Motor Learning Concepts - Focus of Attention

Dr. Timothy D. Lee
  • Author: Dr. Timothy D. Lee
  • Motor Learning Expert
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Focus of Attention


Perhaps you have seen the cartoon drawing above. It depicts a golfer surrounded by a list of more than 50 thoughts that might be going through his head as he swings the club. Does this golfer seem familiar to you?


In the late 1990s, Dr. Gaby Wulf and her colleagues began to investigate essentially the issue faced by the golfer in the cartoon. They asked a simple question: How is motor performance affected when your thoughts are focused on the movements you are trying to make? The simple answer was that performance is poorer compared to when your thoughts were elsewhere. They also suggested that the better answer was more complicated.


Wulf and her colleagues, plus a number of other researchers since then, have performed dozens of experiments on what is called an “internal” vs. an “external” focus of attention. Defining these terms is important.


First is attention, which has multiple meanings. In this case, “focus of attention” refers to what we are thinking about during a movement. In these experiments the researchers instruct their participants about what to concentrate on while performing an action and the researchers take a number of steps to assure that the participants comply with these instructions. (Note that focus of attention does not refer to what we are looking at, because we can stare at something but focus our thinking on something different at the same time.)


The second term is “internal” focus of attention. Here, the participant is instructed to think about body movement(s) during performance. As an example, of the 50+ thoughts going on in the cartoon golfer’s head described earlier, the vast majority direct the golfer to an internal focus of attention (such as “clear the hips,” “release the hands,” and “flex the knees”).


The last term is “external” focus of attention. This definition is a little wider in scope, and usually refers to the intended effect of the movement; something “outside” the body. In golf, this could be the contact point of the ball and clubface, the intended shot shape and direction, or something else – a product that happens as the result of the movement.


The research evidence to date is quite clear. Using an assortment of tasks and motor skills, the overwhelming result is that external focus instructions produce better performances than internal focus instructions. But that is not the whole story, especially when it comes to golf. The researchers have also found that practicing with an external focus produces better learning than does practice with an internal focus. The implication is that practice with an external focus of attention sticks longer and transfers better to the course than does an internal focus.


But, at this point an issue arises about which the research has not been conducted. How can the golfer make changes in his or her swing without thinking about the movement? That seems like an impossible task. Clearly we need to think about the golf swing in order to make changes and also to remind ourselves of the good changes that we have made. That would seem to imply that an internal focus of attention is required. So, how can the golfer benefit from an internal focus (to make changes) and an external focus (to maximize performance) and practice those so learning will transfer to the course?


I suggest that the ideas expressed by Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott with respect to “think” and “play” boxes could be a good strategy. They suggest that golfers break their pre-shot routines into two components: 1) a strategy component (the “think box”) which includes the time where internal focus of attention thoughts are rehearsed, and 2) an action component (the “play box”) where the focus of thought shifts to an external focus in preparation to hit the ball. Such a strategy of employing this two-component strategy during practice, and during a round, would seem to fit well with the current research findings.


Successfully implementing an attentional focus strategy on the golf course does not “just happen.” It requires practice. And practice is what this series of articles is all about. Practicing a routine that strategically incorporates both an internal and external focus of attention is mentally effortful, as discussed in an earlier article. But the payoff will be a better transition to implementing these strategies on the golf course and a better score.

For more on Motor Learning, be sure to check out Matthew Cooke's FREE Online Motor Learning Course.

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