This blog continues our discussion of external focus of attention, a motor learning theory we consider foundational to Athlete Centered Skating.
In the first blog, we explained some differences between the way beginners and experts perform their skills. Beginners think consciously of their performance and resort to the step-by-step instructions. Experts rely on subconscious control and have long since forgotten the step-by-step instructions they once relied upon. However, when experts do overthink, they start to make mistakes; perform like a beginner again.
Researchers have investigated ways to teach beginners motor skills subconsciously [for review please read: (Wulf 2007, Masters and Poolton 2012)]. Early research showed that if learners were distracted with verbal tasks as they learned, it deterred their opportunity to consciously compare practice trials or hypothesize new strategies on subsequent attempts of the skill. When taught in such a way, subsequent performances did not suffer, even under anxiety-inducing conditions. In some cases, learners trained in such a way performed even better than under standard practice conditions. However, the big issue with this approach was that the learning process slowed drastically.
Fortunately, more recent research shows there is a way to learn subconsciously and accelerate the learning process and all it takes is a simple change of focus. “What a person directs his or her attention to while executing a skill determines how fluid the motion is, how accurate the outcome is, and, in general, how well the skill is performed,” explains Wulf (2007). Athletes can adopt a mode of attention that avoids conscious control and accelerates the learning process and it comes straight out of learn to skate coaching manuals. According to Wulf (2007) [see also: (Wulf and Lewthwaite 2016)], an athlete can either adopt an internal or an external focus of attention during motor skill performance. With an internal focus of attention, athletes place attentional priority on the actual movements their bodies make. This is the attentional focus of the beginner who scans through step-by-step ‘how to’ instructions as he learns. An external focus draws attention away from the body and directs it toward movement effects or outcomes. This attentional mode allows subconscious free reign over control of the movement– just like an expert would perform.
Here are some examples to contrast an internal versus an external focus of attention provided by Wulf (2007). An internally focused golfer thinks about the swinging motion of his arms. The externally focused golfer thinks about the movement of the golf club. The internally focused basketball player attends to her wrist motion on a free throw (see the images below). The externally focused player focuses on the rim of the hoop. The internally focused tennis player thinks about her arm motion during a forehand. An externally focused player thinks about where she wants her swing to send the ball.
Extensive research shows the benefits of externally-focused learning on repetitive movements (e.g. a skiing simulator), surgical procedures, playing a musical instrument, and various sports (Wulf and Lewthwaite 2016). A standard attentional focus study involves two groups of learners introduced to a novel motor skill. One group learn through an internal focus and the other learn through an external focus of attention. Researchers then observe which group appears to learn more rapidly and which group retains performance after a period with no practice (a retention test). The results of this research consistently demonstrate that changing a learner’s focus from internally directed to externally directed has an immediate influence on the learning process; the effects are long lasting, transferable, and remain even under stressful performance situations (and in our own coaching experiences- we concur). Furthermore, the findings span multiple demographics – children and elderly, beginners and experts, and people undergoing physical therapy. When performers adopt an external focus, they perform movements more accurately, complete agility trials faster, and increase their movement speed. They improve strength endurance in the weight room (e.g. bench press and squat) and reduce oxygen consumption during aerobic activity.
In upcoming blogs we will discuss evidence to support these claims and then how to apply external focus of attention to figure skating.
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.
Janelle, C. M. and C. H. Hillman (2003). “Expert performance in sport.” Expert performance in sports: Advances in research on sport expertise: 19-47.
Masters, R. S. and J. Poolton (2012). “Advances in implicit motor learning.” Skill acquisition in sport: Research, theory and practice: 59-75.
Masters, R. S. W. and J. M. Poolton (2012). Advances in implicit motor learning. Skill Acquisition in Sport. Research, Theory and Practice.N. J. Hodges and A. M. Williams. London, Routledge.
Wulf, G. (2007). Attention and Motor Skill Learning. Champaign, IL, 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.