Locus refers to a place or position where something is located: locus of attention concerns the location of an athlete's focus when executing a movement. Typically, locus of attention is stratified into internally versus externally located focus. The current dominant message to coaches and practitioners is to cue in a way that avoids an internal focus of attention - essentially 'internal focus BAD; external focus GOOD'. Yet when we look beyond the dominant narrative and take a closer look at the research on the topic, the question of where and how to direct an athlete's locus of attention when learning and performing becomes rather more complex. There is growing evidence to indicate that what is optimal may vary according to the population concerned, the task, context and even individual preference or predisposition. In this post we will delve deeper and attempt to unravel the topic of locus of focus.
DEFINING EXTERNAL VERSUS INTERNAL FOCUS...
As always there is some distortion between research findings, the message that is portrayed, and what is ultimately received by practitioners on the ground.
On the most fundamental level, coaches' and practitioners' understanding of what constitutes 'internal' versus 'external' focus often differs to the definition in the literature.
As a first step, it would be useful to get some clarity on what exactly we are referring to when we say 'internal' focus versus 'external' focus. Understandably, most readers interpret internal focus as a focus on the athlete's own body, whereas an external focus could naturally assumed to be external to the body. Indeed a number of the studies in the literature have employed this distinction.
However, the most influential research group in the area of locus of attention employ a different definition. According to their definition, external focus is directed towards the movement outcome, whereas internal focus is directed to the process of the action itself.
Given different researchers on the topic are seemingly unable to agree on definitions, it is entirely unsurprising that there is confusion among practitioners and coaches working in the field.
For the purposes of this post, given we are speaking about locus - i.e. location or point in space of attentional focus - we will consider internal focus to be directed towards a specified area of the body during the movement, whereas external focus will be considered a particular location in the environment. That said, where research has used the alternative definition we will make this clear as we discuss the relevant findings.
Confused yet? Then let us proceed...
THE DOMINANT NARRATIVE...
By far the dominant narrative in the research literature and in the message presented to coaches and practitioners is essentially: 'internal focus BAD; external focus GOOD'. More specifically, the message is that coaches should avoid instruction or cues that direct the athlete's focus to an internal (bodily) location or aspect of the movement itself. Rather, instruction or cueing should direct the athlete's focus to a feature in the environment or the outcome of the movement.
There are two main reasons given why the external locus of attention approach is superior when learning and performing.
Firstly, when acquiring a skill if the athlete's focus is directed 'internally' to a body part or aspect of the movement skill this will result in 'explicit learning' focussing on the mechanics of the movement, whereas it is argued that the aim should be unconscious or implicit learning, fostering 'automaticity' of skilled performance. A side note, which is less often referred to, is that directing attention towards particular aspects of the skill might also constrain exploring different movement strategies when learning.
The second argument against internally directed focus relates to performing in a competitive environment. Here it is argued that internal focus is likely to encourage the athlete to consciously control what should be a relatively automated skilled movement. This tendency to revert to conscious control under pressure is termed 'reinvestment'. The argument is that internal focus, or 'self-focussed attention', leads to conscious control of movement mechanics; and this disrupts normal coordination, leading to inefficient motor control and compromising performance outcomes.
In summary, the argument is that internal focus should be avoided at all parts in the process. Adopting external focus when training is contended to provide more robust learning. External focus when performing will also combat the tendency to switch to conscious control under pressure and the associated negative consequences (often labelled 'choking').
A CLOSER LOOK...
A number of studies in the literature report similar findings in support of the consensus that external focus of attention is superior for learning and performance. So what is the problem? Should we not just take the locus of attention debate as resolved and heed the message that we must strive to avoid cues that encourage internal focus on body parts or movement mechanics?
Before we go ahead and dismiss internal focus entirely, let us conduct an exercise in critical thinking. Taking a closer look at the research on the topic, we find there are a number of factors to be considered...
DISCRIMINATING EFFECTS OF INSTRUCTION PROVIDED...
As is often the case, rather than taking the study conclusions or abstract at face value, it is instructive to take a closer look at the methodology employed.
In the interests of critical thinking we might consider the possibility that prominent researchers perhaps bring certain a priori judgements - for instance a theory they would like to see supported - which may influence the design and delivery of the research studies undertaken.
Specifically, if we look at the specific instructions given under the respective internal focus of attention versus external focus conditions this can be revealing. Indeed, examining these details may even lead us to possible alternative explanations for the findings reported.
