Focus sport: The easy way to improve athletic performance.
In a given circumstance, different people may choose to act differently. This is related to the way in which each person perceives the situation. At the same time, what is perceived depends on the orientation of his/her attention. Thus, the direction of attention will determine the way he/she acts.
Attention can be defined as an increase in neuronal activity that is produced by the selection of a stimulus or for the detection of a novel stimulus from the environment. When attention is focused on a stimulus, neurons produce an increase of frequency of firing that cause a greater neuronal recruitment. In this process two neural circuits are involved. Frontal-parietal circuit (TOP-DOWN) in the selection of a stimulus and parietal-frontal circuit (BOTTOM-UP) in the detection of a novel stimulus. The parietal cortex is responsible for directing attention to a specific place, while the frontal cortex performs executive control of attention (Ruiz-Contreras, Cansino, 2005).
Attention is required for learning a motor skill. There are two possible focuses: internal attention (towards the coordination of movement) and external attention (focused on the effect produced by the movement). Coaches through the use of instructions and feedbacks can guide the focus of athletes. There are clear evidences that demonstrate that the use of an external focus of attention shows advantages in the learning of a motor skill (Wulf, Eder & Parma, 2005).
Not all sports are exposed to the same environmental conditions, there are some which are practiced in relatively stable environmental conditions such as swimming, basketball free throw. Others, however, have unstable environmental conditions (such as ball sports where teammates or opponents constantly change position, or even sports played outdoors where the weather can change during the execution of the activity) . Researchers did experiments in stable and unstable environmental conditions to test the effectiveness of focus of attention. The conclusion was that an external focus of attention provides more accurate performance in both types of environmental conditions (Maddox, Wulf, Wright, 1999).
What would be the possible explanation for an external focus of attention to benefit the learning? Bill Prinzmetal, professor of psychology at the University of California wrote: the brain knows how to reach a goal efficiently, but is very bad at consciously following a plan. The external focus gives the body a goal to achieve and let the body movement coordinate on an unconscious level. There are studies that highlights the importance of TOP-DOWN control of attention in the motor performance of skilled athlete. Apparently, an internal focus of attention would produce constraints in this system, which would disrupt learning (Lohse, Sherwood, 2011).
Although the external focus is more effective for most people, some individuals prefer an internal focus of attention and they could get more benefits by adopting it. In order to find out if there are individual differences in the choice of an external or internal focus, a study was performed to allow participants to choose the focus of attention (Wulf, Shea & Park, 2001). The result was: most athletes (16 out of 20) chose an external focus and they obtained a better athletic performance.
Coaches, teachers, psychologists and therapists not only give instructions, but also they often use feedbacks about the performance of the athlete. These feedbacks are intended to help to correct the mistakes and to guide the athlete into the right movement. These feedbacks also influence the focus of the athlete (Salmoni 1984, Schmidt 1991). Salmoni proposes the orientation hypothesis, where he says that the feedback guide the athlete to the right movement, but if this feedback is too frequent it could have negative effect. The apprentice would become dependent on this feedback and could damage the intrinsic processing associated with the movement. Another factor to consider is the right time to give the feedback. Since it has been shown that when the feedback is provided at the same time as the movement it is detrimental to learning (Park, Shea & Wright, 2000). In this case the intrinsic feedback processing is blocked.
Shea (1999) did an experiment to compare the learning process amongst students in three different groups. One group did not use feedback, the other group used feedback with an external focus of attention and the third group used feedback with an internal focus of attention. He reached the following conclusions: the two groups that received feedbacks showed more effective than the group without additional feedback. The group with an external focus of attention was more advantageous over the group with an internal focus. Thus, the use of feedbacks and instructions that guide the learner towards an external focus of attention benefit the motor learning skill.
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE…
We need attention to learn. Coaches can direct the attention of learners through instructions and feedbacks. Using external focus of attention benefits learning.
How can we create external focus of attention?
We can create an external focus of attention by using instructions and feedbacks directed toward the effect of the movements, using external body references (for example: how to spin the ball, on the position of the golf club, which part of the ball should contact with the foot, the trajectory that the ball should follow, the target area, the contact zone between the ball and the racket or the golf club).
When is the best time to give feedback?
Avoid giving feedback during the movement. Better results are obtained when the feedback is given at the end of the movement and try not to give too many feedbacks.
So, have you had a chance to see the benefits granted by the external focus of attention in the motor learning? If so, we are happy to receive your comments or questions.
Lohse, R., Sherwood, D. (2011). Defining the focus of attention: Effects of attention on perceived exertion and fatigue. Frontiers in psychology, 2, 232.
Maddox, M.D., Wulf, G., Wright, D.L. (1999). The effects of an internal versus external focus of attention on the learning of a tennis stroke. Journal of exercise psychology, 21.
Ruiz-Contreras, A., Cansino, S. (2005). Neurofisiología de la interacción entre la atención y la memoria episódica: revisión de estudios en modalidad visual. Revista Neurología, 41, 733-743.
Salmoni, A.W., Schmidt, R.A. & Walter, C.B. (1984).Knowledge of results and motor learning: A review and critical appraisal. Psychological bulletin, 95, 355-386.
Schmidt, R.A. (1991). Frequent augmented feedback can degrade learning: Evidence and interpretations. In J. Requin & G.E. Stelmach (Eds.), Tutorials in motor neuroscience.
Shea, C.H., Wulf, G. (1999).Enhancing motor learning through external-focus instructions and feedback. Human movement science18, 553-571.
Park, J-H.,Shea, C.H. & Wright, D.L. (2000). Reduced frequency concurrent and terminal feedback: A test of the guidance hypothesis. Journal of motor behavior 32, 287-296.
Wulf, G., Eder, S. & Parma, J. (2005). Observational practice and attentional focus: Benefits of instructions inducing an external focus. Unpublished manuscript: University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Wulf, G., Shea, C.H., Park, J.H. (2011). Attention in motor learning: Preferences for and advantages of an external focus. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 72, 335-344.
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