Maximise Skill Transfer

Most coaches will have experienced frustration where a team performs a particular skill well in a particular activity (e.g. passing) but then in a subsequent activity they perform the same skill poorly (e.g. poor passes in a shooting activity).

The transfer of skills from one activity to another (and from practice to practice and from practice to a game) is the coach’s ultimate goal! When there is a lack of skill transfer it may indicate that the players are still at a stage of “incompetence” in learning the skill – it is important for the coach to remember that this is an important stage in learning any skill.

This probably means that the coach needs to be explicit about the execution of the skill in the new activity by:

  • having a teaching point in regards to the skill (i.e. “good passes make good shooters”);
  • varying the rules to emphasise the skill (e.g. deduct a point if the pass to the shooter was poor, regardless of whether or not the shot went in).

The following approaches can also help skill transfer to occur:

  • Progressively modify an activity to add elements to it;
  • Conduct an activity that builds upon the skills from an earlier activity close to when the earlier activity was done;
  • Use “cue words” in each activity, to remind players of the key teaching points of the earlier activity without needing to stop the latter activity;
  • Do the basic activity (e.g. passing) for a short period of time, then move to a more complicated activity (e.g. shooting drill), then return to the basic activity. Then move to another complicated activity that uses the same basic skill;
  • Ask players to identify what they did poorly in the more complicated activity and then have them identify what needs to be done better (directing their attention to the earlier activity as necessary);
  • Set goals in the more complicated activity that specifically refer to the basic activity;
  • Select players that performed the basic activity well, praise them for doing that and then use them to demonstrate the more complicated activity - again, praising them if (hopefully when) they perform the skill well in the demonstration.

What coaches should avoid is simply stopping the more complicated activity and speaking at length to the players about their lack of skill transfer. The coach’s goal should be to focus the attention of the athletes on transferring the skill from one activity to another and then to provide lots of opportunity to do that.

Demonstration rather than Dictation!

Young players tend to learn through imitation – they will constantly strive to emulate their sporting heroes. For this reason, modelling is a very useful strategy both in strengthening the players’ motivation to learn and also showing them what is to be learned.

Basically, modelling consists of presenting the player or the team with a role model as an example to imitate, emphasising or demonstrating the specific behaviour to be imitated.

For example, the coach of a mini-basketball team teaching a chest pass could:

  1. Describe the skill:
    1. start with your hands on the side of the ball, thumbs at the back pointing toward each other;
    2. step forward;
    3. at the same time, push both arms forward;
    4. finish with straight arms (elbows locked), thumbs pointing to the ground and fingers pointing to the person you were throwing to.
  2. Throw a chest pass themselves (using the technique described above) and emphasizing the specific teaching points (thumbs pointing at each other, step forward, thumbs down and fingers point);
  3. Have one of the players perform the skill, whilst the coach describes each step.

Often, showing the players (and then giving them a chance to do it) will be the most effective way to teach.

When using role models to demonstrate a skill, a distinction should be made between two types of role models: expert models and mastery models. Expert models are prestigious players or teams. Mastery models are players or teams closer to the players themselves who, although not yet recognised experts, have a higher skill level than the players being coached.

For example: an international player could be an expert model, while a player on a cadet team (15/16-year-olds) who was on the 13/14-year-old team in the same club two years earlier, could be a good mastery model.

The example of an expert model can be very motivating at first, but if it is a superior player who is too distant, the players may consider imitation of this model impossible. For this reason, it is a good idea to use expert models to increase the players’ motivation and at the same time, find mastery models that the players identify with. In this way, interest in imitating the model is linked with the perception that it is really possible to imitate.

Thus, before starting an activity, the coach can demonstrate a specific movement for the players to imitate indicating, at the same time, that this is one of the fundamentals most often used by a famous player (as long as this is true). This strategy can be very useful for young players.

Sometimes, models can be found within the team itself. In fact, many players learn by observing and imitating their teammates.

Keeping a Record

At times, it can be useful to record either the team’s performance or the performance of individual players doing the activity. It can also help them concentrate when they know a record is being kept.

For example, the coach may record, on a board or a sheet of paper, the times that each target behaviour is performed during a drill (specific passes, blocks, shots, etc.). In order to achieve this positive effect, the criteria to be used for recording should be very clear.

When dealing with behaviours to be learned, the criteria selected should refer to the players’ specific behaviour, rather than the results obtained.

For instance, a record can be kept of the number of times 15/16-year-olds screen correctly (behaviour), regardless of whether the screen results in a basket (the result of the behaviour). In this way, the players will concentrate more intensely on the target behaviour of the drill which, in this case, is screening.

However, when dealing with the repetitive practice of behaviours that have already been mastered, it might be more appropriate to record the results of such behaviours as a way of measuring their performance. However, any measurement should always be based on the result of the behaviour that the players are working on.