From practice sessions to the real match — expert insights into transfer & learning

Mark Upton
Aug 4, 2015 · 3 min read

(Originally posted on another blog site September, 2013)

The concept of using a game-based approach in practice is far from new or groundbreaking in Coaching and/or Physical Education. Yet the uptake continues to be modest, as the socio-cultural influence of the “traditional” approach (isolated technique drills and high volume of instructions) is extremely strong.

Drawing from practical experiences and knowledge of Skill Acquisition (essentially the “science of sport skill learning”), I have tried to use this blog to explain some of the principles that underpin a game-based approach and why they may be more effective. In this case, “effective” = transfer into improved performance of a skill in the “real match”.

One of the major tenets of this is Perception-Action Coupling (look through some other posts on this blog for an introduction and insight). This coupling between what a player perceives ( in a match that would be teammates, opposition, the ball, boundary markings, goals etc) and how he/she decides to act (with or without the ball) is seen to be a critical one for transfer from practice to the real match. That is why Rick Fenoglio, a Sports Scientist involved in researching and setting up a 4v4 pilot program with Manchester United a number of years ago, had this to say….

When I posted this on Twitter a while back, it naturally led into discussions with others around the question — “do isolated technique drills have any value?”. As far as I am aware there is not any sport-specific research that has proven isolated technique work has NO benefit (ie transfer). Also, anecdotally, many coaches who support a game-based approach would still support and see some value in isolated technique drills.

Another related question, and I think more pressing, is — do children/novices need to develop technique in isolation FIRST before adding perceptual and decision-making demands?

It is a fascinating topic, one that can be further explored outside of the sporting domain by understanding how humans learn to interact with their environment (since sports players are humans!). This concept of Perception-Action coupling is what allows humans to function and effectively complete tasks in any given environment (too a point).

So I thought I would contact a genuine expert in human perception and action for his thoughts. Below are some quotes from Dr Andrew Wilson, from Leeds Metropolitan University, whose research and interests are in perception, action and learning.

“The old school way of thinking about learning is as you describe; the learner has to acquire some core competence, a motor programme that they can then roll out on demand and tweak to fit the current context. This, frankly, isn’t true at all.

Learning really requires that you spend time learning to perceive the relevant information which will support your action selection and control, and this information is only created by the task as it unfolds. So learning to kick in drills is not learning to kick in the game and there really will be relearning required.

Learning a task entails learning to perceive the information for that task and using that information to select and control appropriate actions. Because this is how it rolls, learning is highly context/task specific.

So kicking in drills and kicking in a game is not kicking + context (same basic dynamic plus some other stuff) but actually more like kicking-in-drills and kicking-in-games (two different dynamics which create different information). If that is the case (and it likely is) then you would only expect limited transfer.”

These are some really important insights and a huge thank you to Dr Andrew Wilson for taking the time to share them. (you can follow Andrew on twitter — @PsychScientists)

Mark Upton is co-creator of myfastestmile and the Coaching Science Manager at the English Institute of Sport.

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