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.
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.
To read a more in-depth discussion about why instructions may not be getting through to your clients and how to fix it, please see “Attentional Focus & Cuing” in the online IDEA Library or in the May 2015 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.
Beilock, S.L., & Carr, T.H. 2001. On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130 (4), 701-25.
Wulf, G. 2012. Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6 (1), 77-104.
Wulf, G., Hoss, M., & Prinz, W. 1998. Instructions for motor learning: Differential effects of internal versus external focus of attention. Journal of Motor Behavior, 30 (2), 169-79.
Wulf, G., McNevin, N., & Shea, C. H. 2001. The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attentional focus. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Section A, 54 (4), 1143-54.