External vs Internal Focus Cues for Optimal Acquisition and Retention

External vs Internal Focus Cues for Optimal Acquisition and Retention
  1. External focus cues may interact with different feedback strategies based on expectations of results
  2. There is some, but not definitive evidence, that males and females may respond differently to different focus strategies
  3. Evidence suggests no difference exists in efficacy of external vs internal focus cues for simple tasks, but external focus cues may be more appropriate for complex task
A couple years ago we posted a well received post on different strategies of attentional
focus (External vs Internal Focus for Optimal Skill Acquisition).  In general, focus strategies can be grouped into external focus versus internal focus.  Think of external focus as being related to external factors, such as a whole movement pattern or an external object (“push the water back”), or internal factors, such as movement of a body part (“pull your arm back”).

This is a relatively novel line of research with much of the evidence appearing in the last 10-15 years.  Though a relatively simple concept, there are many different ways to apply this concept, with the best approach often not as simple as one strategy being uniformly better than the other.  While most of the evidence tends toward favoring external focus strategies over internal focus strategies, different situations may call for different approaches. (See also, Age Group Swim Coaching Tips: External Cues For Reading the Clock and Leaving on Time).

As with most general research, specific swimming applications are limited, so we must extrapolate from non-swimming studies (but note, Freudenheim 2010, external focus superior in 25m sprint trials).  One non-swim study with potential swim applications (Ille 2013) involved external vs internal focus strategies on sprint start performance.  Novice and expert athletes were tested in sprint starts under three different conditions: external focus, internal focus, neutral instructions.  Authors found that, “The reaction time and the running time were significantly shorter in the external focus condition than in the internal focus condition, for both expert and novice participants.”

Yet rarely does any focus strategy occur in a vacuum.  Focus cues must always be interpreted with the myriad of thoughts and feedback circulating throughout the swimmer’s head simultaneously.   For example, a focus strategy in which the athlete is blinded to the results may be different than how the swimmer processes information  when results are known (and that doesn’t even account for the added variable of “real” competition results, which can’t be replicated in the lab).  

Pascua (2014) partially addressed this issue in a study blending focus cues with performance expectancy, meaning subjects were provided with social-comparative feedback before subsequent trials were attempted.  All subjects were tested under external vs internal focus combined with enhanced expectancy or non-enhanced expectancy.   Results showed that external focus combined with enhanced expectancy (positive feedback), had the best results in target throwing accuracy and skill retention in the novel throwing task performed with subjects’ non-dominant hand. 

Finally it’s possible, that situational and intrinsic factors may both affect the optimal focus strategy.  Becker (2013) studied children and adults of both genders in novel balancing tasks classified as simple or complex.  In contrast to many studies showing uniform superiority of external focus cues, this study showed no difference in performance or retention for simple tasks.  However, consistent with prior literature, external focus was superior for the complex task both in performance and retention.  Note though, this latter finding was only applicable for males. 

Practical Implication

As with prior findings, recent literature shows that external focus cues result in better performance and better retention for complex skills.  In general, coaches should frame technical cues in external focus terms, but this guideline is not universal.  One recent study has shown that males and females respond differently to different cueing strategies in a novel balance task, but more research is needed to clarify if fundamental gender differences exist. 


  1. Becker K1, Smith PJ2.  Age, task complexity, and sex as potential moderators of attentional focus effects.  Percept Mot Skills. 2013 Aug;117(1):1172-86.
  2. Pascua LA1, Wulf G, Lewthwaite R.  Additive benefits of external focus and enhanced performance expectancy for motor learning.  J Sports Sci. 2014 May 29:1-9. [Epub ahead of print]
  3. Ille A1, Selin I, Do MC, Thon B.  Attentional focus effects on sprint start performance as a function of skill level.  J Sports Sci. 2013;31(15):1705-12. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2013.797097. Epub 2013 May 28.
Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Optimizing Feedback in the Pool: Part II

Part I

An ageless question in coaching: Do we praise the good (positive feedback) or highlight the bad (negative feedback)? Balancing positive and negative feedback is a delicate balance for all coaches, myself included. We’ll commonly tell swimmers “don’t cross over” or “don’t drop the elbow” or “stop lollygagging your turns.” Many coaches rule the deck with an aura of negativity, believing that negative feedback builds toughness and positive feedback breeds softness. Some negativity is necessary for group discipline, but does negative feedback actually impair motor learning?

