External focus of attention is a motor learning theory we consider foundational to Athlete Centered Skating. This blog series discusses what external focus of attention is, why it works, and how to apply it in training. The blogs include:
- Part 01: Let’s Take This One Step at a Time
- Part 02: Reverse the Curse of Expertise
- Part 03: Evidence to Support Your Focus
- Part 04: You Must be Choking
- Part 05: External Focus and Figure Skating
- Part 06: The Imagery Gymnasium
We suggest readers review our motor imagery series (The Image of Success) before reading this series because the motor imagery series provides some helpful background information that will be brought up in this series.
The way coaches tend to introduce athletes to a new skill and guide them through the acquisition process until the skill is mastered mirrors classic stages of motor learning models [see: (Fitts and Posner 1967) for example]. At the introductory phase, we describe the new skill to the athlete. We explain what to expect, what previous skills the new skill will build upon, the time and effort it should take, and some other key pointers. Initial practice requires full concentration because there is so much information to take in (e.g. coach’s feedback, feelings and sensations of movement) and the athlete will make many errors as they explore different solutions. The skill might appear as several separate units linked together rather than a whole fluid motion. Several weeks, months, or even years later, the skill is mastered; it is coordinated, fluid, and efficient. The athlete no longer has to tend to details they needed when they first started to practice the skill. Coaches often describe the attentional progression as a transition from conscious control in the beginning stages of learning to a more automatic, or subconscious, state of control in the mastery stage of performance.
Research shows that experts, compared to beginners, have diminished memories of the step-by-step processes involved in skilled performance and make fewer and potentially inaccurate references to them (Beilock, Wierenga et al. 2003). This demonstrates that experts are no longer bogged down by details they had focused on when first learning skills and that their conscious attention is directed elsewhere. Experts perform their skills without conscious attentional control (Abernethy, Thomas et al. 1993, Wulf and Lewthwaite 2016). Researchers call this lack of step-by-step knowledge ‘the curse of expertise’ (Beilock, Wierenga et al. 2003).
The left image represents the mind of a beginner during performance. The boy is thinking through all the feedback and instructions of his two coaches.
photo artwork by Niko Cohen @hikikonekkon
The right image represents the mind of an expert during performance who no longer thinks through the step-by-step instructions. Her mind is free to focus on other attentional demands.
A beginner male pair skater, for example, will think in a way that could be described in a text book on how to orient his position for a star lift takeoff:
“Take her right hand with my left hand and extend it outward, place my right hand on her hip bone. Make sure my right hip is close to her left. Sit low; let her to cartwheel onto my shoulder. Bring my left hand into her hip. Drive through the legs…”
The athlete resorts to these instructions, which came from the coach, as he practices. On one attempt he might remember to make one correction but overlook several others. On a subsequent attempt, he checks another correction, but then forgets the one he made successfully on the previous attempt. He has difficulty remembering all the details at once.
In contrast, for an expert male pair skater, the step-by-step instructions have long since been replaced by feelings and sensations. He doesn’t cycle through a checklist on how to orient himself. He can feel exactly where he needs to be without even thinking about it. He might not be able to describe this feeling, yet somehow, he knows. The curse of expertise is that experts can walk the walk but they have difficulty recalling how they do it.
Neuroscience research supports these claims. Different regions of the brain are activated when experts perform a motor skill when compared to beginners (Janelle and Hillman 2003, Zhu, Poolton et al. 2011). Experts tend to relax their minds as they perform and, if they ‘think’ too much, their performance declines and they perform more like beginners (Janelle and Hillman 2003). The takeaway message: Beginners perform skills with more conscious attention to step-by-step details and experts perform skills more subconsciously and in the absence of step-by-step details. This demonstrates that conscious control is potentially detrimental to skilled motor performance.
This might not be too surprising. After all, to learn a new motor skill one must obtain information on how to perform the skill and it has long been assumed that the more ‘conscious’ a learner is of step-by-step information, the easier it is to learn the different parts of new skills. Then, as the learner continues to practice, the subconscious starts to take control and the movements become more stable and fluid. Some researchers even argue the very reason experts attained such a level is because they altogether avoided subconscious takeover during the learning process (Ericsson, Krampe et al. 1993, Ericsson, Nandagopal et al. 2009). According to them (and we strongly disagree), subconscious control is the cause of arrested development, a plateau in improvement despite continued practice.
On the contrary, motor learning research indicates that conscious attentional control can interfere with, or add unnecessary steps to, the skill acquisition process (Wulf 2007, Lohse, Wulf et al. 2012, Masters and Poolton 2012). This research also indicates that beginners may be able to bypass the initial motor skill stages of learning altogether and perhaps the sooner a learner can do this the better.
Why would conscious control interfere with both learning and performance?
Why would learning a skill first through conscious control interfere with performance even after the skill is mastered?
We will address these questions in upcoming blogs in the series.
Abernethy, B., K. T. Thomas and J. T. Thomas (1993). “Strategies for improving understanding of motor expertise [or mistakes we have made and things we have learned!!].” Advances in psychology102: 317-356.
Beilock, S. L., S. A. Wierenga and T. H. Carr (2003). “Memory and expertise: What do experienced athletes remember.” Expert performance in sports: Advances in research on sport expertise: 295-320.
Ericsson, K. A., R. T. Krampe and C. Tesch-Römer (1993). “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.” Psychological review100(3): 363.
Ericsson, K. A., K. Nandagopal and R. W. Roring (2009). “Toward a science of exceptional achievement.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1172(1): 199-217.
Fitts, P. M. and M. I. Posner (1967). “Human performance.”
Janelle, C. M. and C. H. Hillman (2003). “Expert performance in sport.” Expert performance in sports: Advances in research on sport expertise: 19-47.
Janelle, C. M. and C. H. Hillman (2003). Expert Performance In Sport: Current Perspectives and Critical Issues. Expert Performance in Sport: Advnaces in Research on Sport Expertise. J. L. Starkes and K. A. Ericsson. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.
Lohse, K. R., G. Wulf and R. Lewthwaite (2012). “Attentional focus affects movement efficiency.” Skill acquisition in sport: Research, theory and practice: 40-58.
Masters, R. S. and J. Poolton (2012). “Advances in implicit motor learning.” Skill acquisition in sport: Research, theory and practice: 59-75.
Wulf, G. (2007). Attention and motor skill learning, Human Kinetics.
Wulf, G. and R. Lewthwaite (2016). “Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning.” Psychonomic bulletin & review23(5): 1382-1414.
Zhu, F., J. Poolton, M. Wilson, J. Maxwell and R. Masters (2011). “Neural co-activation as a yardstick of implicit motor learning and the propensity for conscious control of movement.” Biological Psychology87(1): 66-73.