The recent trend in coaching is sport-specific training and early specialization. Neither of these complies with the “learning to learn” theory; in fact, they lie at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Athletes should be encouraged to acquire general adaptations to all types of fitness endeavors to become well-rounded, versatile, and trainable in other activities.
Arguably, a college football player will have a much better athletic background and skill set if he plays high school basketball and competes in track and field during the offseason.
Sport-specific learning can be broken down into the fundamental movement levels of coordination, flexibility, speed, strength, and endurance. Training all of these throughout a periodization cycle grants the most access to learning specific skills down the road and results in quicker adaptation.
Learning to Learn
Researchers have proposed the theory of learning to learn to explain how the transfer of skills can apply to related motor skills as well as unrelated ones, independent of prior experience.1 Essentially, not all motor skills need to be taught or trained in a specific fashion to achieve proficiency. A general adaptation to coordination can occur with an athlete who has never trained an exact motion.
For example, an experienced snowboarder can often cross over to skiing easily. The basic maneuvers on the snow are very different due to the body’s position on skis rather than a board, but the underlying principles of cutting, braking, and balance are transferrable.
Possibly people modulate limb stiffness to accommodate new changes in their environment and their specific task at hand. This allows room for error, which provides constructive feedback on how to learn and adapt for following trials.1
Neurologically, these learning functions are attributed to the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC shows the greatest neural activity in the early stages of learning where corrections and adjustments are made rather quickly. And it serves this role regardless of the task presented.1 Sensorimotor adaptations occur under a general umbrella of learning that can then be used to generate specific, well-adapted skills.
Transfer of Learning: Acquiring New Motor Skills
Transfer of learning occurs when prior motor skill acquisition impacts later motor learning, either positively or negatively.2 With a positive transfer, previous learning experiences make it easy to learn a new skill or perform within a new context. We believe transfer may occur because a motor pathway was already established for a similar skill or performance framework.
For example, the overhand throw of a baseball positively transfers to the overhand throw of a football.2 Although the throws are not identical, the motor firing sequence is similar. Learning one after the other is beneficial due to positive transfer.
There are two theories explaining why positive transfer occurs. One is the identical elements theory—the degree to which the two tasks are similar determines the efficacy of transfer.2 These elements can be abstract, such as an athlete’s mental state, or grounded, such as the specific characteristics of a skill movement pattern. The second theory is transfer-appropriate processing, which refers to the similarity of cognitive processing between two tasks.
Positive transfer can also apply to training adaptations in endurance athletes, which lines up with the identical elements theory. Physical training enhances the performance capacity of untrained muscles in a generalized manner.3
We can see this transfer in endurance athletes who primarily train the legs and experience an increased endurance capacity in their upper body.3Endurance athletes who primarily train the legs experience increased endurance in upper body. Click To Tweet
Strength training can have a direct transfer of learning effect on endurance capacity as well. Issurin (2013)3 discussed how the outcomes of strength training have a positive growth effect on slow-twitch muscle fibers and an increase in the oxidative energy in local muscle mitochondria.
Similarly, strength training increases the tendon stiffness and elastic properties of the muscles involved in both activities. We can see this in increased storage capacity and function during the eccentric contractions of running mechanics. Overall, this improves an endurance athlete’s work economy.3
Strength training also enhances peripheral blood circulation for better perfusion of oxygen during local muscle contraction.3 By increasing the absolute strength of muscles, an endurance athlete can increase their muscle efficiency; this allows them to operate under low levels of blood circulation common to intense exercise.
The anabolic effect of strength training combined with the catabolic effect of endurance training, though, can sometimes lead to a negative transfer of learning. Hormonal responses to training are directly in tune with the intensity, duration, and type of exercise performed.3 The correct prescription ratio of strength-endurance is key to maximizing the positive effect of hormones in training.
Clearly the activities encompassing strength and endurance training are substantially different in technique and movement patterns. However, there is a direct, positive link between the learned adaptations of one having a positive influence on the other. Although the two activities are very dissimilar, the identical elements theory does apply in a physiologic context.
Transfer-appropriate processing may have a role in the cognitive effects of strength training on endurance performance, especially if we consider hormonal influences.
Bilateral Training Transfer From One Limb to Another
Bilateral transfer of learning refers to the learning of a particular task with one limb with a cross-transfer to the opposite limb.2 The theory states that learning a skill initially with one hand or foot will facilitate learning the same skill easily with the opposite hand or foot.
Bilateral transfer can be explained cognitively by the identical elements theory, which establishes that the basic motor principles of a movement are learned the first time around, regardless of the limb.2 Thus the “how-to” component is already present for future learning.
Similarly, the motor control explanation for bilateral transfer is based on the development of a generalized motor pattern during the early stages of learning. Although this is not associated with a particular limb, it can later be recalled in either limb.2
Does the principle of bilateral transfer apply to all motor skills? Researchers found that bilateral transfer is valid for the timing of movements but not force application.4Bilateral transfer occurs for the timing of movements but not force application. Click To Tweet
During an experiment of bilateral transfer of learning from dominant to non-dominant hands, the researchers used surface electromyography (sEMG) to monitor the fine motor capacity of the first dorsal interosseous. The improvement in relative reaction timing between the two limbs was strikingly similar—56% in the trained limb and 58% in the untrained limb.
The force control training did not transfer to the opposite limb, however, even when substantial learning occurred in the trained limb. This may be attributed to the degree, or threshold, of force required to recruit the opposite hemispheric motor cortex brain.4
Without sufficient stimulation, especially with fine motor movements, learning may not be induced. Timing, however, is more reflexive in nature and requires less cortical involvement within the brain.We can use a healthy limb as a platform for learning in a weak or injured limb. Click To Tweet
In practical terms, bilateral transfer is important in the field of rehabilitation medicine. Physical therapists and trainers can use the healthy limb as a platform for learning in a weakened or injured limb.
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- Seidler, Rachael D., “Neural Correlates of Motor Learning, Transfer of Learning, and Learning to Learn,” Exercise Sport Sciences Reviews, 38(1) (2010): 3-9.
- Magill, Richard, and David Anderson, Motor Learning and Control: Concepts and Applications (10th ed.) (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014).
- Issurin, V.B., “Training Transfer: Scientific background and insights for practical application,” Sports Medicine, 43(8) (2017): 675-694.
- Yao, W. X., A. Cordova, Y. Huang, Y. Wang, and X. Lu, “Bilateral Transfer for Learning to Control Timing but Not for Learning to Control Fine Force,” Perceptual & Motor Skills, 118(2) (2014): 400-410.