Studies on “learner-requested feedback” are instructive in this area. When given a choice of when to receive feedback, how to subjects respond? Chiviakowsky (2012) performed a timing experiment in which two experimental groups received different standards of what qualified as “good” performance (one of which was restrictive, the other a permissive standard). The control group did not receive any standards, but could still ask for the result.

The group with the more permissive standard of “good” performance and the control group both outperformed the “restrictive” group. Authors concluded, “The typical learning benefits of self-controlled practice can be thwarted by depriving learners of the opportunity of experiencing competence through good performance.” Indeed, knowing of your success is good and how we frame the definition of “good” can have a significant impact on learning.

Some related studies compare knowledge of good results versus knowledge of bad results, where results are provided to all subjects. The literature has consistently shown that feedback of good results improves retention. (Wulf 2007, Saemi 2012). That said, feedback need not come only from the coach but may come from other sources like the pace clock, training aids, or the swimmer’s inherent feel for mechanics

Results are consistent when subjects are provided their standing in relation to peers. Lewthwaite (2010) conducted balance test in which groups were told of a fictitious standing relative to others. The group that was given positive feedback outperformed the negative feedback group in learning.

Wulf (2010) found a similar result in a timing task involving ten trials. Subjects were told they performed better or worse than average (again, these comparison results were fictitious). The group that was told they were better than average had better retention in a follow up trial.

The obvious limitation is that lab tests like beanbag tosses and timing tests in the lab aren’t perfect analogs to the highly complex swim stroke. Nonetheless, clearly the evidence suggests that positive feedback enhances learning more than negative feedback. This information is not to suggest we lower standards and pat everyone on the back for participating, though it’s clear that positive reinforcement in general can improve skill retention. It simply means that the brain craves reinforcement after success.

  1. Chiviacowsky S, Wulf G. Feedback after good trials enhances learning. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2007 Mar;78(2):40-7.
  2. Saemi, E., Porter, J.M., Varzaneh, A.G., Zarghami, M., & Maleki, F. (in press). Knowledge of results after relative good trials enhances self-efficacy and motor learning. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Volume 13, Issue 4, July 2012, Pages 378–382
  3. Lewthwaite R., Wulf G. (2010). Social-comparative feedback affects motor skill learning. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. 63, 738–749. doi: 10.1080/17470210903111839
  4. Wulf G, Chiviacowsky S, Lewthwaite R. Normative feedback effects on learning a timing task. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2010 Dec;81(4):425-31.
  5. Chiviacowsky S, Wulf G, Lewthwaite R. Self-controlled learning: the importance of protecting perceptions of competence. Front Psychol. 2012;3:458. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00458. Epub 2012 Nov 2.

By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Learning to Unlearn

“Before you make a pattern, you gotta break a pattern.”
-Gray Cook

One overlooked aspect of learning movement is how to UN-learn.  New movements must compete with old habits in our brain’s motor programming.  If that was not the case, stroke changes could happen instantaneously and would remain permanent.  Neuroscience is still unclear whether we can literally erase an old motor program or whether the older program is merely suppressed.  Either way, it is important to have a strategy to deal with old programming when installing new ones.

Just as we must identify the backspace button when we type, we must identify our brain’s backspace button to break old habits.  Typing new text doesn’t automatically erase old test.  Trying to install a new program without accounting for an old one is like two people speaking simultaneously.  Both can talk louder to be heard, or one can remain silent.  The latter option brings clarity; the former brings chaos.  Optimal learning requires clarity.

In previous weeks we’ve discussed various strategies for learning new skills: external vs. internal focus cues, athleticism and reaction, mirror neurons, and of course rehabilitation.  Most of these involve adding new strategies, but what are we to do with the old ones?

