|External vs Internal Focus Cues for Optimal Acquisition and Retention|
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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]
- 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.