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The Benefits of an External Focus

This is an excerpt from Language of Coaching, The by Nicklaas C. Winkelman.

A flash of brilliance, a stroke of genius, a lightbulb moment—every scientist hopes for one, but very few ever experience it. Fortunately, for us, Dr. Gabriele Wulf just so happens to be one of those lucky scientists.

If you pick up a copy of Wulf's book, Attention and Motor Skill Learning (80), you'll see a windsurfer on the cover. While it is perfectly common for a book about movement to have an action shot on the cover, a windsurfer does seem like an odd choice. That's until you get to chapter 2 and you meet the windsurfer once again.

Wulf opens the chapter with a story about a windsurfer who is trying to learn a new skill called the “power jibe.” Before getting out on the water and giving this complex maneuver a go, the windsurfer decides to purchase a magazine that provides detailed instruction and imagery of the skill being performed. To give you a flavor of the kind of instructions a magazine like this would have, I pulled an actual list of instructions from a windsurfing website (81):

  • Step 1: Hands into position, palms down, reach back hand back on the boom, slow down, and hook out.
  • Step 2: Take your back foot out of the strap and put it on the leeward rail of the board.
  • Step 3: Start engaging your rail, as soon as your rail starts to bite, put your body weight into it, bend your knees, lean your body in, and try to keep your sail upright.

There are seven more steps like this, but I think you get the point.

With our windsurfer's working memory well stocked with step-by-step instructions, they set out for a day on the water. After several hours of practice, the windsurfer is still struggling to make the expected progress. With each pass at the power jibe, our windsurfer's frustration grows, as they find it nearly impossible to simultaneously control their body, balance on a surfboard, flip a sail, and try to have a bit of fun in the process. The windsurfer inevitably realizes that (a) trying to focus on every step offered by the magazine is futile and (b) focusing on the motion of the board seems to be far more effective than focusing on their body.

With a renewed focus, our windsurfer is back on the water, only this time, they are purely focusing on the motion of the board opposed to the movement of the body. With the excess attentional baggage gone and a clear goal in mind, shift and turn the board, our windsurfer has their eureka moment, and failure soon gives way to fluency. The takeaway is clear: If you focus on too many things or the wrong things while learning a new skill, you'll spend far more time in the water than you will in the wind.

As Wulf ends the story, if you're like me, you are left wondering why she had decided to dramatize such an obscure movement. I mean, the story is relatable, but come on, the power jibe? If you're trying to open a chapter with a story meant to foreshadow a point, at least use a movement people can relate to, right? Wrong!

As quickly as it came, this fleeting thought was extinguished, for this wasn't some random story being used for effect; it was a depiction of actual events. In a plot twist, you find out that the would-be windsurfer was none other than Dr. Gabriele Wulf herself. As she notes, this experience, which occurred in 1996 in Italy on Lake Garda, triggered her curiosity. Wulf wondered whether the shift in performance that had accompanied her shift in focus was a one-off or whether she had found a fundamental relationship between attentional focus and motor learning.

If Archimedes found buoyancy in a bathtub and Newton witnessed gravity in a falling apple, why couldn't Wulf figure out focus while windsurfing?

The Year Was 1998

A researcher at the renowned Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany, at the time, Wulf returned home from windsurfing, excited to put her theory to test. Intrigued by the performance change that had followed her shift in focus from body to board, Wulf wanted to see whether focusing on the effect of a movement would result in superior performance and learning compared to focusing on the body itself.

To test her hunch, Wulf and colleagues, Markus Höß and Wolfgang Prinz, designed a study whereby subjects would practice a slalom-type movement on a ski simulator over the course of three days. The goal of the task was simple: Push a platform, which sits atop a set of wheels that are tethered by elastic bands, as far to the left and right of a bowed track as possible (see figure 4.3). The maximum distance the platform could travel in either direction was 1.8 feet (55 cm) from the center. Thus, the participants would attempt to progressively increase the distance they could move the platform over the course of the three days.

Figure 4.3 Ski simulator being used by Gabriele Wulf.

Figure 4.3 Ski simulator being used by Gabriele Wulf.

Reprinted by permission from G. Wulf, Attention and Motor Skill Learning (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007), 9.

