Far transfer is the ultimate test of any training method. At the elite sports level, cognitive abilities are known to be central to performance, but is there any scientific evidence that this training helps to improve results on the field? Let’s take a look at research into that very question.
At the Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences in Germany, a group of sports science researchers conducted a meta-review of studies in perceptual-cognitive training in sports. The aim of the review was to study the effectiveness of perceptual-cognitive training interventions with professional athletes.
The researchers explained that in interactive sports, perceiving and predicting the actions of teammates, opponents and the motion of the ball, then executing the correct action, is key for performance success. A wealth of sports science research has found that these perceptual-cognitive abilities are major factors in differentiating elite athletes from amateurs, particularly in team-sports.
Using rigorous benchmarks for methodological quality, they narrowed a total of 1692 perceptual-cognitive training studies down to just 16. Of these 16, 2 NeuroTracker studies were selected, 1 of which was the only study deemed to have an ideal sample size of athletes. All of the studies were then evaluated by four independent expert reviewers, who examined them for evidence on training and transfer effects, according to strict criteria.
The main goal of the review was to see if evidence for ‘far-transfer’ existed, that is, training on a task which leads to improvement in abilities very different from the training itself. This is what the researchers referred to as ‘...the gold-standard...the key consideration for the relevance of perceptual-cognitive training in sports’. They also identified the problem that, ‘...transfer, be it near, further or far, is mostly not studied empirically’.
Around 60% of the studies showed off-court performance enhancement in tests similar to the training activity (near-transfer), which included both of the NeuroTracker studies. However, when it came to far transfer, only 3 studies qualified for review. Of these, two showed no transfer effect. The remaining study was with NeuroTracker, which ‘showed a reliable positive effect’ - a 15% improvement in passing decision-making accuracy in competitive soccer play.
The absence of evidence for far transfer in sports has been revealed by other recent meta-reviews, which also included novice athlete populations. In this context, NeuroTracker is leading the way in the Holy Grail of cognitive sports science research.
The researchers found the NeuroTracker soccer study to be of special interest because it raised questions about the traditional thinking on transfer in interactive sports. Namely the notion that practice conditions should closely recreate key situations of sports performance. For example, if you want to improve penalty shots, train skills that replicate specific aspects of taking penalties.
NeuroTracker is an abstract and neutral training task, designed to build up cognitive capacities that are fundamental to human performance. For this reason, the researchers claimed that this 3D multiple-object tracking training method may counteract the idea that effective training requires a high degree of task similarity to end performance. Instead, training up core mental abilities may be the most effective way to achieve to success.
As well as setting the standard for evidence based far-transfer, NeuroTracker research might also be redefining the boundaries for training athletic performance.
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