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UNLV kinesiology professor Gabriele Wulf. © Josh Hawkins / UNLV Photo Services

Gold on the Line: Olympic Athletes and Their Focus of Attention

Kinesiology professor Gabriele Wulf tells Olympic athletes to keep their eyes on the prize — not internal body movement — to achieve optimal performance during Tokyo 2020

Published on July 09, 2021

No aspect of life was immune from the COVID-19 pandemic — not even a mega, international event that comes around only once every four years.

The postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics, though, might have actually worked to the benefit of athletes vying for the chance to represent their respective countries in Tokyo. The delay gave them an additional year to train, and to focus their attention on the ultimate goal: winning that coveted gold, silver, or bronze medal.

In Gabriele Wulf’s research, attention is a make-it-or-break-it concept for all athletes, but especially for those at the top of their game where mere fractions can be the difference between the gold and a place off the medal platform.

A UNLV Distinguished Professor, Wulf says Olympic athletes looking to gain an edge over their competitors in the final heat must focus their attention externally. As the summer games open on July 23, athletes wanting to achieve optimal performance should enter their respective contests with their mind set on the movement goal, Wulf says.

“An external focus can involve concentrating on the motion of an implement such as a tennis racquet or your skis, the intended trajectory or spin of a ball, a target you want to hit, or focusing on pushing the water back in swimming or rowing,” said Wulf, who along with her colleague Rebecca Lewthwaite, proposed this in 2016 as part of their OPTIMAL (Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning) theory.

To anyone who has ever awkwardly contorted themselves during a golf lesson, this might seem counterintuitive.

However, a more distant-from-the-body or distal focus, such as the golf hole, tends to be more effective at higher skill levels than a more proximal focus, such as the motion of the golf club, according to Wulf.

“If we focus our attention on the intended outcome of our actions, rather than our body movements, we see the body’s remarkable capability to produce effective and efficient movements,” she said. “Even movement form or technique often improves immediately when a person switches from an internal to an external focus of attention. The body does what it has to do to accomplish the movement goal – unless we interfere with conscious attempts to control our movements.”

In a recent meta-analysis soon to be published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, Wulf and colleagues confirmed that the benefits of an external focus generalize across skills, levels of expertise, or age groups, and are independent of ability or disability. The effects are often seen immediately, and practice with an external focus facilitates the learning process.

We caught up with Wulf to dive deeper into the OPTIMAL theory, and explore how athletes of all skill levels can benefit from a radically new focus.

What is an athlete’s focus of attention and how central is it to their success?

What athletes think about, or concentrate on, while they are performing varies, of course. A basketball player can concentrate on the hoop or her wrist flexion, or she may even think about who is watching. A golfer can focus his attention on the club head, the planned trajectory of the ball, or on a certain aspect of the swing. Swimmers can focus on a high elbow or simply on getting to the other side of the pool. A weightlifter can direct her attention to the movement of the barbell or on squeezing her muscles.

Athletes’ foci of attention are often the result of what instructions or feedback their coach gave them. As it turns out, what athletes concentrate on has an important influence on how well they perform.

What are the main differences between an internal and external focus when it comes to achieving a goal in a sporting event? Which is better and why?

This is actually a critical distinction. If someone concentrates on their body movements — how they move their arms, legs, hips — we call it an internal focus of attention. In contrast, an external focus refers to a concentration on the intended movement effect or outcome.

An external focus can involve concentrating on a target to be hit, such as a bullseye, a catcher’s mitt, a golf hole, or the corner of a goal. It can also be the intended motion or trajectory of an implement such as a javelin, discus, or barbell.

More than 200 studies have shown that adopting an external focus is essential to optimal performance, and it also speeds up the learning process. I started this line of research almost 25 years ago, inspired by my experience as a windsurfer. I discovered that, when I focused on the positioning of my feet or hands, my jibes were not very good. However, when I simply focused on shifting the surfboard in a given direction, they were much better!

We now have a pretty good understanding of this phenomenon. We know that adopting an external focus makes motor performance more effective in every respect: Movements are more accurate, fluent, efficient or economical, and more automatic compared with an internal focus, or any other focus for that matter. In addition, an external focus enhances movement quality, that is, it results in a better technique.

