The Undercover Coach: The transfer debate

Using the example of catch and pass, The Undercover Coach suggests we need to think again about our approach to skills training. If we want to improve our transfer from the activity into a game, what do we need to consider and are we doing the best for our players in practices?

A coach can employ a broad range of practices to develop an individual’s skillset. Some coaches would prefer to create a player’s technical ability through training games (small-sided games), while others might prefer more isolated drills.

No matter what anyone tells you, there is no right way. The challenge, and the coach’s skill, come through finding an appropriate balance for the individual and their context.


Research into skill acquisition across many sports would strongly suggest that the more a practice looks and feels like the game, the more likely it will support the transfer and retention of learning for an individual.

For example, suppose an individual plays in a training game where they are exposed to many moments related to catching and passing the ball. In that case, they are also likely to be exposed to information that might guide how, when, and why they might catch or pass the ball differently during a match.  For instance, lots of defenders in a congested space might encourage a player to pass the ball early and quickly so a team-mate in space can go forward.

This means that when playing a match, the individual is likelier to relate to the practices that closely resemble the game. But should all our training sessions be games? Can some, or even all, skills be broken down, isolated and refined?


A particular skill I typically notice that gets isolated is catching and passing. Some practices are static, that is, standing still whilst throwing the ball to a team-mate who is also standing still.

But then, when it comes to playing a match, no one is stood still. Everyone is moving. The static practices the players and coaches have spent time ‘practising’ don’t seem to have prepared the players for what the match now looks and feels like.

Passing drills tend to focus heavily on the technical components of how to catch and pass the ball. Instead, we might consider how we could include the variety of visual cues or signals that would significantly influence what type of catch or pass an individual may use. Then, we need to think about how this might look for each player and, more importantly, ask them why they employed that technique.

I often observe coaches recreating practices where the picture for the player with the ball doesn’t change. In a game, defenders would apply pressure from different angles and at different times.

Also, the focus of the practice tends to be on coaching players towards the following points:

  1. Catch the ball early.
  2. Keep the ball in front of you (away from your chest).
  3. Point your hands at the target once you have passed the ball.

WARNING! I am not saying there is anything wrong or misguiding about these points, but we must consider what opportunities this might take away from a player. They must understand why catching early might create specific opportunities influencing their decision-making. What if they can pass the ball to a team-mate more quickly when they don’t point their hands towards the intended target?


To bring some of these questions to life, consider these two examples:

Firstly, players like Jonathan Joseph (Bath and England centre) will, at times, intentionally let the ball move across their body and catch the ball late as it allows them to move with the ball and position themselves on the outside shoulder of defenders whilst the ball is in flight. This can be very difficult for defenders to read and very deceptive.

WARNING! I’m not arguing that catching the ball early is wrong. We should consider how helpful the principle is and what opportunities it may take away from our players. Can we allow them to explore (through different types of practice) how catching the ball at different times might create other opportunities?

Secondly, the idea of your hands having to point towards your target once you have passed the ball may not be as critical as some might have you believe. As coaches, our focus might shift from the process to the outcome. This would mould and shape our questions or challenges differently when designing sessions and considering our interactions.

For example: “In this practice, I want you to explore how quickly you can move the ball from A to B’” as opposed to: “In this practice, when you pass the ball, make sure your hands are pointing at your target when you release the ball”.

The focus of the practice and your subsequent interactions are based on the outcome. How the player does this is for them to shape.

WARNING! Some players may benefit from different movement patterns and techniques. Dan Carter, one of the game’s greatest players, didn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach – as you can see from the two images of him passing the ball.


  1. If our catch-pass drills don’t look and feel like the game, what key points or principles do I want the players to learn, develop or explore?
  2. Is it the process or the outcome that is most important in this practice?
  3. And is it the process or the outcome that is most important when playing the game?
  4. What opportunities might the players discover when exploring this skill in practice?
  5. What practices will best support the individual, given their context?  Will they benefit from pressure, simple visual information, or random cues?
Share this
Follow us