Christina, R. W. (1996). Major determinants of the transfer of training: Implications for enhancing sport performance. In K-W. Kim (Ed.), Human performance determinants in sport (pp. 25-52). Seoul, Korea: Korean Society of Sport Psychology.

The motor learning literature was reviewed and the factors which affect the transfer of skill items learned at training/practice to competitive settings were identified and summarized. This summary highlights the general principles underlying skill training/practice which need to be contemplated when designing activities that have the potential to benefit competitive performances.

Training tasks need to contain the substance and methods of use of content which will occur in the competitive setting for contest performances to be predicted with any substantial degree of accuracy from practice performances. In the past, most theories have only emphasized content similarities but the most recent analyses of the field of motor learning have indicated that the use of that content is similarly important.

1. Level of Original Learning

Positive transfer can be expected to increase with the level of learning achieved in practice providing the practice and contest tasks are structurally similar. Conversely, when training tasks differ from contest tasks, the degree of dissimilarity interferes with the quality of the contest performance.

Implication. The tasks of training have to be structurally similar to a contest task and very well learned for there to be positive transfer.

2. Perceived Similarity

The basis of transfer from training to competition performances is the components shared by both tasks. This concept has gone unchallenged for almost a century. The greater the proportion of components of training tasks which match those of a required competitive performance, the greater will be the positive transfer. However, this transfer is modified by an athlete's recognizing the components which are similar between both settings and actively promoting their transfer.

The greater the perceived (recognized) similarity of the training and competitive situations, the greater will be the amount of transfer. No transfer takes place when similarities are not recognized. In some cases, when dissimilarities are perceived, an athlete's application quality at practice will be degraded.

Implication. For full transfer to occur, athletes have to be aware of the elements/components practiced in skills that need to be transferred to the competitive setting. Practice activities are detrimental to competitive performances when items are perceived to have few shared components and many distinctive/irrelevant ones.

3. Task Structure

An athlete's mental representation of what is learned at practice is constrained by the structure of the practice tasks. When activities, such as drills, have "important" elements imbedded in quite a number of irrelevant elements, the representation of the target elements might be distorted by the "noisy" background elements in the practice items. Thus, transfer will be more difficult the greater is the proportion of irrelevant to relevant elements in the practice task. Task elements (isolated features of a skill needed for competition), when learned out of context (in a largely irrelevant skill) will be difficult to transfer. The quality of their execution is distorted by interference from irrelevant elements.

Implication. Athletes need to be aware of the elements of a practice item which need to be transferred to a competitive setting. However, that awareness will be increasingly distorted the greater the number of irrelevant elements amongst which they are learned.

If the belief is high that similarity exists between practice and contest tasks, but the tasks are really very dissimilar, then task transfer will be depreciated because of negative transfer, that is, too many inappropriate/irrelevant elements will be transferred. Thus, despite the well-meaning intentions of a coach and athlete, irrelevant activity is likely to be harmful.

4. Similarity of Goals and Processing

Elements learned at training are more likely to be transferred to competitions when the way they are practiced is similar to the way they will be used in the contest. The compatibility of practice and contest tasks modifies the amount of beneficial transfer.

It is not merely the similarity of conditions between training and competitive tasks that is important, but the similarity of the underlying cognitive processes between the two. The mental processing and control of tasks is of such importance that when it is done correctly, it will more than offset changes in the conditions of the competitive task.

Implication. Transfer of appropriate processing requires the practice of the mental content and control attempts that are likely to be used in competitions. It is not sufficient to have only the physical characteristics between the tasks similar but the mental activity accompanying those skills also has to be of like quality and content.

5. Number, Variability, and Order of Examples

Increases in the number of training variations of situations should increase the chance of acquiring the most appropriate rules for transfer to competitive settings. The variations must be within the bounds of similar physical and mental skill elements. When training is varied to accommodate this factor, it is important that the performer be successful.

If training is varied from the outset, performance improvements are likely to be hindered. Thus, variability must be gradually developed, each specific situation being successfully learned before the next variation is introduced. While new variations are provided, some revision of previous situations should also be experienced so that all options and the general strategies underlying the variable skill remain strong.

As specific tasks and their variants are learned to produce a generalized strategy for tasks of a specific class, transfer to novel tasks within the same class is also enhanced.

