, and fingers when throwing a Frisbee. Predictions on the basis of common elements between two skills suggest that the amount of transfer between a tennis serve and a golf putt is likely to be less than between a tennis serve and a volleyball serve because a tennis serve has more elements in common with a volleyball serve than a golf putt. Predictions on the basis of common elements between two contexts or domains suggest that learning to anticipate the direction of a tennis serve by reacting in real life will yield more positive transfer to game play than learning to anticipate the direction of a tennis serve by reacting in a video game.
The Theory of Generalization
Subsequent efforts to understand transfer included cognitive factors. For example, Charles Judd argued that psychological factors, such as motivation, combine with learning of general principles to give rise to transfer. Judd’s theory of generalization suggested that transfer occurs when general principles learned in one situation are applied in a new situation. Children aware of the principles of light refraction, for instance, throw darts more accurately at a target submerged under the water than children unaware of the principles.
Transfer-Appropriate Processing Theory
Transfer-appropriate processing theory suggests that learning is best if practice involves processing activities that are similar to those activities which occur during transfer. To structure an optimal learning environment or encourage positive transfer of learning, a practitioner therefore must match the processing activities in which the learner engages during practice to the cognitive processing activities that are associated with the criterion skill or when performing in a different context. For example, a training protocol for kicking penalties in soccer, which incorporates the processing associated with kicking under psychological pressure, would be expected to produce more positive transfer to a penalty kick in the World Cup final than a training protocol that does not incorporate such processing. Transfer-appropriate processing theory also offers an explanation of the phenomenon known as bilateral transfer; the processing activities involved in performing a skill with one limb are likely to mimic the processing activities involved in performing the same skill with another limb, thus facilitating transfer between the two. This explanation is supported by recent work in which functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that brain activation at the supplementary motor area (SMA) is positively correlated with the amount of transfer between learning a sequential finger tapping skill with the right hand and performing the same skill with the left hand. Such transfer disappeared when SMA activation was inhibited by the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
Despite such findings, neither transfer-appropriate processing theory nor any other theory can fully explain the transfer effect. Much remains unclear about transfer of learning occurrence.
The Importance of Transfer
From both theoretical and practical points of view, however, the principle of transfer is important for understanding the effects of practice on performance. This is perhaps best exemplified by recent advances in our understanding of how expertise develops in sport. Experts often display developmental histories that are characterized by participating in many other sports. Transfer of learning is an obvious explanation for such a phenomenon. Experts, for example, are better than non-experts at recalling patterns of play from not only their own sport but also sports in which they are not expert, suggesting that learning to recognize patterns of play in one sport transfers to another to some extent.
With respect to motor tasks, the consensus probably is that, although transfer is generally positive when it comes to motor tasks, the effects are trivial unless the tasks are almost duplicates. Nevertheless, the principle of transfer implies that the practice of one skill will affect the learning of subsequent skills, which suggests that sequencing skills to be learned in a logical progression is important when designing training protocols or programs. For example, when physical educators, coaches, or therapists teach motor skills in school, at a club, or during rehabilitation, they often follow the simple-to-complex rule so that learners progress from fundamental skills through to complex skills that require mastery of the basic skills. Additionally, the principle of transfer informs diversity of instructional and training methods. Modern technology is advancing so quickly, for instance, that surgeons are able to train on simulators that mimic more and more of the underlying similarities of real surgery on actual patients. Thus, the costs and the risks associated with training can be largely reduced. Indeed, virtual reality training, which allows practice of a skill in three dimensional, computer-generated environments, is becoming more accessible and thus more popular, as a training procedure that relies on the principle of transfer. Finally, the principle of transfer provides the best assessment of the effectiveness of a practice routine or instruction method. For sports coaches, the transfer test is whichever game or competition that the team or the athlete was preparing for. For piano teachers, the transfer test may be next week’s recital at school. For physical therapists, the transfer test may take place the moment the patient leaves the clinic or perhaps later at home. Performance in the transfer test, whatever the test may be, is the true test of practice.
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