This is the 5th blog in a series that examines external focus of attention, a motor learning theory we consider foundational to Athlete Centered Skating. In previous blogs we shared some differences between the way experts and beginners perform their skills, introduced what an external focus of attention is, the benefits of adopting an external focus in practice and how external focus can eliminate choking under pressure. This blog applies external focus research through our own coaching experiences. Please review the previous blogs before continuing.
To briefly summarize, with an internal focus of attention the athlete thinks about the movement of their body (bring my arms through on an axel). This focus makes the movement more consciously controlled and, as a result, slower, less efficient, and less adaptable. With an external focus of attention, the athlete thinks about the outcome of a movement (throw my gloves through on an axel), which allows the subconscious to control and adjust the movements more fluidly, efficiently, and adaptably.
With the use of external focus methods in practice, we witnessed several benefits and they are almost immediately noticeable. Skaters tend to learn skills and concepts quicker and they can accommodate multiple corrections at the same time; they remember their corrections better; it is easier for them to see those behaviors when observing other skaters (even parents do!); it facilitates motor imagery and the use of cue words for competition preparation; and it alleviates choking under pressure.
How to Put the Subconscious to Use
Most instructions in figure skating direct learners to adopt an internal focus. Coaches talk about what the arms and legs need to do and sometimes there are different instructions for each limb at once! We talk about bending knees and ankles, using the fingers on aesthetic movements, pointing toes, keeping the chest or back up, head up, shoulders down and so on. The feedback can be so overwhelming, skaters have to ‘shut off’ their ears to get the job done. So, how can instructions be transformed into words that trigger externally focused and subconsciously controlled movements?
The use of physical objects as external focus cues
Coaches’ instructions and feedback should be specific, simple, and direct learners’ attention away from their bodies and, the further attention is directed away from the body, the better (Wulf 2007). In many sports and activities, such advice doesn’t demand much creativity. For example, soccer and baseball players can focus where they want the ball to go rather than the limb used to kick or throw the ball. The track and field athlete can focus on the upcoming hurdle rather than her actual jump mechanics. These skilled movements involve an object within the environment the athlete interacts with. In figure skating, there are no external objects to manipulate.
There are ways to be creative with instructions, especially when the details get tricky. Coaches must address students’ arm and leg actions on jumps and these details can be vital, highly specific factors the athlete needs to do to improve. The coach can introduce objects into the lesson. Rather than direct students’ attention to their feet, we can direct their attention to their skates. This might not seem like a huge difference but we can assure the reader through a simple test, which is especially beneficial with students who do not bring their feet together during the final backspin position. The traditional instruction to correct this is “bring your feet together.” We never find this to be a useful correction because students don’t seem to do it despite its simplicity. However, we learned that if the coach tells the student to “touch your boots together”, there is almost always a dramatic difference!
Here are some more suggestions that follow similar logic. Rather than focus on the hands, students can focus on their gloves. As soon as we place a sticker on their arm, we can direct attention to the sticker rather than the arm itself as in, “move the sticker through”. If we place stickers on their torso where we want their hands to be in flight, we can tell them to touch the stickers rather than to bring their arms in tighter. The same can be done for the feet. Place a sticker on the landing foot and tell the student to touch the sticker with his free skate in the air position. In fact, several teaching devices actually accomplish these outcomes such as the vest that makes a sound when the arms touch its sensors or the ankle strap that produces a sound when the boots come together in the air position.
An imagery gymnasium for external focuses of attention
Very often physical objects are not readily available for external focus of attention use. In figure skating, we don’t kick, throw, or hit a ball; we don’t use equipment other than our skates; there are no nets to look over, rims to focus on, or goals to gaze at. However, with a little creativity, the coach and athlete can build what we call an “imagery gymnasium”. With an imagery gymnasium the athlete uses motor imagery to inform motor performance in a way that leads to desired outcomes. Our athletes create their own objects in their minds and we build the imagery gymnasium to match the unique needs of each athlete. Importantly, the imagery should be concepts that are very familiar to the skater so they are easy to understand and remember. There are hallways to look down, fences to look up and over, tunnels to go under, doorways to go through, and wheels to turn on. There are trains, eggs, laptops, clocks, alligators, bungee cords, elevators, trees, and much more.
This all might sound more like a Doctor Seuss book than technical discussion in figure skating but we can assure you- it works! In fact, its promoted in learn to skate program teaching manuals! In learn to skate classes coaches tell children to make pizzas (forward swizzles), stomp on the bugs (to initiate marching), act like a tree (to stand with posture and arms out). However, it appears that as an athlete progresses to higher levels, such methods are replaced by detailed step-by-step explanations of movements. While we still believe this discussion has value from time to time, step-by-step instructions can bog down performers of all ages and abilities. We find that when athletes use such imagery, their movements immediately appear more fluid, more expert-like, just like the research tells us, because the athlete is creating an already familiar task to link the skill to. This makes new motor skills feel less abstract to the athlete.
The use of motor imagery as an external focus bestows the same benefits as when students externally focus with real objects and, in some cases, there are even more. The imagery promotes correct movements without zeroing in on, and isolating, different parts of the body. Each athlete finds their own way to ‘solve the skill’ with an imagery gymnasium at their disposal. Even though this individuality exists, we find that, if the motor imagery is effective, coaches will see some very consistent outcomes from athlete to athlete. This is important because there are only so many ways one can perform a triple jump!
Coaches can always direct athletes to look at physical objects in the skating rink such as a sign or banner or one of the painted lines on the ice. However, from skating rink to skating rink, these physical cues might be different or not readily available. A unique benefit of the imagery gymnasium, compared to the use of physical objects, is that it is travel-sized (it’s in their mind!) and goes wherever the athlete goes. The advantage is that athletes are not constrained to practicing in any specific location (in front of a real fence for example) and the external focuses can be transferred from off-ice training classes to on-ice lessons and vice versa. Even more importantly, the imagery gymnasium can also be used during regular motor imagery training sessions and when an athlete is sidelined with an injury.
In the final blog in the external focus of attention series, we outline and briefly discuss how coaches can direct students to adopt an external focus of attention in the motor skill acquisition process. This involves several steps: (i) build the imagery gymnasium (ii) progress towards cue words (iii) cycle the cue words with the addition of new focuses and (iv) merge separate focuses into one main focus.
Wulf, G. (2007). Attention and motor skill learning, Human Kinetics.