There are a number of cases in the research literature where the instruction provided in the internal focus of attention condition are quite convoluted. In some instances they may also steer the learner or performer towards body parts or aspects of the action that are not entirely relevant or particularly helpful to successful execution of that task.
Consider this example from an investigation that employed volunteer novice subjects (aged 15-68 years):
It is hard to discriminate in this example whether any difference in performance outcomes was due to participants' locus of attention, or simply a result of over-coaching and having been bombarded with too many cues, particularly given their level of experience.
Conversely, instructions provided under external focus of attention conditions in these studies are typically both more simple and more likely to direct the performers gaze to task-relevant information in the environment. For instance, in the same study: "focus on the basket itself or some other aspect of the immediate environment such as the front rim or backboard".
In any case, this does raise the question whether changes in performance outcomes reported in these studies are in fact due to internal focus of attention, or simply reflect the disruption and distraction caused by unfamiliar coaching cues or inappropriate instruction.
THE STORY WITH NOVICE VERSUS EXPERIENCED PERFORMERS...
As commonly occurs in sports science research, the majority of studies in this area featured novice performers rather than athletes. When investigations employ participants who are familiar with and skilled at the task being assessed the findings do not always follow the hypothesised universal superiority of external focus of attention.
There is growing evidence that the outcome may be different when high-skill performers execute the particular motor skill task under internal versus external focus conditions. When investigations employ experienced performers they seem better able to perform successfully using either internal or external focus of attention. They also appear more adept at switching between different focus conditions without adverse effects on performance.
For instance a recent publication investigated sprint acceleration in two groups of participants which varied in their skill and experience with this task - specifically, soccer players versus track sprinters. The former group (soccer players) showed the expected outcome: 10m sprint times in the internal focus condition were on average 0.02s slower than external focus or control condition.
Conversely, the track sprinters on average performed the same in the internal focus and control condition; and the average 10m sprint times were actually slightly slower under the external focus condition, albeit this did not reach statistical significance.
Such findings raise questions over whether we should be applying the same rules and conclusions when we dealing with athletes, who by definition possess a high degree of skill and familiarity with the particular movement.
RELATING ATTENTION TO THE TASK...
Aside from skill level, the nature of the task is another factor that might conceivably impact on where the performer should steer their attention.
An illustrative example comes from an investigation that employed a golf pitch shot in high-skill (average golf handicap of 4) and low-skill golfers (mean handicap of 26). For those not familiar with golf, a pitch shot involves lofting the ball in the air to land onto the green as close to the target as possible. In this study, the opposite finding was reported to the sprint acceleration study cited above - adopting an external focus on the target produced better performance in high-skill golfers.
However, perhaps more interesting was that an internal focus of attention (concentrating on the form and force of the swing of the golf club) produced superior performance outcome in the low-skill group. This should raise some doubts over the 'internal focus BAD; external focus GOOD' narrative.
Upon closer inspection, it seems that the story when it comes to locus of attention is not a simple one, and the nature of sports skill or task is an important consideration.
On a similar note, it seems important to consider context in relation to the activity being performed. In the examples so far the sole emphasis has been execution of a complex motor skill. Let us consider how the story might change when the focus switches from skilled execution to endurance. How might locus of attention impact upon the perception of exertion, for instance?
One of the cognitive strategies to modulate perceived exertion is by redirecting locus of attention when engaging in endurance activity. For instance, what researchers describe as an 'associative focus' would be directed towards internal physiological processes, such as breathing rate, heart rate etc. Conversely, a 'dissociative focus' would be directed external to the body, and unrelated to the task of running.
As we might expect, perceived exertion among novice runners tends to be higher with an associative focus, such as attending to sensations of feeling breathless. In contrast, a dissociative focus - for instance concentrating on the scenery - essentially distracts them from the discomfort, and as a result perceived exertion is reduced.
Once again, this pattern does not hold true in different populations however. Specifically, the same phenomenon is not observed with endurance runners, who are better able to attend to internal physiological processes and related sensations in a positive way to monitor and modulate output. In fact, endurance runners who employ an associative (internal) focus are reportedly able to maintain higher output (faster running pace) during a race.
Focus of attention during endurance activities can also be directed towards the mechanics of the movement (internal) or outcomes of the movement (external). Interestingly, preliminary evidence suggests that each of these strategies can be employed successfully by different individuals as a way to optimise economy and efficiency, for example when running.
