Most athletes have experienced how process goals and simple cues can help them focus under competitive pressure. Experienced coaches would understand the importance of communicating simple and effective cues to facilitate learning.
Since performance cues are critical to optimising learning and performance, let’s look at how we should decide on what cues to focus on, in what way are some cues more effective than others, and what the scientific literature has to say about this!
Internal vs External Focus of Attention
The overwhelming majority of studies comparing internal cues that focus on how the body is moving with externally focusing one’s attention with no reference to the body itself, has shown that external cues generally lead to more effective outcomes and skill acquisition (Ghorbani et al., 2019; Marchant, 2011; Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016).
For example, Wulf and Su (2007) asked novices to hit golf balls into a circular target. Participants in the internal focus of attention were instructed to focus on the swinging motion of their arms while those in the external focus of attention were instructed to focus on the pendulum-like motion of the club. The results revealed that the external focus group had significantly higher accuracy scores.
Similar results have been shown in studies comparing cues such as “lift your knees higher and open up your stride” with external cues “stride over the markers” to get the athlete to run over markers spaced out at the desired distance.
What exactly makes external cues more effective?
For one, an external focus frees us from overanalysing the details of something our body can do on its own, i.e., self-organization. By focusing attention away from the body, we can respond more efficiently by allowing different body parts to move together in synergy in response to a dynamic and changing environment, essentially doing more from an outcome and goal-oriented perspective, i.e., optimal movement solutions.
Let’s use a golf example to explain this. Let’s say you have a 5-foot putt to win the match, and you keep thinking “I’d better not screw this up!” and focus on cues such as straight arms and soft hands. By consciously thinking about these internal cues, you are disrupting your body’s natural movement pattern, you are more likely to choke than if you simply allow your body to respond to the environment and the goal of sinking the putt.
Proximal vs Distal cues
Additionally, it seems that external cueing has a distance effect, specifically, the farther away (distal) the focus, the more effective it is. This has been researched once again in golf where the players demonstrated greater shot accuracy when focusing on the landing position (distal) compared to the club head (proximal; Bell & Hardy, 2009).
A few caveats to keep in mind…
When working with beginners, proximal external cues may be more effective since they are still struggling with their coordination and movement. They are still exploring how the body moves and how that influences the stick/club in relation to the path of the ball (Wulf et al., 2000). When working with experts though, distal external is the way to go (Bell & Hardy, 2009)
Additionally, there might be advantages in attending to internal and external cues at different times during a continuous sport task such as rowing, swimming, and running (Neumann et al., 2022).
Finally, this knowledge about internal and external focus of attention is probably of no value unless you can apply it. You may want to start thinking about how you can apply this to your own sport either as a coach or athlete. I would be happy to have a chat with you about sport-specific cues. I would also love to hear what you think especially if you disagree with what I’ve shared, and we can learn from each other!
Bell, J. J., & Hardy, J. (2009). Effects of Attentional Focus on Skilled Performance in Golf. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21(2), 163–177.
Marchant, D. C. (2011). Attentional Focusing Instructions and Force Production. Frontiers in Psychology, 1.
Neumann, D. L., Olive, A., Moffitt, R. L., & Piatkowski, T. (2022) Switching attentional focus across internal and external cues improves performance in a rowing task in novices. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Volume 61
Smale, K. (2021, February 13). Coaching cues: external vs internal focus of attention. http://apexskating.com/blog/coaching-cues-external-vs-internal-focus-of-attention
Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2016). Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(5), 1382–1414.
Wulf, G., McNevin, N. H., Fuchs, T., Ritter, F., & Toole, T. (2000). Attentional Focus in Complex Skill Learning. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 71(3), 229–239.