The Transfer Principle for Sports Training

The Transfer Principle suggests that learning and performing one activity affects the performance of related skills and activities. This principle is essential for designing practice strategies that have the greatest positive impact on competitive performance. Correctly applying this principle saves valuable training time while accelerating results.

Transfer of learning is defined as the influence of previous experiences on learning new skills or performing skills in new contexts. According to the transfer principle, effects may be positive, negative, or zero when there is no influence at all. The goal for sport coaches is to select practice activities and use instructional techniques that optimize positive transfer to the competitive arena.

Types of Transfer

Positive transfer means that practice on one activity results in improvements on another activity. Two hypotheses have been proposed as to why it occurs.

First, the identical elements theory proposes that positive effects increase as a function of the similarities of the components of motor skills and the context in which they are performed.

Second, the transfer-appropriate processing theory states that the amount of positive transfer is related to the similarity of the cognitive processing activity involved in the two situations.

For example, an experienced discus thrower usually learns the rotational shot put quickly because of the similarities both in movement qualities and mental processing.

Negative transfer means that practice on one activity interferes with the performance of another activity. Negative effects occur when two skills are performed in a similar environmental context, but the movement characteristics are different. Two situations that are especially vulnerable involve a change in spatial locations and/or the timing of a movement.

Think of the difference between batting a baseball vs. batting a softball. While swinging the bat has similar qualities for both sports, a baseball pitcher throws the ball downward in an over arm motion.

In contrast, a softball is thrown underarm and rises as it approaches the plate. In this example, previous experience in baseball could interfere with hitting a softball due to changes in path and location (the spatial characteristics) of the ball, as well as the timing of the swing.

Fortunately, negative transfer appears to be rare and temporary in motor skill learning. Beginners experience negative transfer because they are initially confused by subtle changes to a familiar skill. As a coach, you may have to encourage athletes who are experiencing temporary negative effects so that they do not become discouraged early in learning a new skill.

Zero transfer occurs when previous experience has no influence on the performance of a new skill or change in context of an existing skill. For example, previous swimming experience should not influence learning to snow ski.

When transfer of learning concerns the same skill performed with different limbs, it is called bilateral transfer. It occurs because the learner already understands what is required to achieve the goal of the skill. Another explanation is that a generalized motor program can be applied to performance on the unpracticed limb.

Coaching Tips for Applying the Transfer Principle

1. Identify similarities between previously learned skills and new skills.

2. Maximize the similarity between training activities and competitive conditions. Simulate various elements of competition (e.g. arousal level, game intensity, spectator noise) occasionally during training sessions, particularly during the in-season.

3. Provide adequate experience with fundamental skills before advancing to more complex skills. Well learned lead-up skills can positively influence an athlete's performance in more demanding conditions at the next level of play (e.g., T-ball to baseball).

4. Develop more general capabilities, such as critical gross motor skills, that apply to a variety of sport tasks. For example, in basketball, the vertical jump is a key element of rebounding and blocking shots.

5. Point out to the athlete how training activities will improve sport performance. For example, call attention to the shifting of weight, the hip lead, and the arm movement in softball throw when teaching the javelin throw.

For more coaching tips, check out

Teaching Techniques for Coaches: 9 Principles for Sports and Fitness

This e-book gives coaches some useful instructional techniques that speed up the athlete's ability to learn and perform skills and strategies in competitive sports.

For more about this principle, see Transfer of Training.

See other Training Principles:

Balance Principle

Individualization Principle

Overload Principle

Recovery Principle

Reversibility Principle

Specificity Principle

Variation Principle

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