It appears that external focus of attention helps to facilitate temporary connections among relevant brain networks. At the same time, an external focus on the task goal suppresses activity in other task-unrelated areas. This enables the athlete to produce the elegant jump shots, tennis strokes, golf swings, or tumbling routines that we admire so much.

What does your OPTIMAL Theory of Motor Learning propose, and how does it differ from previous theories or approaches to athletic performance and learning?

It stands for Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning,  with an external focus of attention being a key factor in the theory. Additionally, the theory takes into account motivational influences. Older theories – the last major motor learning theory was published in 1975 – were mostly concerned with the processing of information, and information was considered to be motivationally “neutral.”

One important motivational factor is an athlete’s confidence – or what we call enhanced expectancies. Individuals’ beliefs about their future performance signal the extent of anticipated “reward.”

Anticipation of performance success triggers the release of dopamine and is important for effective performance. Practically, there are many approaches to building confidence or positive expectations. Coaches can, for instance, highlight good aspects of performance, remind athletes of previous successes, emphasize improvements, or generally give positive feedback. Athletes themselves can also develop strategies to “think positively.” Optimal performance requires confidence.

The other motivational variable is performer autonomy. Support for an athlete’s need to feel autonomous has also been shown to enhance performance and learning. Coaches can support this need by giving athletes choices.

Having choices or some degree of control over their practice or performance conditions heightens athletes’ expectancies. Interestingly, the nature of the choice seems to be irrelevant. Whether the choice is relatively substantial, small, or even incidental does not seem to matter. Letting athletes decide, for example, in which order they want to practice different tasks, how many sets and repetitions they want to do, or asking them about their views of certain strategies are some of the choices coaches can give. This has many benefits. Not only does it enhance athletes’ intrinsic motivation, but benefits for performance and learning are also seen with respect to increased movement accuracy, better balance, maximum force production, reduced oxygen consumption for a given task intensity, or more efficient muscle activation patterns.

All three factors – an external focus of attention, enhanced expectancies, and autonomy support – have been shown to give athletes the edge they need.

Can your theory be applied to all sports? What about activities beyond traditional athletics?

Absolutely. All three factors have been shown to be effective independent of the type of sport or motor activity. Also, whether you are dealing with elite or recreational athletes, children, older adults, people recovering from stroke or those with Parkinson’s disease, they will all benefit from “optimal” performance conditions. The theory also applies to other situations involving motor skills, be it medical professions, law enforcement, or the military.

Should the youngest of athletes begin learning their sport with the OPTIMAL theory in mind? How can trainers and coaches help?

Definitely. In practical settings, movement learning often takes place under conditions in which the coach decides which tasks athletes should practice, where feedback is primarily aimed at corrections, and instructions are related to body movements. Learners have little autonomy, they lack confidence, and an internal focus of attention hinders the development of automaticity. This has negative consequences for motivation, performance and learning – and these effects can potentially reinforce one another in a vicious cycle.

Optimizing motor skill learning requires an approach that combines positive motivation and external focus instructions. With a little creativity, instructions or feedback can be reworded so that they induce an external rather than internal focus. Often, this results in immediate performance improvements, and children will be much more likely to enjoy playing sports and continue to do so.

I would also like to note that all three factors seem to be indispensable prerequisites for optimal performance and learning. That is, they appear to make relatively independent contributions, so coaches should therefore incorporate all three factors in their training sessions.

How can Olympic athletes in particular benefit? Could it improve their chances of winning a medal and how?

The advantages of an external focus, as well as the two motivational factors, are seen with regard to all aspects of performance: improved movement accuracy, enhanced balance, greater maximum forces, higher speed, better endurance, and so forth. Because brain and muscle activity are optimized, the resulting movements are produced with less energy. This is seen, for example, in reduced oxygen uptake or lower heart rates for the same physical work.

In studies that included athletes, it was found that when their need for autonomy was supported, boxers punched 6% faster and more forcefully; runners needed 11% less oxygen for the same running speed and distance when their confidence was enhanced. And with an external focus, the same swimmers swam 1.4% faster over the length of a 25-yard pool; resistance-trained individuals produced 10% greater peak forces, or were able to complete 11.4% more repetitions with the same weight; and kayakers completed a 100 m wild water sprint 4.3% (or 1.3 seconds) faster.

Considering that races are often won or lost by very small margins – sometimes in the range of hundredths of a second – these influences can without doubt determine whether or not an athlete wins a medal.

Staff Writer