GETTING SPECIFIC ON LOCUS...
As with the instructions provided, the specific aspect or location of the internal or external focus of attention employed is a critical factor that we can expect to affect outcomes and findings of investigations on the topic.
An illustrative example is a study comparing two different internal focus conditions during a golf putting task. There was a contrast in performance outcomes between the two different 'internal focus' conditions according to the specific bodily location where attention was directed. When the internal focus was directed towards a more directly relevant anatomical location in relation to the putting task (hands and elbows) accuracy over the longer putting distance was improved in the novice subjects.
The importance of the specifics of the locus of attention also applies to external focus of attention. For instance, a study of basketball shooting demonstrated external focus of attention trained on the ball served to disrupt shooting performance.
The mechanism for the effects observed related to the 'quiet eye' phenomenon, concerning the stability of gaze or fixed visual focus during task execution. Longer 'quiet eye' duration is associated with superior targeting and shooting performance.
Focussing attention on the ball during the shooting task might be expected to cause visual tracking to be unstable, rather than a fixed point of focus. Employing a different external focus fixed on the target (i.e. a stable location such as the basket, rim or backboard) might therefore be more beneficial to shooting performance, as it likely to encourage more stable gaze and longer quiet eye duration.
Interestingly, similar findings were nevertheless noted in a dart throwing study, despite instructions to maintain a visual focus on a fixed target (bull's eye) on the dart board. Quiet eye duration in the novice study participants were longer with an internal focus on the throwing arm, whilst keeping their vision fixed on the bull's eye. Despite the same instruction to keep their visual focus on the bull's eye, quiet eye duration was shorter in the external focus condition when participants directed their mental attention on the dart.
TRAINING VERSUS PERFORMING...
Another aspect of attentional focus is that what is desirable in relation to intended outcomes will differ for an athlete in training versus performing in competition.
In the training scenario, the objective is often honing or refining a particular aspect of skill execution. By definition this is likely to require internal focus of attention towards the relevant aspect of the sports skill the coach and athlete are seeking to modify. Unconscious control and 'automaticity' of skill execution might be beneficial in the competition realm. However, these same traits represent a major barrier when the goal is remodelling or refining technical skill or modifying learned coordination patterns.
The few researchers to consider attention in relation to modifying and enhancing skill execution in experienced performers refer to concepts from other realms, such as somatic awareness, body consciousness, and 'somaesthetic perception'. We will consider these aspects and how they relate to honing and refining movement skills in the next section.
Conversely, when it comes to performing in competition the objective is more about delivering execution of well-practiced skills, and managing the pressure of the performance environment. Here the priority switches to avoiding attention becoming distracted and minimising potential disruption to movement skill execution.
In turn this leads us to two types of coping strategies or countermeasures. The first strategy is to avoid potential disruption to the execution or 'automaticity' of the skill. The second coping strategy is to guard against distraction due to the effects of anxiety. We will explore these strategies and how they relate to locus of attention in a later section.
In a previous post we described body awareness as a pillar of athleticism. Developing sensitivity and specificity with respect to the ability to detect, manipulate and modify aspects of posture and motor control and coordination of limbs and bodily segments is clearly beneficial when we are seeking to correct or hone a particular aspect of a well-learned complex motor skill.
Inwardly directed attention is a central tenet of mindful practice employed to develop body awareness. Likewise, a cornerstone of the process of technical practice is progressively developing the athlete's 'feel' for the movement, their ability to detect errors in coordination and timing, and the facility to self-correct and refine movements. After the athlete performs a repetition of a technical skill the first thing I ask is 'how did that feel?'.
Each of the processes described requires a highly attuned awareness of the athlete's own body and the movement itself. What we are describing here is a type of internal focus of attention.
It is clear that the ability to adapt, correct and refine technical execution is contingent upon an element of internal focus of attention, and this should be a consistent feature of practice and training.
AWARENESS VERSUS CONSCIOUS CONTROL...
There has been a tendency for the research on the topic to treat internal focus of attention as synonymous with 'conscious control'. This is particularly the case when the internal focus of attention condition refers directly to particular aspects of the mechanics of the action.
Authors on the topic rarely seem to consider the possibility that a performer could conceivably direct their attention or awareness towards a body part or aspect of the movement without attempting to consciously control the coordination of the movement itself. Some researchers do make a distinction between 'explicit monitoring' and conscious control. However, even this term implies cognitive noise during skill execution, rather than simply being aware.