The study consisted of twenty-two 90-second trials, with eight trials being completed on days 1 and 2, and six trials being completed on day 3. The researchers compared the average distance covered by the platform for the first and last trial of each day, allowing them to examine changes within and across testing sessions. Finally, the researchers provided the participants with specific focus cues on days 1 and 2, what we could call the acquisition period, and no cues or reminders on day 3, what we could call the retention period.

Thirty-three participants with no ski-simulator experience were recruited and randomly assigned to the three groups, each representing a different type of focus. Group 1, the external-focus group, was instructed to “exert force on the outer wheels” of the platform, while group 2, the internal-focus group, was instructed to “exert force on the outer foot.” Group 3, the normal-focus, or control, group did not receive any instructions and were allowed to focus as they normally would.

After two days of practice using their respective focus cues, clear group differences emerged (see figure 4.4). Having all started with an average movement distance of 0.7 feet (20 cm), the participants in the external-focus group took the lead with an average distance of 1.5 feet (47 cm), while the participants in the internal-focus and normal-focus groups were averaging 1.2 feet (35 cm) and 1.4 feet (41 cm), respectively. After the third day of testing, which didn't include any cues, prompts, or reminders, a clear winner emerged. The external-focus group had maintained its position atop the leaderboard, exiting the study with an average movement distance that was significantly greater than that of the other two groups, which, as it turns out, did not differ from one another.

Figure 4.4 Average amplitudes of the internal-focus, external-focus, and control groups. during practice (days 1 and 2) and retention (day 3) on the ski simulator in experiment 1.

Figure 4.4 Average amplitudes of the internal-focus, external-focus, and control groups. during practice (days 1 and 2) and retention (day 3) on the ski simulator in experiment 1.

Reprinted by permission from G. Wulf, M. Hoss, and W. Prinz, “Instructions for Motor Learning: Differential Effects of Internal Versus External Focus of Attention,” Journal of Motor Behavior 30, no. 2 (1998): 169-179.

As you can imagine, Wulf and her colleagues were ecstatic; their hunch-turned-hypothesis now had scientific support. Just as a shift in focus from body to board had helped Wulf improve her windsurfing, her participants saw their slalom performance maximize when they focused on the platform opposed to their feet. Despite this encouraging finding, Wulf's excitement was short lived, as her first attempt to publish the study was met with reviewer skepticism and a journal rejection notice. Admittedly, even Wulf found it hard to believe that such a small difference in focus—realistically, the foot was no more than a few centimeters from the wheel—could make such a measurable difference in performance. However, all was not lost because one of the reviewers asked Wulf and her colleagues to replicate their findings using a different task. If their findings generalized, they would have the first published record of an external-focus cue leading to superior learning compared to an internal-focus cue; if not, they would be back at square one.5

With the challenge accepted, Wulf and her colleagues set out to find a new motor skill to assess. Knowing that they wanted to continue with their theme of balance and postural control, the research team settled on using a stabilometer, which is a technical word for a single-axis balance board. Other than the task being different, Wulf used a very similar protocol. Notably, 16 participants, who were unfamiliar with the task, took part in a three-day study that included twenty-one 90-second trials, seven on each day. The goal of the task was to keep the balance board as still as possible, where small, frequent adjustments would lead to better performance than large, infrequent adjustments.

Just as before, participants were randomly assigned to different focus groups. This time, the external-focus group was asked to “focus on the red markers (tape placed in front of the feet) and try to keep the markers at the same height,” whereas the internal-focus group was asked to “focus on their feet and try to keep them at the same height.” Note that both groups looked straight ahead because Wulf did not want a visual focus on feet versus tape to be confused with the intended mental focus. In contrast to the ski-simulator experiment, these groups made similar improvements to their balance over the first two days of the study, when cues were present; however, on day 3, when the cues were removed, the external-focus group pushed ahead once again, achieving a net improvement in balance that was greater than that of the internal-focus group.

With undeniable proof in hand, Wulf and colleagues went back to the Journal of Motor Behavior, who later published “Instructions for Motor Learning: Differential Effects of Internal Versus External Focus of Attention” (82) in the summer of 1998, two years after Wulf had gone windsurfing. At the time, these findings likely seemed nuanced and limited in application. Just as the reviewers had questioned Wulf's initial findings, you couldn't blame a coach for asking what focusing on wheels or little pieces of red tape had to do with improving their athletes' performance. However, as coaches would soon realize, wheels and tape were just the beginning, for hidden inside these simple cues was the language of coaching.