This is the 3rd blog in a series on our discussion of external focus of attention, a motor learning theory we consider foundational to Athlete Centered Skating.
In the previous blog we wrote that a simple change of focus from internal (e.g. thinking of the movement of the arms on a golf swing) to external (e.g. thinking of the movement of the golf club during a swing) can positively influence the learning process. It is a way to get beginners to think like experts – right from the get-go. This blog presents three lines of evidence to support this claim: movement quickness and amplitude, attentional demands, and neuromuscular activity measurements [see: (Wulf 2007, Wulf and Lewthwaite 2016)]. Warning: This blog gets into more detailed science some readers may prefer to skip.
Evidence 01: Movement Amplitude
When individuals adopt an external focus of attention, movements are quicker, subtler, and more frequent. When performers consciously focus internally to the body, adjustments are slower, higher in amplitude, and less frequent. These differences are especially noteworthy on balance tests when subjects are either asked to focus on their feet (internal focus) or the apparatus they are balancing on (external focus). Subconsciously controlled movements allow for quicker reflex-like responses. The response is generated so quickly, the athlete doesn’t have time to consciously interpret sensory information or hypothesize which response to make. This allows subconscious control which is capable of eliciting smaller in amplitude but more frequent responses and allows the conscious attention to be directed elsewhere. Not only does it take more time for sensory information to reach the brain, once that information arrives, conscious processes must compare sensory feedback before determining an appropriate response. This delays corrective adjustments to the point where they may not be in time to have an impact.
Evidence 02: Attentional Demands
The second line of evidence to support the claim that externally focused attention allows movement to be controlled subconsciously is the difference in attentional demands required when either adopting an external or an internal focus during motor skill performance. If an athlete’s primary task performance suffers when asked to attend to a second task simultaneously it can be assumed that the athlete is consciously controlling the primary skill because conscious processes require greater attentional needs than subconscious processes. However, if the athlete can perform the primary skill equally well with or without concomitant performance of secondary task, the athlete can perform the primary skill without much conscious effort at all. Below is an example in figure skating:
Two skaters practice forward crossovers with the coach. Both skaters demonstrate both pushes of the crossover well and with full extension of each pushing leg. When the coach introduces an arm movement for the skaters to perform as they run-off the crossovers, the first skater maintains her posture, extension, and crossover technique. However, the second skater suddenly loses her posture and her leg extension suffers on both pushes. We can assume the first skater’s crossover performance did not demand much attention and was controlled more subconsciously. As she performed a secondary task (the arm movements) her crossovers did not suffer. We can also assume the second skater, whose performance of the primary task declined when introduced to the secondary task, needed more attention to perform crossovers correctly. Results from motor learning experiments demonstrate this affect (Wulf and Lewthwaite 2016).
Evidence 03: Neuromuscular Activity and Efficiency
The third finding regarding internally versus externally focused attention involves neuromuscular activity and efficiency. An external focus affects such activity both indirectly and directly.
The indirect influence shows in studies of maximum force production, movement speed, and endurance. For example, with an external focus of attention, one can generate more force and jump higher on a vertical jump (Marchant 2011). Studies on maximal force achieved during sport specific skill performance such as the discus or shot put throw also show that by directing focus externally both novices and elite athletes can achieve better results (Zarghami, Saemi et al. 2012, Makaruk, Porter et al. 2013). Study participants complete agility trials quicker with an external focus (Porter, Nolan et al. 2010)and perform more weight lifting repetitions (e.g. bench press or squat) than with an internal focus (Marchant 2011).
Direct influences over neuromuscular activity and efficiency are demonstrated through electromyography (EMG) tests, which measure the electrical activity of muscle, and measurements of oxygen consumption during aerobic activity. Performers constrain their motor systems by linking otherwise conflicting muscular activity when they focus internally on movements (Lohse, Wulf et al. 2012). This in turn influences movement efficiency. For example, triceps muscles extend the arm at the elbow and biceps muscles bend it. Both muscles work against one another when engaged at the same time. So, when we perform a biceps curl at the gym, the movement will be more efficient if the triceps muscles aren’t recruited during the curl. By directing an external focus of attention during the biceps curl (focusing on the movement of the bar as opposed to the movement of the muscles), triceps excitation is quieted (Vance, Wulf et al. 2004).
EMG studies show that when subjects are asked to direct their attention toward movement effects, the agonist and antagonist muscles are in fact coordinated more fluidly and effectively (Lohse, Sherwood et al. 2011, Lohse, Wulf et al. 2012). One particular study examines EMG activity of the flexor and extensor muscles of the ankles during an isometric maximal force test (Lohse, Sherwood et al. 2011). The study shows that internally focused performers recruit both muscles and, because of this conflict, their maximal force production suffers. Another study shows that when skilled runners focus their attention externally, oxygen is consumed more efficiently thus improving running economy (Schucker, Hageman et al. 2009).
We can gather from these findings that the bioenergetic cost of a movement (the amount of energy required) should be lower when we perform with an external focus. By directing focus internally toward the body, there is more so-called ‘noise’ within the motor system. Both agonist and antagonist muscles fire and, as a result, the movement accuracy, speed, and bioenergetic cost suffer.
In the next blog in this series we will discuss another proposed benefit of learning with an external focus of attention: to reduce or even eliminate ‘choking under pressure’.
Lohse, K. R., D. E. Sherwood and A. F. Healy (2011). “Neuromuscular effects of shifting the focus of attention in a simple force production task.” Journal of Motor Behavior43: 173-184.
Lohse, K. R., G. Wulf and R. Lewthwaite (2012). “Attentional focus affects movement efficiency.” Skill acquisition in sport: Research, theory and practice: 40-58.
Lohse, K. R., G. Wulf and R. Lewthwaite (2012). Attentional focus affects movement efficiency. Skill Acquisition in Sport. N. J. Hodges and A. M. Williams. London, UK, Routledge.
Makaruk, H., J. M. Porter and B. Makaruk (2013). “Acute Effects of Attentional Focus On Shot Put Performance in Elite Athletes.” Kinesiology 451: 55-62.
Marchant, D. C. (2011). “Attentional focusing instructions and force production.” Frontiers in Psychology1: 1-9.
Porter, J. M., R. P. Nolan, E. J. Ostrowski and G. Wulf (2010). “Directing attention externally enhances agility performance: a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the efficacy of using verbal instructions to focus attention.”Frontiers in Psychology1: 1-7.
Schucker, L., N. Hageman, B. Strauss and K. Volker (2009). “The effect of attentional focus on running economy.” Journal of Sport Sciences12: 1242-1248.
Vance, J., G. Wulf, T. Tollner, N. H. McNevin and J. Mercer (2004). “EMG activity as a function of the performer’s focus of attention.” Journal of Motor Behavior36: 450-459.
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.
Zarghami, M., E. Saemi and I. Fathi (2012). “Externl Focus of Attention Enhances Discus Throwing Performance.” Kinesiology 441: 47-51.