Attention is slippery and hard to pin down solely by observing the performer. It might be possible to monitor overt attention, such as where the athlete's gaze is directed or eye tracking. However, covert attention cannot be assessed or manipulated so easily; these are processes that occur in the athlete's own head.
Referring to the 'quiet eye' phenomenon once more, it is altogether possible that an athlete could consciously maintain a stable gaze on a fixed visual target, whilst directing awareness towards an internal focus in relation to the body and/or aspect of the mechanics of the movement.
Equally, if we return to the concept of body awareness, it is also conceivable that an athlete might maintain a level of body awareness even as they direct their focus of attention towards the outcome or goal of the movement and attend to relevant information in the environment.
More simply, an @@internal locus of attention does not necessarily need to be to the exclusion of external focus@@, and vice versa. It is entirely conceivable that skilled performers in particular will possess the attentional capacity to maintain both internal and external foci simultaneously.
ACCOUNTING FOR PREFERRED OR ACCUSTOMED FOCUS...
A notable finding reported by a number of studies is that when the task is carried out under a neutral condition (i.e. no attentional cues provided) there is a fairly equally distribution of participants who subsequently report using an internal focus versus external focus of attention.
Clearly a variety of strategies may be employed successfully. These observations also raise the interesting possibility that @@what constitutes the most appropriate locus of attention may depend on the individual@@. Perhaps we should therefore allow the individual the freedom to self-select their locus of attention, based on natural inclination and preference.
In relation to this, an important finding of reseach investigations is that what locus of attention is optimal (or sub-optimal) depends on what the individual is familiar with or accustomed to using. Decrements in performance are most consistently observed under 'forced' conditions where the participant is instructed to employ the alternate 'unfamiliar' focus condition that they are not accustomed to.
CONSIDERING INDIVIDUAL DISPOSITION...
Studies suggest that the effects of focus of attention manipulations may be greater under pressure conditions. It is also possible this will have greater impact on certain individuals who differ in 'trait anxiety', or disposition to experience anxiety in response to a perceived threat or daunting situation. It is demonstrated that some performers are more prone to 'reinvestment' under pressure, and the adverse performance effects of anxiety (often termed 'choking').
A study has demonstrated that those scoring high on the 'reinvestment scale' can be more susceptible to reinvesting conscious control in response to an internal focus condition that focussed undue attention on a particular facet of the task. HOWEVER, this was not the case when they employed an alternative internal focus on a process goal that they were able to self-select.
Therefore whilst care must be taken when dealing with individuals who are more prone to anxiety and score higher on the 'reinvestment scale', if the correct internal focus or process goal is employed these problems may be avoided.
Individual athletes also sit on different points on the introversion vs extroversion continuum. Those who identify as introvert by definition will have a greater tendency to look inwards (introspection). It follows that for these individuals there might be a greater need to escape their own heads, as this will be default setting. Conceivably, encouraging introvert-type athletes towards an external focus of attention might be beneficial from this viewpoint. Equally there are also other coping strategies that might be employed.
COPING STRATEGIES AND COUNTERMEASURES...
Under pressure conditions it is documented that there is a tendency to focus more inwardly, termed 'self-focused attention'. In a competition scenario, this makes for a compelling argument that we should steer athletes' attention towards an external focus to combat the inclination to 'reinvest' conscious control.
Equally, if the athlete is able to control their attention and associated movement behaviour under pressure, so that their normal locus of attention and process does not differ from what is customary to perform successfully in training, then this is unlikely to be an issue.
A major source of distraction in a pressure environment can be anxious thoughts, including self-talk and imagining scenarios or consequences.
Once again, adopting an external focus of attention is often advocated as an effective countermeasure. This offers a way to steer the performer's attention and awareness away from anxious thoughts and feelings; in essence, distracting them from potential internal distractions. External focus of attention can also be helpful to ensure the performer attends to relevant information in the competition environment amidst their anxiety.
There are however a range of other mental tools and coping strategies performers might use. One example is 'quiet eye' training, which demonstrates beneficial effects on performance under pressure. Fundamentally, it is important to recognise that the distraction comes from the anxious thoughts and associated physical sensations, rather than an internal focus of attention per se.
For instance, just as controlling gaze is beneficial, the performer might equally direct their focus towards the process (i.e. internal focus) as a means to stay in the moment and keep from being distracted by anxious thoughts and mental projections. Allowing the athlete to select an appropriate process focus appears equally beneficial for performance under pressure, regardless of propensity for reinvestment and 'choking'.
In summary, the question of where to direct athletes' attention, and what cues to employ, is clearly more complex than the 'internal focus BAD; external focus GOOD' message that is currently being espoused to coaches and practitioners in the field.
As always, 'it depends'. It depends on what population we are dealing with (for instance, novices versus skilled performers). It depends on task and context. It depends on whether we are speaking about training or competition. And it depends on the individual, and their natural inclination and disposition.
On the broader question of how best to instruct and direct athletes, a few major themes emerge.
The first key theme is that we must be considered and concise in what instruction we provide. Whether we are dealing in external or internal cues, less is more. The critical objective is providing the salient information and appropriate guidance whilst avoiding bombarding the athlete with extraneous noise and tying them in knots. @@The coach can be the worst source of distraction and misdirection when learning a skill@@.
The second take-home message is that details and specifics matter. Particularly when thinking about internal cues, precisely where the athlete's attention is directed with respect to bodily location, and what specific facet of the skill is highlighted, are decisive to the outcome. This @@critical detail is lost in the facile internal versus external focus debates@@.
Finally, each of these aspects of attention and instruction will be highly specific to the individual. @@Knowing the athlete is key to discovering the approach that works best for them@@. Arriving at the best approach to guiding learning, and where and how to direct attention, will be a journey of exploring different cues and methods, supported by an ongoing process of reflecting and refining.
Enjoyed the read? For more on a range of topic see the Books section of the website.
Carson, H. J., & Collins, D. (2016). The fourth dimension: A motoric perspective on the anxiety–performance relationship, International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9:1, 1-21
Ille, A., Selin, I., Do, M. C., & Thon, B. (2013). Attentional focus effects on sprint start performance as a function of skill level, Journal of Sports Sciences, 31:15, 1705-1712
Jackson, R. C., Ashford, K. J., & Norsworthy, G. (2006). Attentional focus, dispositional reinvestment, and skilled motor performance under pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 28(1), 49-68
Lawrence, G. P., Gottwald, V. M., Khan, M. A., & Kramer, R. S. (2012). The movement kinematics and learning strategies associated with adopting different foci of attention during both acquisition and anxious performance. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 1-11
Maurer, H., & Munzert, J. (2013). Influence of attentional focus on skilled motor performance: Performance decrement under unfamiliar focus conditions. Human movement science, 32(4), 730-740
Pelleck, V., & Passmore, S. R. (2017). Location versus task relevance: the impact of differing internal focus of attention instructions on motor performance. Acta psychologica, 176, 23-31
Perkins-Ceccato, N., Passmore, S. R., & Lee, T. D. (2003). Effects of focus of attention depend on golfers' skill. Journal of sports sciences, 21(8), 593-600.
Querfurth, S., Schücker, L., de Lussanet, M. H., & Zentgraf, K. (2016). An Internal Focus Leads to Longer Quiet Eye Durations in Novice Dart Players. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1-11
Rienhoff, R., Fischer, L., Strauss, B., Baker, J., & Schorer, J. (2015). Focus of attention influences quiet-eye behavior: An exploratory investigation of different skill levels in female basketball players. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 4(1), 62-74
Schücker, L., Hagemann, N., & Strauss, B. (2013). Attentional processes and choking under pressure. Perceptual and motor skills, 116(2), 671-689
Schücker, L., Schmeing, L., & Hagemann, N. (2016). “Look around while running!” Attentional focus effects in inexperienced runners. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 27, 205-212
Toner, J., & Moran, A. (2015). Enhancing performance proficiency at the expert level: Considering the role of ‘somaesthetic awareness’. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 110-117
Weiss, S. M., Reber, A. S., & Owen, D. R. (2008). The locus of focus: The effect of switching from a preferred to a non-preferred focus of attention. Journal of sports sciences, 26(10), 1049-1057
Winkelman, N. C., Clark, K. P., & Ryan, L. J. (2017). Experience level influences the effect of attentional focus on sprint performance. Human Movement Science, 52, 84-95
Wulf, G. (2008). Attentional focus effects in balance acrobats. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 79(3), 319-325
Wulf, G., Dufek, J. S., Lozano, L., & Pettigrew, C. (2010). Increased jump height and reduced EMG activity with an external focus. Human movement science, 29(3), 440-448