Implication. Skills and their competition-specific variations should be introduced in a stepwise manner so that a general concept of the situational variants for the skill can be developed. It is necessary that each variant be learned, not just "experienced" without forming any degree of mastery.

6. Contextual Interference

Contextual interference concerns the variations and sometimes contradictions which occur in the instructional process. If the learning experience includes inconsistencies in instruction, content focus, and activity construct, learning in the practice environment is slowed. However, difficult instruction can enhance retention and transfer to competitive activities once mastery is achieved. Contextual interference induces processing strategies which are appropriate for learning a class of tasks.

Learning should not focus on being difficult. There are some activities which do not require flexibility in the competitive setting and so response "flexibility" would not be needed. When an individual initially enters a sport setting it is important for experiences to be positive and successful until a feeling of general confidence in the activity is developed.

The timing of introducing contextual interference is dependent upon the stage of learning and the activity. When a core strategy for a task is developed, but not necessarily overlearned, the variety of learning trials should be increased. If a task which needs to be adaptable is overlearned and becomes too specific, the lack of adaptability will be transferred with negative consequences. Thus, when considering contextual interference the following should be considered as principles for instructional guidance.

  1. Increased item similarity in original learning of a task should produce better retention and transfer when the task is the same in competition as it was in original learning. [Sports such as shot-putting, swimming, and kayaking are in this class of activity. Activities of this type were once termed "closed" sports.]
  2. When enhanced transfer is desired over a broader range of competitive activities than those experienced in training, a combination of both increased task similarity and contextual variety should be used in original training. [Soccer, basketball, and lacrosse are activities which require general strategies to be formed to cope with the unlimited variations of situations which arise in games. These "open" skills need variety in training for cognitive generalization to occur to adapt to various unique competitive task demands.]

It still remains important for athletes to experience a significant number of successful trials at practice, whether for variable or specific skills, to achieve an eventual state of overlearning. If a basic skill strategy is not formed, then appropriate adaptability will not be exhibited in competitions.

7. Feedback

Augmented feedback about the nature of the task outcome in relation to an environmental goal is often referred to as "knowledge of results." Augmented feedback about the nature of a movement technique is often referred to as "knowledge of performance."

The immediacy, accuracy, and frequency with which training feedback is provided to an athlete enhances its usefulness for improving both learning and performance. In the early stages of skill acquisition, feedback should be provided every trial ("continuous reinforcement"). However, to avoid reliance on feedback once an adequate level of performance is achieved, the frequency of feedback should be reduced ("fading" or "stretching the schedule of reinforcement"). Retention and transfer are better after the frequency of feedback is reduced.

Summary of Implications

  1. Take time to build skills. Rapid acquisition usually means rapid forgetting or skill loss.
  2. The similarity of goals and cognitive processing between training and competitive tasks is important for facilitating transfer.
  3. Training tasks should not be too easy. Challenge and demand in practice will facilitate better learning ("conditioned strength") and transfer. A simple criterion for an effective practice task is that it require an athlete's undivided attention and understanding.
  4. For competition tasks which vary little, training should be specific and similar in conditions.
  5. For competition tasks which vary considerably, or produce a wide variety of rarely repeated situations, learning conditions should feature contextual interference once the basic skill elements are established. This will slow the learning rate but will lead to better transfer. Training should include high and low contextual interference tasks.
  6. Knowledge must be the same and used in the same manner in both training and competitive tasks.
  7. What is learned in training is potentially available for transfer. A large amount of irrelevant activities or skill elements is likely to cause competitive performances to be less than optimal.
  8. Establishing the cognitive basis of performance, that is, understanding how and why things need to be done, will lead to better transfer from training to competitive settings.

Implications. The elements of skill that are necessary for competitive performances need to be contextually, biomechanically, and cognitively the same in training. The value of practice activities decreases the greater the departure of these three characteristics from what is required in competitions. The belief that actually irrelevant practice activities will be beneficial for athletes in competitions will be counter-productive for subsequent competitive performances. The belief that poorly developed skill elements can be executed in competitions because of mental application is also counter-productive. There is no substitute or variation for the Principle of Specificity in skill training if skill is to be an important part of a competitive performance. Some sports in some nations (e.g., swimming and rowing in the USA) which employ a large number of practice drills that contain a greater proportion of irrelevant skill elements will lead to poor and incorrect skill execution in competitions because of the erroneous elements which have been practiced.

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