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Focus of attention can be defined as the term that is applied to that aspect of an internal or external event to which a person’s attention is directed at (Nugent, 2018). Focus of attention has been seen to have an influence on the performance of motor tasks (Hossner & Wenderoth, 2007). Directed focus of attention has been shown to improve performance in both novice and experienced athletes (Wulf, 2007). Focus of attention can be split into internal focus and external focus of attention. For internal focus the subjects focus is directed toward components of the body movement. Whereas, external focus is directed toward the effect of the movement on the environment, or the end goal (Van Vliet and Wulf, 2006). Research in this area is an interesting for both coaches and athletes in many sports as it may provide information as to the most effective queuing strategy for coaches and the best attention focus for improved athlete performance.
Attentional focus is known to have an important influence on performance (executing a skill at a given time) and learning (a relatively permanent increase in performance due to practice or experience) (Magill, R. 2011). The effectiveness of focus of attention began in an experiment by Wulf, Höß and Prinz (1998) where it was found that the external focus group showed enhanced learning when compared with a control and internally focused group. The theory of external attention focus improving performance and learning has been replicated many times since this pilot study. Studies have shown an increase in outcome with golf chipping (Wulf et al., 2000) and putting (Poolton et al., 2006), as well as for basketball shooting where internal focus of attention was found to be counterproductive to the task (Weiss, Reber and Owen, 2008). An increase in running economy has been noted through external focus of attention in trained runners (Schücker et al., 2009). This shows the wide range of skills that an external focus of attention can have a positive effect on.
Proximal vs distal:
As it had been found in many studies that external attention of focus was effective at increase skill performance and learning, research then changed to whether a proximal or distal focus of attention had a stronger effect on performance. The earliest study was by McNevin et al (2003) and found that as the distance between the focus of attention moved further away from the body on the stabilometer platform performance increased. Further studies found similar results on performance with distal external focus of attention. Bell and Hardy (2009) found increased golf chipping accuracy when the subjects focused on the ball trajectory and landing as opposed to the club head. Porter, Anton and Wu (2012) found an increase in standing long jump performance when the focus of attention was distal (jumping to a marker) when compared to a proximal focus. Converging evidence supports this theory as found by McNevin et al (2003) showed a greater distance of the external focus increased automaticity in movement control on the stabilometer.
Skilled vs Unskilled:
Although there is much evidence showing he effectiveness of external focus of attention of learning and performance, there is contradicting evidence about its effects of skilled performers. A study by Bell & Hardy (2009) on golf chipping with skilled golfers showed that external distal focus outperformed external proximal and internal focus groups, showing that external was still effective for skilled performers. These results were disputed in a study by Stoate and Wulf (2011) on skilled swimmer which found that there was very little performance difference between internal and external focus of attention. Although there is not a large body of evidence showing the most effective attentional focus it is plausible that the fact the skilled performers in the above study have executed thousands of strokes. This could mean that an external focus of attention could not enhance an already very high level of automaticity in the athlete’s skill. Although more research is needed in the area. This is significant as McNevin et al (2003) suggested that an increase in automaticity in the skill improved performance.
Focus of attention in rehabilitation:
Attentional focus has been studied in terms of rehabilitation primarily in the rehabilitation of stroke victims. As shown in a study by Johnson, Burridge and Demain (2013) which investigated the focus ques given by physical therapists. The study showed that 67% of the ques given were internally focused, with only 22% of the ques being externally focused. This meant that the subjects were mostly being given ques which made them analyse their own performance. Although little research has been conducted on external attention focus for stroke victims. Internal queuing may cause the subject to learn without instruction, this may decrease performance and subsequently learning (Boyd and Weinstein, 2006). It can be hypothesised that the decrease in performance and retention with internal focus of attention is due to the decrease in automaticity that results in the skill/task being broken down into smaller segments (Masters and Maxwell, 2008) The benefits of an external focus of attention have been studied in numerous settings. When applying the constrained action hypothesis (Wulf, G. 2007) we see that internal focus may impair subject’s performance by causing them to interfere with their natural movements. Whereas, if attention is focused externally then the nervous system may naturally self-organise leading to improved performance and learning. Similarly, an external focus will increase automaticity which has been shown to increase performance and learning (Vance et al., 2004). Although there has been little investigation into external focus of attention for rehabilitation of stroke patients, the theory for a proposed improvement in performance and learning is backed up by literature. Results of research in this area could also have repercussions for rehabilitation of sports injuries.
Future directions of research:
As stated by Johnson, Burridge and Demain (2013) there is very little research in the area of utilisation of external focus of attention for the purpose of rehabilitation. Instead a hypothesis can be devised by using the constrained action hypothesis (Wulf, G. 2007) with the assumption that the effects of internal and external focus will be the same in this population. This could be an interesting and important area to conduct research as it may improve the quality and time of recovery for patients who have suffered a stroke. Later research could perform similar experiments with an athletic population to conclude whether external focus of attention would have any positive benefits in the rehabilitation of sports injuries e.g returning to running after and ACL reconstruction or lower limb injury.
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