First, let’s understand why stroke changes aren’t easy, and why any change in habits can be hard.  Repetition of any skill is creates physical changes, from increased myelination to deliver signals from the brain to motor units, to changes in tissues that reflect repetitive use.  These are the mechanical changes, but we must also consider the environment of our own bodies that allows for such change.  
One explanation is that we retain older motor patterns in anticipation of using them again (Huang 2009).  Retention of motor programming exists as an evolutionary protective mechanism.  If we survived this long with a motor pattern being used, that pattern likely had some value.  Our brain is hard wired to retain successful patterns.   ([We] “effectively learn by predicting the current state of the environment from our immediate past observation” (Huang 2009)).  If past observation has shown a particular strategy to be successful (and if we are still alive, then nearly all motor patterns are to some degree successful), that strategy will transfer to our subconscious mind so our conscious mind can worry about other matters.  This is simply economization of mental resources.
Consider the Degrees of Freedom concept (Bernstein 1967).  Movement complexity consolidates via minimizing degrees of freedom.  When you are first exposed to a task, the body faces many choices (degrees of freedom) for how to accomplish that task.  Through practice, our programming becomes more refined as we learn to eliminate choices from the many degrees of freedom.  For example, ask a novice to swim, and they will look like an uncoordinated mess of flailing arms and legs in different directions.  Eventually, they may learn to swim, but early movements are often stiff and rigid.  
Watch this novice try to rotate to breathe and they’ll often rotate their entire body to one side with constant tension in many muscles to accomplish this simple task.  Proficiency develops as they UN-learn recruitment of unnecessary muscles.  There’s a reason we refer to experts as appearing “effortless” in their movement.  Experts not only have taught themselves what muscles to use; they have also taught themselves what muscles to NOT use, which is a pretty amazing feat considering the vast number of options available for movement.Rate of “forgetting” can depend on environment and reinforcement (Penky 2011).  Manipulating environment is a tough one, because there is very little variation in swimming is a repetitive use activity, unlike soccer or basketball.  The aquatic environment is constantly changing due to churns in the water, but we’re always staring at the same black line for a fixed distance.  However, we aren’t limited to the water in how we can affect the environment around the body.  Manual therapies can stimulate unlearning, whether skilled hands or by do-it-yourself tools.  For example, if a muscle is excessively tight, it is receiving signals from the brain to contract when it shouldn’t be.  Manual interventions help the muscle unlearn resting tension that can be replaced with a new strategy of relaxation to then facilitate optimal firing.  In this light, foam rolling and tennis balls are actually adjuncts to learning.  

When you think reinforcement, perhaps you have the image of a dog getting a treat when obeying a command, or since we’re talking swimming, maybe Shamu getting some fish after a trick.  Rewards are one method to speed the adoption of a new strategy and suppression of an old one, though throwing treats to swimmers for picking up a stroke cue probably isn’t a workable strategy!

Fortunately, we can provide reinforcement to suppress the old patterns via concurrent learning.  Visual feedback tied with new programming most effective when paired together close in time (Zhang 2011).  Watching youtube videos at home is helpful, but research suggests that watching models close in time to actually performing the task can have a more powerful effect.   The best diving programs understand the importance of feedback immediacy in positioning a video system adjacent to the well so divers can get feedback exiting the water after each dive.  With technology becoming more readily available by the day, opportunities are increasing to improve reinforcement.

As Dr. John described with mirror neurons (Mirrored Swimming), observation can assist the learning process.  For a young swimmer, maybe that means watching the senior group before their own practice starts.  This likely occurs already just by hanging around the pool, but the concurrent learning effect can explain why a strong environment with positive examples is effective.

It may be hard for elite or senior groups have role models present if they are already among the best in the world at their craft.  However, if we follow the advice of Paul Yetter in paying attention to the makeup of our training groups, even those at the top of the food chain would have models to assist in their weaknesses.  In building a training group, ask what can each person bring to aid skill development in teammates?  This contribution affects not only attitude and culture, but also the environment for learning.
This topic brings us full circle to a fundamental principle we believe on this site.  Consider not just the act of learning, but the total interaction of muscle length, strength, timing, and biomechanics, all of which can affect the process of learning and unlearning.  We might hypothesize that length, strength, and timing are actually reflective of previous learning strategies, though that’s a topic for another day!  Knowing the effect of these factors on the learning and unlearning process will help us manipulate the necessary variables to unlearn old strategies and pave the way for newer ones.  


  1. Zhang X, de Beukelaar TT, Possel J, Olaerts M, Swinnen SP, Woolley DG, Wenderoth N.  Movement observation improves early consolidation of motor memory.  J Neurosci. 2011 Aug 10;31(32):11515-20.
  2. Huang VS, Shadmehr R.  Persistence of motor memories reflects statistics of the learning event. J Neurophysiol. 2009 Aug;102(2):931-40. Epub 2009 Jun 3.
  3. Pekny SE, Criscimagna-Hemminger SE, Shadmehr R.  Protection and expression of human motor memories. J Neurosci. 2011 Sep 28;31(39):13829-39.
  4. Bernstein, N. The co-ordination and regulation of movements. Oxford: Pergamon Press.  1967.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.