Learning skills: what is its relation with attention?
The motor skill changes according to what we practice (eg: hit golf balls, biking, free throws in basketball). Through practice, not only we achieve a better result in the work we do, but also our performance becomes more consistent. These motor skill changes are the result of having learned to produce the most appropriate force at the correct time and in the right direction, making the system more efficient. While a gradual reduction of muscle effort occurs there is also a reduction of mental effort, transforming the control of the movement in an automatic mechanism (Wulf, 2007).
According to Paul Fitts (1964, Fitts & Posner, 1967), motor learning skills are developed through three phases: cognitive, associative and autonomous. The characteristics of the movements and the attentional demands change as athlete moves through the different stages. Thus, slow, inconsistent and inefficient movements are characteristics of the cognitive state and they are consciously controlled. When passing to the associative state, the movements are more fluid, reliable, efficient and some of them are automatically controlled, thus more attention can be directed towards other aspects of performance. After extensive practice, the athlete reaches the autonomous phase, which is characterized by precise and very consistent movements with few errors. Moreover, the production of the movement is very efficient and requires little muscular energy, skill is done automatically requiring little or no attention. This last phase corresponds to the expert athlete, which thanks to its automatic performance can direct their attention to the tactical and strategic game.
According to the above theory, as the athlete progresses in the practice of a skill, he/she goes through different states that are increasingly more efficient and requires less attentional resources. Many people, including scientists, assume that novices, contrary to the experts, need to pay attention step by step through the execution of a skill (Beilock & Carr, 2004; Gray, 2004; Meinel & Schnabel, 1976). And therefore, it would be beneficial to them that coaches provide them with instructions and feedback to direct their attention to the coordination of the movements. This would guide the learner towards the right movements and would avoid the necessity to make changes in the technique, when coordination patterns would be stabilized. But are these instructions really beneficial? There are several points of view on the instructions, there are studies (Wulf & Weigelt, 1997) where scientists found evidence that the instructions about the proper technique damaged performance of the novices. Others suggest to think about the coordination of the movement before or after, but not during the execution of the skill (Singer, 1985, 1988). While others believe that the processes of thinking are harmful and should be avoided at all times (Masters, 1992, 2000; Masters, Polman & Hammond, 1993). How can the instructions be harmful to learning? If we consider two different situations, one in which we are provided with too many indications concerning the technique and the other, without any indication. Both would be difficult learning conditions, what is clear is that the learner needs to focus on what he/she is doing and the key in order to achieve a better learning would be related to the direction of the focus of attention.
A professor of sport psychology at the University of Florida (Singer, R., 1985, 1988) came to the conclusion that motor learning in a novice is not beneficial, when coaches provide him/her instructions that will lead him/her to become aware of his/her body movements during the execution of the activity. In addition, Singer suggested that one way to help learners acquire the status of automaticity would be using instructions that move them away from their own movements. This can be achieved by directing the focus of the athlete into an external key: EXTERNAL FOCUS OF ATTENTION (for example, the position of the racket, a change of balance in the body, the rotation of the ball) and thus prevents focus of attention on the execution of the movement. The opposite would be an INTERNAL FOCUS OF ATTENTION, where the instructions direct the attention to the coordination of movement, causing slowing of motor learning in novices.
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE…
Attention is necessary during learning skills (motor skills). The coach can direct the attention of the learner, how can the coach do it? By using the instructions during the session.
The use of instructions that generate EXTERNAL FOCUS OF ATTENTION benefits learning. Examples for some sports:
FOOTBALL: External focus of attention: attention focused on the part of the ball that must contact with the foot. Internal focus of attention: Centered attention on the foot that has to hit the ball.
TENNIS: External Focus of attention: attention focused on the impact zone of the racket with the ball, rotation of the ball. Internal focus of attention: Centered attention on the backswing movement, hit the ball in front of the foot.
Basketball free throw: External Focus of attention: Attention directed to the hoop (goal). Internal focus of attention: Attention directed towards the necessary movement to throw the ball.
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.
Beilock, S.L., & Carr, T.H. (2004). From novice to expert performance: Defining the path to excellence. In A.M. Williams & N. J. Hodges (Eds.), Skill acquisition in sport: Research, theory and practice, 309-327. London: Routledge.
Fitts, P.M. (1964). Perceptual-motor skills learning. In A. W. Melton (Ed.), Categories of human learning, 243-285. New York: Academic Press.
Fitts, P.M., & Posner, M.I., (1967). Human performance. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Gray, R. (2004). Attending to the execution of a complex sensorimotor skill: Expertise differences, choking, and slumps. Journal of experimental psychology: applied, 10, 42-54.
Masters, R.S.W., (1992). Knowledge, knerves and know-how: The role of explicit versus imlicit knowledge in the breakdown of a complex motor skill under pressure. British journal of psychology, 83, 343-358.
Masters, R.S.W., Polman, R.C.J., & Hammond, N.V. (1993). Reinvestment: A dimension of personality implicated in skill breakdown under pressure. Personality and individual differences, 14, 655-666.
Masters, R.S.W., (2000). Theoretical aspects of implicit learning in sport. International journal of sport psychology, 31, 530-541.
Meinel, K., & Schnabel, G. (1976). Bewegungslehre (Movement science). Berlín: Sportverlag.
Singer, R. N. (1985). Sport performance: A five-step mental approach. Journal of physical education and recreation, 57, 82-84.
Singer, R.N. (1988). Strategies and metastrategies in learning and performing self-placed athletic skills. Sport psychologist, 2, 49-68.
Wulf, G., Weigelt, C. (1997). Instructions about physical principles in learning a complex motor skill: To tell or not to tell…Research Quarterly for exercise and sport, 68, 362-367.
Wulf, G. (2007). Attention and motor skill learning 1,1-33.