Focus of attention in sport: Internal or external?


As a learner it is essential to understand where to focus attention when participating in sport and how this will vary depending on the sport (individual, team etc.) and on the individuals' level of skill. It is equally important that the teacher or coach understands how to set tasks that match the desired attentional focus for the participant(s).


I introduced the idea of 'BEE Focused' in my last blog "Learning Zones -part 2" but given that it was a very lengthy blog some people may have missed it! So, in this post I will recap on this useful way of looking at where attention is focused, in the context of sport, and the implications for both the learner and the teacher. However, I would recommend reading my last blog in conjunction with reading this update to see how I have expanded and developed the concept.


This whole idea of BEE Focused came about after reading a chapter by Wulf and Lewthwaite (2010) in the book 'Effortless Attention'. They looked at a growing body of research evidence which suggests that using an external focus of attention enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency and can even speed up the motor learning process. Moreover, the suggestion is that by using an external focus (EF) rather than an internal focus (IF) of attention, that the attention itself will be more effortless helping to create flow zone conditions and potentially flow state for the learner/performer.


The BEE acronym stands for Body, Equipment and Environment. Figure 1, below, shows how this works with Alpine Skiing.

Figure 1, BEE Focused

The surprising aspect of Wulf and Lewthwaite's examples is that an 'external' focus is largely one where attention is directed toward the equipment being used, by the participant, rather than the wider environment! This led to my idea that there are, in effect, three levels of attentional focus moving from a very internal focus (movements of the body) to a more and more external focus (equipment and then the wider environment). Each of these are described in more detail below followed by some examples of how this can be applied to other sports.


IFA - Internal Focus of Attention

This is all about the movements of, and focus on, parts of the body which, in skiing, will include things like; balance/pressure points along the feet (ball, arch, heel), opening and closing of the ankle, leg/foot turning, path of the hips through the turn transition, leg lean and lateral separation, rotational separation between the upper and lower body etc. This is by no means an exhaustive list, of where attention can be directed, but highlights some common areas covered by ski instructors when working with their learners. For me, there are two key points; firstly, that I spend proportionally more time getting learners to focus on areas of the body that are close to their equipment (boots and skis) and secondly, that I get people to focus more on the 'active' rather than the 'passive' movements. The reason for this is because it encourages greater understanding and awareness of how the movements interact with the equipment, which I believe is essential during the motor learning stage of skill acquisition.


EFA 1 - External Focus of Attention 1

This is the aspect of the recent research that really got my attention (if you will pardon the pun). Again, from my background in teaching alpine skiing, I had not really differentiated between, for example, focusing on tilting the skis on and off their edges with rolling the feet, or feeling for the big toe on the outside foot and the little toe on the inside foot. And while all these elements are clearly connected the research suggests that directing the learners' attention to the tilting of the skis (EFA 1) is better than focusing on the big toe and little toe (IFA)? The skiing research example that Wulf and Lewthwaite gave related to measuring amplitude and frequency on a ski simulator, with the largest results coming from focusing on exerting pressure onto the wheels (under the outer foot; EFA 1) compared with exerting pressure with the outer foot (IFA). This may seem like a subtle difference, but it has really got me excited for the season ahead as I will be really conscious, when working with my learners, whether I am directing their attention to their equipment, or parts of the their body and which they find to be more beneficial. And, I will also be monitoring the results in terms of observing and analysing their performance from using these subtle yet different instructions and focus of attention.


What is also very important when using the EFA 1 is that there is a clear link to EFA 2, hence, the learner needs to be aware of how the equipment is interacting with the snow and then the terrain e.g., skis being deflected across the line of momentum creating skidding, or skis being tilted onto their edges allowing the side cut of the skis to carve an arc in the snow etc.


It is also worth mentioning, at this point, that the learners attention will often be on both an internal and external focus at the same time, but as the skill becomes more acquired the percentage of attention will shift more and more externally, allowing the movements to happen with less conscious effort.


EFA 2 - External Focus of Attention 2

The wider environment in skiing (and snowsports generally) will include variance in terrain (e.g., rollovers, cambers, changes in steepness, moguls etc.), other slope users, obstacles (e.g., rocks, trees etc.). Tasks for encouraging this kind of attention will include skiing different, but constant, corridor widths, using different turn shapes and different speed (requiring carving, or skidding, or a mixture), and then blending these together using funnels or hour glass type corridors. Being able to easily focus on these external cues, while maintaining a high level of the desired performance outcome, is a sure sign that motor learning has reached the acquired phase. It also encourages more effortless attention, which in turn can lead to flow state when performing.


What about other sports?

So how does BEE Focused work with other sports? Below are some examples of other sports and what the IFA, EFA 1 and EFA 2 could be;


Golf: Pitch shot - IFA swing of the arms, EFA 1 swing of the club, EFA 2 path or flight of the ball, the green and flag.


Basketball: Free throw - IFA wrist movement, EFA 1 the ball, EFA 2 the hoop.


Tennis: Serve - IFA movement of hand/arm to throw ball, EFA 1 the height the ball is thrown to, the racket striking the ball, EFA 2 the net, the court (or lines of the box), the opponent.



So, whatever the sport, coaches and learners can use the BEE Focused approach to help match an appropriate attentional focus with the stage of skill acquisition.


References:

Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2010). Effortless motor learning?: An external focus of attention enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency. In B. Bruya (Ed.), Effortless attention : A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action (pp. 75–101). Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

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