Attentional Focus & Cuing
Why Instructions Don't Get Through to Your Clients—and How to Fix It.
Nod if these scenarios seem familiar:
- You give your client well-articulated instructions and get a blank stare followed by, “So what do you want me to do?”
- You give your client a series of cues, but the client’s movements actually get worse because your point is misunderstood.
- You have a successful training session one week where the client really seems to click with everything you are saying, but the next week it is as though your coaching had dissolved and the client is right back to those inefficient movements.
How do we keep this from happening? The answer lies in learning to optimize what we say and what our clients hear. Coaches and trainers are really educators specializing in human movement, so it’s central to our success—and that of our clients—to build a fluid understanding of how humans learn to move and how we can influence their learning.
For starters, we have to develop a strong grasp of the language of movement and the right way to deliver instructions in the proper sequence. But that’s not enough. We also need to optimize our instructions in order to overcome the brain’s tendency to foul up a movement if a client’s attention gets focused on the wrong things.
Proper cuing and attentional focus can give your lessons more staying power. This article shows you how to make it happen.
Why Attentional Focus and Cuing Are So Important
If you’re not getting through to clients, it’s tempting to conclude that they are simply not paying attention. Yet extensive research on training and coaching suggests another possibility—you may not be using the right cues to optimize your clients’ attentional focus. Studies tell us the right kind of attentional focus helps people improve, while the wrong kind can impede progress.
Attentional focus plays a major role in motor learning—the process of improving abilities through repeated practice—for a broad spectrum of populations, environments and movement skills (Wulf 2012). We can define attentional focus as a conscious effort to focus attention through explicit thoughts in order to execute a task with superior performance.
Attentional-focus cues can be either internal (directed toward the body) or external (targeting something beyond the body) (Wulf, Hoss & Prinz 1998). Two examples:
- Internal cue: A trainer guiding a client through the upward portion of a bench press says, “Focus on extending your arms and squeezing your chest.”
- External cue: The trainer tells the client, “Focus on explosively pushing the bar to the ceiling.”
The great news for trainers and coaches is that extensive studies have found that externally focused cues are more effective than internal cues. By combining your understanding of the language of movement with properly executed, externally directed cues, you can help clients to make lasting changes in the way they move.
The Science of Attentional Focus
In 1998, Wulf, Hoss & Prinz were the first researchers to address attentional focus, using a series of balance tasks. Their first study involved three groups of participants and a ski simulator. Internally focused participants were instructed to “exert force on the outer foot,” while the externally focused group was told to “exert force on the outer wheels” of the simulator. The control group received no explicit instruction. The results showed that the externally focused group had superior performance and learning compared with the other two groups.
Since then, extensive research has validated the effectiveness of external focus across a spectrum of performance qualities, including balance and postural control, jumping, speed, agility, strength and several sport-specific skills (Wulf, Hoss & Prinz 1998; Wulf et al. 2003; Porter et al. 2010a; Porter et al. 2010b; Wulf et al. 2007; Ille et al. 2013; Marchant 2011; Wulf 2012).
Why External Focus Works Better
The constrained-action hypothesis has been proposed as a theoretical explanation of why external focus can be beneficial, while internal focus can be detrimental. Wulf, McNevin & Shea (2001), developers of the hypothesis, posited that mentally focusing on our body movements “constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control processes that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement.” In contrast, they suggested, if we focus on an external movement goal, the “motor system [can] naturally self-organize, unconstrained by the interference caused by conscious control attempts.”
To test the efficacy of the constrained-action hypothesis, Wulf, McNevin & Shea (2001) examined how people reacted to a light probe during a simple balance task under internal- and external-focus conditions. They found that people who focused attention externally had significantly faster reaction times, superior balance and higher frequency of low-amplitude movement (i.e., they were more responsive) than those who focused internally. These results support the concept that external focus allows for a more automatic expression of movement, while an internal focus seems to interrupt natural control mechanisms; this may be happening because an attempt at conscious control overloads working memory (Beilock & Carr 2001).
Furthermore, external focus explicitly points to the environment and the intent of the movement. This reduces uncertainty and allows clients to explore their movement until the intent and outcome are achieved. Conversely, internal focus requires clients to think about one aspect of the movement while remaining focused on the desired outcome. This puts greater load on working memory and disrupts the actual movement.
