External focus of attention benefits athletic performance.
We gather information from the environment through the senses. Not all stimuli can be processed by the brain, for which there are filters that protect the nervous system from an information overload. Focusing our attention on a specific stimulus, either by voluntary or spontaneous way, we are restricting the entry of information. This information after being processed and integrated can transform into learning.
Using instructions or feedbacks we can direct attention to external foci (out of the person) or internal foci (within the person). Many studies are dedicated to investigate learning differences between these focus of attention (internal and external). Clear evidence of the benefit of using external focus of attention were found in the motor learning skill (where attention is focused on the effects of the movement) (Wulf, Eder & Parma, 2005).
When individuals focus on their movements they adopt an internal attentional focus and tend to consciously intervene in the control processes that coordinate their movements. This interrupts the automatic processes of the ability to control movements efficiently and effectively. In contrast, when an external attentional focus is used, a more automatic control is promoted and this reduces conscious interference and promotes learning and improves performances.
There are three evidences that show that an external focus of attention promotes an automatic control:
1- Increased frequency of adjustments in movements.
2- Less quantities of attention.
3- Reduced muscle activity.
A high frequency of adjustments in the movement allows the motor system to respond quickly to disturbances (Gantert, Honerkamp & Timmer, 1992). Apparently these quick adjustments would be produced by a reflex control that operates at unconscious or automatic level (MacNevin, Shea & Wulf, 2003).
An external focus requires less attention to perform a movement, leaving greater attentional capacity available for other aspects. This means that more attention will be directed toward the expression or the style, which is an important component for certain sports (eg, rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating). In other sports like basketball, tennis, football, this remnant attention can be used for the strategy.
Our body is an energy-efficient system that tries to conserve energy. For example, if it were possible to lift an object using a single motor unit, our body would do it. Using Electromyography (EMG) it was possible to compare muscle activity produced using the two focus of attention (internal and external) (Vance et al, 2004). The results reflected a lower muscle activity when individuals used external focus of attention. This indicates that the movements were produced with less energy, that is, more efficient. At least in part, this economy on the movement was achieved through more effective coordination between agonist and antagonist muscle groups. So that, an external focus of attention provides athletes improvements in the accuracy of motion that are accompanied by muscular energy efficiency (Zachry et al., 2005).
Athletes can improve their performance through instructions that guide their attention to an external focus. This is not only useful for athletes with beginner level but also for those with a high level (experts). Some researchers (Wulf, Tollner & Shea) concluded that the individuals to whom the task is considered more difficult, are the most benefited for an external attentional focus. So, if the task is very simple, no one should expect advantages when using an external focus, since the action is already being controlled automatically.
From here this is clear that an external focus provides advantages in a motor learning task and athletes with different levels of experience have different types of optimal attentional focus (always external). As we know, an external focus concentrates on the effect of the movement. Researchers found that there are different levels of hierarchy in the external focus of attention. For example, in the case of a golfer it could be used as a low level focus of attention: the focus on the movement of the golf club. A high level would be: focus on the trajectory of the golf ball. As an athlete increases his/her experience he/she incorporates the motor programs necessary to perform the action. A beginner will be most helped by focusing on a low level, because this effect (moving the stick) is more related to the movement that he/she has to perform. A focus directed towards the stick will help athlete to incorporate the motor programs necessary. Conversely, if a beginner focuses on a high level of effect (e.g. in the trajectory of the ball), without having the motor programs necessary to perform the action, it will not be feasible to focus on that level. Which leads us to conclude that the optimal focus changes with the level of experience of the athlete (Schmidt & Lee, 2005).
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE …
Learning of a motor skill is benefited by the use of instructions or feedbacks that guide attention to an external focus. We can use different levels of external focus and they are always referred to the effect that causes the movement.
The lowest levels focus attention on closer to the athlete’s body or tools used in sports (i.e. rackets, golf clubs, bats) to hit an object (ball). These low levels of attention are very useful for novice athletes.
As proper technique is acquired and the movement becomes automatic, we can switch the focus to higher levels, such as in focusing on the trajectory of the ball.
Finally, the upper levels are intended for expert athletes, they obtain more benefits when they focus attention on the goal.
Gantert, C., Honerkamp, J. & Timmer, J. (1992). Analyzing the dynamics of hand tremor time series. Biological Cybernetics, 66, 649-484.
McNevin, N.H., Shea, C.H., Wulf, G. (2003). Increasing the distance of an external focus of attention enhances learning. Psychological research, 67, 22-29.
Schmidt, R.A. & Lee, T.D. (2005). Motor control and learning: A behavioral emphasis (4th ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Vance, J., Wulg, G.,Tollner, T., McNevin, NH. & Mercer, J. (2004). EMG activity as a fuction of the performer´s Focus of attention. Journal of motor behavior, 36, 450-459.
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.
Zachry, T., Wulf, G., Mercer, J. & Bezodis,N. (2005). Increased movement accuracy and reduced EMG activity as the result of adopting an external focus of attention. Brain Research Bulletin, 67, 304-309.