This is the final blog in our 6-part series on external focus of attention and figure skating. The previous blogs described differences between the way experts and beginners perform their skills. Experts, for example, tend to perform more subconsciously, and tend to forget the specific step-by-step instructions. When athletes adopt an internal focus of attention they think about the movements themselves (straighten my leg and point my toe on a spiral). This mode of attention makes the movements consciously controlled and, as a result, slower, less efficient, and less adaptable. With an external focus of attention, athletes think about movement outcomes (try to touch the wall behind me with my toe pick on a spiral), which allows the subconscious to control and adjust movements more fluidly, efficiently, and adaptably. An external focus of attention is also thought to alleviate ‘choking under pressure’.
Below we outline and briefly discuss how the coach can direct athletes to adopt an external focus of attention in the motor skill acquisition process. This involves several steps: (1) build the imagery gymnasium (2) progress towards cue words (3) cycle the cue words with the addition of new focuses and (4) merge separate focuses into one main focus
1. Build the imagery gymnasium
In this initial phase, the coach introduces athletes to the imagery gymnasium. We simply refer to each individual device within the gymnasium as a “focus of attention” or “focus” for short. We describe each new focus in detail to help athletes with the process. However, the details are meant to explain the external image, not necessarily the movements the image should provoke. This is a very important point because then the behavior can be adapted to each unique situation (no two situations are ever the same). For example, one key focus we often use is, “look down the hallway.” With this focus, the athlete should imagine they are looking down a very long corridor or hallway and it is used to keep their gaze in one direction even if the body starts to turn. Sometimes we describe what the hallway is. We’ll say, “your hallway is a school corridor with lockers lining each side.” Other times we will ask the athletes to tell us what their hallway looks like and they provide some very interesting and unique descriptions.
It is beneficial to introduce new focuses on fundamental skills first and slowly build the imagery gymnasium. Take your time with this process! This allows athletes to transfer the focuses as the fundamentals are integrated to create more complex skills. When athletes first learn three turns, we use the “look down the hallway” focus for the moment before the actual turn to uncouple the head from the shoulders. Later on, in their development on jump takeoffs, “look down the hallway” now keeps the head over the skating foot, which maintains axis, as the shoulders ‘release’ into the rotation.
Coaches should assess athletes’ abilities to incorporate motor imagery (motor imagery is included in our Athlete Centered Skating assessments). For motor imagery to be effective, the performer must be able to do so vividly and with exactness (Guillot, Hoyek et al. 2012). Children are already masters of creative thoughts and we find them to adopt the imagery gymnasium with great enthusiasm. However, every child is different and coaches should be prepared to adopt different approaches. Coaches will also learn that some skaters prefer different focuses than others. An athlete might even create a focus that the coach either doesn’t think will achieve the intended behavior or the coach cannot imagine themselves. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and such exploration should be encouraged – especially if the learner adopts their own focus.
2. Progress towards cue words
Once athletes have a grasp on a focus as in, they understand what it is and they demonstrate the behavior on different skills and in the face of different contexts- such as places on the ice, preceding motor content, or fatigue levels- coaches can reduce the metaphor to a single cue word. “Look down the hallway” is reduced to “hallway,” for example. This simplifies the communication between coach and student greatly. The coach or student can call out “hallway!” across the ice if the student makes a mistake by releasing the head on a turn. If we are engaged in a summary feedback discussion (you will learn more about this and other forms of feedback in future blogs) we can say, “I thought your ‘hallway’ was really good on the first three attempts but then on the last two I didn’t see it. What do you think?”
Cue words also facilitate competition preparation and can be used as a form of psychological periodization (Balague 2000). We get together with students to set cue words for each skill to keep their emotions and thoughts more stable under the influence of all the impinging energies at a competition: the nerves, the crowd noise, the expectation and so on. In fact, we use charts to keep track of successfully achieved focuses and skill outcomes during the training phase (the taper) right before competition. That way we can see how often each focus is achieved successfully, the impact it has on the outcome of the jump (the athlete certainly can emit the intended focus but still fail to complete the target skill), and whether or not a focus should be changed.
3. Cycle the cue words with the addition of new focuses
It is also important to cycle different focuses that apply to the same movements. For example, we use several postural focuses that all intend for athletes to keep the head level and neck and torso extended upwards, even as they bend their knees to push on forward stroking. Usually the first focus is “balance an egg on your head” (“egg”) or for our college students “balance your laptop on your head” (“laptop”). If we see this focus start to lose its ‘power’ to trigger the intended behavior we will change it. “Look up over the wall as you skate toward it” (“wall”), “Imagine a balloon is lifting you up from your hair” (“balloon”), and “Grow taller like you are a tree” (“tree”), all work very well. As I explained earlier, some athletes identify better with particular focuses than others. Another way to refresh an imagery focus is to ask the athlete to describe it back to us. Or we will create a story behind the focus to help athletes re-identify with it. With the college students it might take a simple, “oh, and your laptop’s data has not been backed up for several months!”
4. Merge separate focuses into one main focus
Sometimes it may be beneficial to take several separate external focuses and to combine them into one main focus. This allows the coach and athlete to focus on several corrections without overwhelming the athlete. Not only can they “look up over the fence” on an axel takeoff, but they can also “throw their gloves” or “kick a ball” up over that fence and follow the trajectory with their heads. One of my favorites is applied to the lutz jump. On the lutz jump, I’ll explain the tap placement and drawing motion of the skating leg back to the picking leg as to “reach down the train track and bring the train (gliding skate) past the station (picking skate) and up over the fence.” This image is meant to get the athlete to place the toe pick behind where their back outside edge is headed, to draw the skating foot through closely, and to promote an explosive turn (the fence is behind the athlete when they tap) and push off from the skating legs.
Another recent merging of images that brought a big smile to the athlete we created it for was to combine the “look over the fence” focus with “step up onto the bench” focus for the axel jump. We called it “fench”! Suddenly, athlete and coach were calling out that word on practice – “I thought I ‘fenched’ really well that time!”
Summary of Benefits of the Imagery Gymnasium
To summarize our discussion, the imagery gymnasium:
– Allows for an external focus of attention in the event that ‘real’ objects are not present to trigger the intended motor behavior for successful performance.
-Makes explanations very easy, especially when reduced to one-word cues.
-Allows the learner to perform the intended movement but without focusing specifically on the limbs.
-Makes remembering corrections easier and more fun.
-Can be combined allowing for multiple corrections.
-Can be packed up and used anywhere.
-Are excellent for pre-competition preparation in a form of psychological periodization.
-Can be used as a practice tool during injury recover.
– At the very least, distracts the conscious from getting in the way of subconscious performance!
When we first started to utilize the imagery gymnasium, we wrongly believed it would be limited to only a few circumstances and focuses, but now realize there really is no limit to its use. This strategy takes a little getting used to by the coach, but the effort necessary to fully adopt this strategy is well-worth it. More generally, the adoption of an external focus of attention could very well mean the difference between athletes achieving stable and consistent performance outcomes in competition and choking under pressure. No amount of perfect practice repetition can prepare anyone for the unknown. It may be beneficial then, for athletes to pack with them some very familiar tools- their imagery gymnasium and the external focuses that allow their motor systems to achieve their full adaptive potential.
Balague, G. (2000). “Periodization of pyschological skills training.” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport3(3): 230-237.
Guillot, A., N. Hoyek, M. Louis and C. Collet (2012). “Understanding the timing of motor imagery: recent findings and future directions.” International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology5(1): 3-22.
“Look Down the Hallway!”
Photo artwork by Niko Cohen @hikikonekkon⠀