Bryan Caplan  

Learning Transfer in Athletics

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Intriguing email from EconLog reader Jason Braswell, reprinted with his permission.

Hi there. I'm a long-time reader of your blog who is currently reading your latest book. After reading your first section on the failure of cognitive skills to transfer, I thought you might be interested to know (if you don't already) that the situation is exactly analogous when it comes to physical skills.

While it's true that non-neurological physical training adaptations (like strength increases due to increased muscle cross-sectional area, flexibility, and VO2 max) can improve performance in a variety of sports, neurological adaptations are painfully specific. For instance, improving one's balance on a wobble board yields no improvement in balance on stable ground. Improvements in squat strength (when due to better neuromuscular coordination) don't yield improvements in vertical leap height. Improvements in power output for a certain movement show little transfer to even to the same movement at different speeds. For example, increasing your power output at moving a five pound object may yield little to no improvement when moving a 50 pound object in the same manner. 

Much like cognitive researchers' failure to find a way to (durably) improve g, sports training researchers don't have a good way to make better general athletes. I happened across this link with a number of studies on the topic.

It's indirect evidence, but I still think it should nudge one's priors in favor of your claims as well.


P.S. Though I'm not much of a sports guy, I do briefly discuss "detraining" - the physical analog of forgetting.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Floccina writes:

I thought that the coach I have had seemed to make us non-play the sport stuff in practice.

But why? There should be no signaling there.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

The great Indiana University and men's Olympic swim team coach, James 'Doc' Counsilman would disagree with your reader's comments were he still alive. Counsilman revolutionized the training of swimmers by identifying the specific muscle groups used in the various strokes and then tailoring training to improve performance. I was a grad student in chemistry in the early 1970s when IU had a run of consecutive NCAA championships and had the good fortune to audit a couple of his courses in sports kinesiology and biomechanics.

I played volleyball in college, grad school and coached a men's college team for two years. Certainly it was my experience that tailored weight training can and did improve my vertical jump.

Jay writes:

Re: Alan Goldhammer - Do you have any way to break out the effects between non-neurological strength and fitness training vs. neurological skill transfer?

James writes:

I think the better takeaway is that there is learning transfer in athletics but it varies by activity. For example athletes in nearly every sport seem to benefit from weight training even if there is no lifting in their sport. That’s why every professional and college football team, basketball team, track team etc provides their athletes with a weight room. Other activities do not have much transfer which is why no collegiate or pro team uses figure skating to improve the performance of their athletes. Since coaches actually want their athletes to win they tend to be highly motivated to learn which activities have the most transfer.

I suspect it’s the same for education. I studied trigonometry and chemistry in school. I use neither one on the job but I’m confident that the trig had a greater contribution to my current ability level at work. Unfortunately claims about learning transfer in school are generally untested and used to justify the curriculum preferences of administrators more than anything else. Although it is unlikely I suspect this would change if the career success of academic administrators depended on the future success of their students in the same way that the career success of coaches depends on the success of their players.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

Jay writes,

Do you have any way to break out the effects between non-neurological strength and fitness training vs. neurological skill transfer?
I'm not up to date on the current literature (at the age of 70 my prime athletic days are but a distant memory). Some of this is related to the % of fast versus slow twitch muscle fibers. It appears that this may have a genetic component (for a good lay summary of this, "The Sports Gene" by David Epstein is a good place to start. Also, all muscle contraction is dependent on neuronal impulses so I'm unsure that there is such a thing as "non-neurological strength" training.

RPLong writes:

I think one confounding factor here is that there isn't any reliable way to analyze neurological adaptations in aggregate. Chris and Sam might both need to improve their ability to run a mile, for example, but Chris might have problems with over-pronation while Sam might lack adequate range of motion in the hip. If their coach trains them in aggregate, then they'll both end up spending insufficient time correcting the right problem and too much time correcting the wrong problem. If their coach focuses on individualized training, though, they'll both improve for different reasons.

This is still very consistent with The Case Against Education of course. :)

Seth writes:

@Alan Goldhammer: "The great Indiana University and men's Olympic swim team coach, James 'Doc' Counsilman would disagree with your reader's comments were he still alive. Counsilman revolutionized the training of swimmers by identifying the specific muscle groups used in the various strokes and then tailoring training to improve performance."

I don't think that goes against Jason's claim, if Doc found effective ways to replicate the movements used in swimming.

@James: "For example athletes in nearly every sport seem to benefit from weight training even if there is no lifting in their sport. That’s why every professional and college football team, basketball team, track team etc provides their athletes with a weight room."

'Seems to' is the operative phrase here. Correlation isn't necessarily causation.

James writes:

Seth,

Are you suggesting that weight training does not actually cause improved performance in sports?

Tim writes:

I don't think that athletic specialization is like g. I think g is analogous to raw athletic talent, which lends its owner more ability to be trained in a specialty. Specialization, in physical or mental tasks, is by definition less transferable than raw talent. Kasparov is probably very smart, but he wouldn't be the top physicist without lots of retraining, and LeBron wouldn't be an Olympian in other sports on day 1, but I think that if he started from a young age, there are probably a dozen sports in which he could have been world class.

Jay writes:

@Alan Goldhammer - If I understand Braswell's claim, it is that strength and endurance can be increased by non-specific training, but that accuracy cannot.

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