External cues do the best job of sending a message that is short, meaningful and directed at the most important aspect of the movement.
In summary, the evidence supporting the use of external-focus instructions for various aspects of strength and power development is robust. Not only do we need to select the right exercises, performed at the correct intensities and placed in the correct sequence, but we must place equal importance on the attentional focus we create through our instructions. Table 1 provides specific external-focus examples for some of the most popular strength and power movements.
The next section provides a framework to help you individualize external cues and strategically modify them over time. Clients will respond differently to the same cues based on factors discussed in the language-of-movement sidebar; this makes it vital to know how to purposefully modify cues to maximize their effectiveness.
Attentional Focus and Cuing Framework
Research identifies three key features of external cues:
- direction: telling the client which way to target a movement
- distance: telling the client how far to go
- description: using active verbs and creating mental imagery through analogies
Going in the Right Direction
External cues will almost always tell the client which way the movement has to go. For example, take “driving the bar toward the ceiling” versus “driving the bar away from the ground.” While the message is the same, one cue guides “toward” while the other guides “away.” From my experience, not all clients process these terms in the same manner. If you ask clients whether they prefer to push toward or push away, you’ll probably see a balance of both. There is no direct research showing that one works better than the other, so either one (or both) can be used within an external cue.
Going the Distance
How far you guide a client’s attention can play a role in an exercise’s effectiveness. For example, asking someone to “push away from the ground” would be considered a close (or proximal) cue, whereas asking the person to “push toward the ceiling” would be a relatively far (or distal) cue. Research has found benefits in external cues that focus an individual distally (Porter, Anton & Wu 2012). This has been shown in jumping, balancing, and skills related to sports like golf (Porter et al. 2013; McNevin, Shea & Wulf 2003; Bell & Hardy 2009.)
Some research suggests that the benefit of distance may depend on the experience level of the client—that is, novice vs. expert (Wulf et al. 2000). When you are initially teaching a skill, therefore, it may be beneficial to use environmental reference points that are close to the body—or example, focusing on the movement of the equipment. This allows a client to make a connection between the movement and the direct impact on the environment.
Conversely, as the client gains expertise, and performance factors like speed become important, then it may be appropriate to increase the distance of the focus (e.g., focusing on moving the implement toward a point in space, like the ceiling). Overall, distance is almost always included in an external cue, so it is important to consider how it affects the movement outcome.
Giving a Description
Description means the specific language you use to guide clients through the movement. The verbs you use are critical in describing how the movement should be performed (explode, drive, push, snap, accelerate, etc.).
Specific analogies also play a descriptive role (think: “Sprint with a slight lean, as if you were in a wind tunnel” or “Accelerate off the line, like a jet taking off.”) Generally speaking, active verbs and analogies inform the pace and technical execution of the movement pattern.
When considering language, it is also important to select words that evoke a specific image rather than a general concept (Roche 2001). For example, consider the following word pairings:
In each of these pairings, one word evokes a more distinct image than the other. This is important, because we are much better at recalling visual memories than we are at recalling words, numbers and concepts. Therefore, external cues that use active verbs, analogies and/or words that evoke images will be significantly more memorable and easier for clients to apply.
You should always consider manipulating direction, distance and description to find the best external cues for the specific movements you are teaching. This framework provides a systematic approach to tailoring instruction, feedback and cues to the client in front of you. Over time, you can build lists of cues for all the primary movements in your programming. Moreover, you may find that certain cues are better for novices, while others work better for advanced clients.
Remember, there is no perfect cue—there is only the right cue for the client you are working with. Figure 1 provides an overview of the framework for external cuing.
Optimizing the Client Experience
While we like to think of coaching and teaching as art forms, there is a distinct science to communicating for optimized motor learning. Communication starts by engaging clients in a way that ensures they are listening. Once we have their attention, we want to provide instructions, feedback or cues that focus the clients externally rather than internally. Further, we want to account for any physical limitations across position, pattern and power that could be limiting the effectiveness of our coaching. Finally, we need to consider how to individualize external cues by manipulating direction, distance and description. By systematically integrating these factors, we can develop evidenced-based platforms that enable us to express the art of coaching.
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