Athletes performance and accuracy
If you practice a sport that requires targeting, this article will be of your interest. In this kind of sport it is not enough to perform a good execution of the movement but the accuracy on the target is also required (if we use the tennis serve as an example, a good pitch of the ball coordinated with the movements of the arms and head would not be enough if the ball were not in the right place after being hit). This high level of demand requires special conditions such as: maintaining attention for long periods of time and control of the gaze, both of these allow a selection of precise signals at appropriate moments.
One way to improve athletes performance in these sports is the use of external focus of attention. What is an external focus of attention? It is the use of physical targets external to the athlete in which focus his/her attention. The use of this focus of external attention helps to create an inner state in the player that is optimal for the performance, avoiding focusing on internal thoughts or the mechanics of the body (Singer, 2000). They have also observed that, during the learning of a motor task (such as a shot in tennis), when the player directs his/her attention to the effect of motion (towards the result of this movement, external focus) they obtain greater benefits than when his/her attention is focused on the mechanics of his/her shot (internal focus) (Wulf, 2007). This could be explained because when the athlete focuses on putting the objective on a specific target, this leaves more freedom for the movement of the shot.
Other researchers (Radlo, Steinberg, Singer, Beard and Melnikov, 2002) found that when the players use an external focus of attention a deceleration of the heart rate occurs in earlier times to the shot, which is consistent with better accuracy. In addition, it was found that a decrease in activity in the psycho-neuromuscular system leads to an improvement in the athletes performance (Lohse, Sherwood and Healey, 2010). When they compared elite with amateur athletes, they saw that elite athletes have a more efficient neural system, so they require less activation for its proper functioning.
By analyzing different sports that require an aim we conclude that the focus of the external attention used in each one is different and it is not always in the final target. In addition, we found that the objects used to do target may be moving or static in the time prior to being hit, but it is also possible to be released by the athlete directly without being hit. Taking into account all these variables the attentional focus changes of position. So in golf, where the object (ball) and the target (hole) are static, the focus of the external attention is located on the ball. In tennis, where the object (ball) is dynamic and the target is static, the external focus is on the ball. By throwing darts or by doing free throws in basketball, the object is directed towards a static target (ring or target) which coincides with the focus of external attention.
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
There are many advantages of using a focus of the external attention, you just have to implement it to get its benefits.
My suggestion (both during the development phase and the learning phase of a skill) is to incorporate sessions dedicated to center the attention on the specific external focus of the sport you practice. A good way to achieve this is by training the Quiet Eye, to which we referred to in a previous blog.
Do you have trouble locating the focus of the external attention of your sport? Do you train accuracy in order to improve athletes performance? We look forward to receiving your comments.
Lohse, K. R., Sherwood, D. E. & Healy, A. F. (2010). How changing the focus of attention affects performance, Kinematics and electromyography in dart throwing. Human Movement Science, 29, 542-555.
Radlo, S.J., Steinberg, G. M., Singer, R. N., Barba, D. A. & Melnikov, A. (2002). The influence of attentional focus strategy on alpha brain wave activity, heart rate, and dart throwing performance. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 33, 205-217.
Singer, R. N. (2000). Performance and human Factors: Considerations about cognition and attention for self-paced and externally-paced Events. Ergonomics, 43, 1661-1680.
Wulf, G. (2007). Attention and motor skill learning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinematics.