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Want skills to stick? Think outside the body!

This week I had the pleasure of being asked to speak at a seminar organised by my good friends Kendal McWade and Steven Orr. The seminar was entitled 'Creating a Skills Revolution' and headline act was Professor Gabriele Wulf, a researcher from the University of Nevada who has dedicated her career to studying skill acquisition and in particular a concept called 'Attentional Focus'.

I was the 'warm up act' before the main event and I have to admit to being a little bit apprehensive. I am usually pretty confident presenting and speaking but on this occasion I was suffering from 'imposter syndrome'. I was actually listening to a brilliant podcast called 'The Art of Charm' while travelling to the seminar that morning which covered the topic of 'imposter syndrome' which is the challenge you face when you are in an uncomfortable environment where you feel out of your depth among high calibre people and you don't perform at your best as a result. Fortunately a bit of self talk and some good preperation saw me through and feedback was good. Kendal telling me i had less time than I ahd planned also helped as it focussed me in on the task at hand. I'm not sure this was on purpose or not but either way it worked!

Anyway, less about the warm up act and more about the main event...

Professor Wulf described the extensive research that she and colleagues had undertaken exploring the concept of 'Attentional focus' which she defined as being where attention is directed when performing any kind of motor skill. Essentially, a person can have an internal focus where attention is directed towards parts of the body such as the hips, knees or shoulders or you can have an external focus where the focus is directed towards something external from the body such as a target, head of a golf club, tip of a javelin etc.

Professor Wulf showed numerous studies that came up with the same outcome that being given information that directed attention to what the body was doing was no better than being told nothing when it comes to skill acquisition and retention where as when attention is directed towards something external to the body, skills are acquired much more effectively and also retained over time.

So the austrian ski instructor that shouts "bend ze knees" is actually not doing you any good whatsoever! They would be far better to suggest that you sit on an imaginary chair or something similar.

The video in this post shows a golf teacher using external focus cues to help players strike a ball much more effectively. Notice how he has the first player addressing a ball that is close to them but then striking a ball that is further away and the verbal cues around rhythm such as 'tick, tock' reference to sing the club head. The students are aware of where the club head is and have no idea of body positions or anything else and yet their swings are dramatically inproved and show real athleticism.

But how do you direct a pupil externally in a sport where they do not use an object or peice of equipement such as in athletics or swimming? Again the research showed performance improvements when using external focus cues versus internal cues. An emphasis on 'pushing in the blocks' is way more effective than 'driving the legs' and likewise 'pushing the water away' is far more impactful than 'pulling the hand back'.

So how does this work?

Professor Wulf pointed to research done by her colleague Dr Rebecca Lewthwaite which suggested that there is a neurological response to being given an internal focus cue that makes the player too consciously aware of their movement which then becomes restricted and less natural. She described this phenomenon as 'micro choking' to describe movements becoming more limited and less natural through the awareness on the body.

Dr Lewthwaite also suggested that an internal focus can lead to a player becoming more focussed on the SELF which leads to a value laden personal evaluation of themselves which can become detrimental to confidence and skill execution.

Here are a few other quick and dirty takeaways that I thought were worth sharing...

  • There might be an interesting idea that the more novice the player that the closer the internal focus might be. More skilled players seem to benefit from being focus on the target or the finish line rather than something closer to them.

  • Being focussed externally is actually more efficient. It uses less muscles!

  • The external focus can be somehting that is actually touching the body. Using a piece of tape or a piece of clothing and focussing attention on that was preferable to an emphasis on the body part that was attached to these items.

  • The results are the same even when the performer is under pressure. The research team created scenarios which pressurised the athletes but each time those that were directed externally outperformed those that were directed internally.

  • Being focussed externally taps into automatic responses and reflexes which seem to be more effective in movement control.

  • Being given instruction that focus's on the body is no better than not being given any instruction at all when it comes to retaining the skill.

Give this a try when you are next coaching. It is surprisingly hard to avoid providing information that directs focus internally. Try to remember that the research suggests that doing so is actually not worth the breath it takes to do so because any improvements you make in the sort term are not retained any more than they would have been if you hadn't given the information at all!

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