Our blog series on external focus of attention, a motor learning theory we consider foundational to Athlete Centered Skating, continues here in part 04. In previous blogs we presented some difference between how experts and beginners perform skills, the difference between an internal and external focus of attention, and three benefits of adopting an external focus of attention proven in many research studies. This blog discusses a proposed fourth benefit: if an athlete learns through an external focus of attention they are less likely to ‘choke under pressure’.
Experts believe we learn new skills with too much conscious supervision (an internal focus of attention) and that this can come back to haunt performance later on (Wulf and Lewthwaite 2016). They claim that this is the leading cause of choking under pressure (Wulf 2007, Masters and Poolton 2012). How? Experts choke when they begin to overthink. They revert to scanning through step-by-step mechanics of their motor skills (Beilock, Wierenga et al. 2003, Wulf 2007). Sometimes it takes a fall on one jump in a competition warm-up, a comment by the coach, or simply the result of pre-competition anxiety that provokes conscious intervention.
Experts perform stably and consistently even in the face of anxiety and other emotional variables because subconscious performance does not demand a high degree of attentional allocation (Janelle and Hillman 2003). They have the capacity to deal with such distractions. However, when experts resort to conscious motor control, suddenly their attentional capacity is taxed just as it is for beginners. The logic here is that experts can’t revert back to something that never existed. If an expert never learned skills through conscious control in the first place, then conscious control cannot interfere with performance later on.
Wulf (2007) believes the pressure of competition causes athletes to switch from subconscious performance to conscious step-by-step thinking, which then constrains and disrupts movement quality. An athlete might, for example, revert to step-by-step processes to distract themselves from anxiety and other emotional barriers at a competition. The internal focus then disrupts the fluidity of their skills and performance suffers. In her book, Attention and Motor Skill Learning, Wulf discusses the winning performance by Sarah Hughes at the 2002 Olympics as an example of an athlete performing externally. “Being under no pressure to actually win, (Hughes) demonstrated the performance of her life,” explains Wulf (2007). Sarah’s competitors, on the other hand, had “tremendous pressure” to win and, according to Wulf (2007), choked.
When I (Garrett) won the US Championships before the Moscow World Championships, I became very sick leading up to the event with a fever of 103 degrees and could not complete our long program run through on the final practice at home. None of our lifts went up and I finished the program dry heaving. I was devastated. By the time we arrived in Portland for the Championships I was recovering. What I remember from that competition, besides winning, is that during the event I had zero internal focus. My only thought was to get through the task in front of me. Rather than thinking, “do this, do that,” I thought, “survive.” By the end, I was barely conscious, and stood there in a sagging heap, with my head resting on my partner’s oblivious to the standing ovation. I attribute that performance and victory to the notion that by being very sick, the conscious awareness of what I was doing vanished under the constraint of survival. I didn’t have the energy to cycle through any step-by-step thoughts during the performance.
How, then, can someone learn new skills subconsciously? In the next blogs we will explain how to apply external focus of attention to figure skating and how it is integrated in the Athlete Centered Skating curriculum.
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.
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.