Learning theories

In this blog, it will be explained and examined the different learning theories (drive theory and conditioning theory) and after those two learning theories will be applied into sports. Nextly, it will be explained what the theories suggest and how they impact upon the acquisition of skills. Nextly, Fitts and Posner three-stage model of learning will be evaluated and explained and after applied each of the stages to a sporting context. Furthermore, it will be explained how learning may be transferred in sport and differentiate between types of transfer: positive, negative and zero. Ultimately, outline and explain the different types of transfer of learning in sports skills.

Drive and conditioning theory

  • Drive theory

The drive reduction theory was created by behaviourist Clark Hull (1943). Hull believed that in order to an organism to found balance, the behaviour would be the key to find it. The term drive was used by him to explain arousal in animals. He was trying to explain that whenever there is a biological or psychological need there would be a drive or arousal, in order to satisfy its needs. For example, we will try to find food when we are hungry and water when we are thirsty. Ultimately, this theory suggests that as the arousal increases athletes would perform better, this would be due to any kind of pressure. However, only athletes with full control of their abilities, high skill levels and or a lot of experience, would get this effect, whereas beginners would have exactly the opposite effect, as arousal increases due to pressure their performance would decrease. For example, a juvenile football player having his first professional match (Sportlyzercom, 2019).

  • Conditioning theory

The conditioning theory was created by Ivan Pavlov and basically explains that any human or animal behaviour can be conditioned and modified, by presenting a stimulus. Ivan Pavlov gained an interested in the subject and started researching about it after he noticing that his dog would salivate whenever he saw meat powder or the person feed him would come into proximity. That means that the dog was trained by classical conditioning to associate the person feeding him with the food and have a biological reaction in response (salivating). That reaction is called stimulus-response and becomes automatise after many times.

So by introducing a desirable incentive over a period of time, a stimulus will be created, which creates a particular constant behaviour. The ways of reversing the conditioned behaviour would be by punishment or by removal of the desirable incentive, thus creating discouragement of the behaviour and preventing from happening (Psychologistworldcom, 2015).

Application in sport

The application of the drive theory in sports (football), can be explained that when pressure is presented an athlete will get arousal or a drive, and it could be positive if the athlete has experience or a high level of skill control, meaning the performance would get better as the arousal increased. However, there would be a decrease in performance in athletes with a lack of experience, meaning as the arousal increased their performance would decrease. Pressure in sports the vast majority of the time comes from fans or an audience, but can also come from personal issues or any reasons.

The application of conditioning theory in sports (football), would be directed on training and or experience, meaning that coaches can give small awards when the team on a whole or a particular player wins or makes a great performance during competition, this way creating a desirable incentive that if repeated for a period of time would create a stimulus, that would consequently cause him or her to keep performing the same way, in order to get the desirable rewards. 

The other example would be beginners football players getting a lot of attention from the fans while playing causing them a stimulus during a game, which means that the athlete would be performing better in order to get more attention from the crowd.

Fitts and Posner’s three stage model of learning 

Fitts and Posner’s created a three stage learning in 1967. They are called:

  • Cognitive stage

In this stage, the beginner’s athletes will more be focused on making more cognitive oriented questions. For example, (football) what should my position be in the field? What type of skills should mostly use? How can I make a perfect shout or pass? How can I dribble an opponent? and etc…

Basic questions in order to learn basic skills that will introduce him or her to the sport. Fitts and Posner’s said that is easier to learn new habits than to fix bad or habits, meaning instead of trying to fix errors, introduce new correct ones, because that would be a better approach to old athletes that have been performing in a wrong way for a long period of time   (Topvelocitynet, 2008).

  • Associative stage 

This stage comes after the athletes have already achieved a certain level of performance or technical skills. Athlets achieve this stage after getting a good level of understanding about the previous doubt they used to have, also good knowledge of their tasks and roles and how they going to use their skills, in order to achieve goals. I this stage athletes make fewer mistakes but still have to develop a good level of concentration, in order to keep making performance improvements (Topvelocitynet, 2008). 

  • Autonomous stage 

Ultimately, in this stage the athlete’s behaviour becomes automated or second nature, due to the experience gained athletes will not have to fast think the steps that have to be taken in order to perform something or use a difficult skill (Topvelocitynet, 2008).

Transfering learning to sports 

Skill transfer means that when performing and learning a skill, that might positively or negatively influence the learning of another skill. This happens to all types of athletes, when learning any skill, that learning process might help in the learning of another or could make an old skill fade away. For example, a football player learning to make a specific type of dribble with one leg might facilitate the same learning process for the other leg or might actually make it more difficult. 

Types of transfer: negative, positive and zero 

  • Positive transfer

Positive transfer happens when there is a good level of similarity between two skills, which means that having complete control of one skill, makes easier for the player to learn another skill, due to their similarities, but in order for that to happen the player has to master the basic techniques that make up the first skill and has an understanding of the skills similarities, so the transfer can be as easy and smooth as possible. For example, if a football player learners to properly it the ball in order to perfectly make long passes, it might ease the path to learn to shout corners.

  • Negative transfer

Negative transfer happens when the learning of a skill negatively impacts the learning process of other skills. This effect occurs when the two skills need a different type of stimulus in order for them to be performed. For example, a basketball player when playing football might try to use a basketball posture when playing football because in basketball he would use the hands to grab the ball, basketball that requires a different posture and movement, it can also make the learning process for the other skill than expected harder. This could be avoided by ensuring that the player is aware of the technical differences between the skills.

  • Zero transfer

Zero transfer happens when there are no similarities between the skills and thus there are no beneficial aspects of learning the basic techniques for the first skill, so the learning process for the second would be easier. For example, Skying and bowling, Which are totally different sports, where their techniques and skills have no similarities and have no way of being used to ease the learning process of the sports skills, as there would be with cricket and baseball, (Teachpecom, 2019).

Types of transfer for sport skills

Skill transfer in sports is of great importance because it might ease the work coaches and athletes have to do in order to learn new skills. However, that is only the case when the type of skill transfer is positive because when the skill already learnt has no similar basic technics as the technic that is being learned the process might become harder and make the coaches and athletes work harder than expected. Therefore is very important for the coaches to present the and start working on the cognitive stage of athletes new to the sport as soon as possible and try to present the skill principles, in order to facilitate the work throughout the learning process.


I conclude, that the learning process for new skills or habits in sports is complex and can sometimes take a great amount of time mastering them. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that on the importance of acknowledging the different concepts surrounding them and their different and possible applications in sports and outside sports.


Psychologistworldcom. 2015. Psychologistworldcom. [Online]. [6 June 2019]. Available from: https://www.psychologistworld.com/memory/conditioning-intro

Sportlyzercom. 2019. Sportlyzer Rowing Academy. [Online]. [6 June 2019]. Available from: https://academy.sportlyzer.com/wiki/arousal-and-performance/drive-reduction-theory/

Topvelocitynet. 2008. Increase Pitching Velocity. [Online]. [6 June 2019]. Available from: https://www.topvelocity.net/3-stages-of-learning/

Teachpecom. 2019. Teachpecom. [Online]. [6 June 2019]. Available from: https://www.teachpe.com/sports_psychology/skill_transfer.php

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