Directing Attentional Focus during Resistance TrainingNo Opinions
The focus of attention is influential in how well athletes learn sport-related and movement skills (movement efficiency, such as force production, speed, and endurance) and how well those skills can be executed (movement effectiveness, including balance and accuracy; Wulf, 2013). Therefore, it is important for coaches to know and understand where athletes should direct their focus of attention, and how to use proper instructional cueing (Makaruk & Porter, 2013; Poolton, Maxwell, Masters, & Raab, 2006). Instructional cueing is important, because as Makaruk and Porter (2013) point out, athletes direct their focus however their coaches tell them. However, before elaborating on how attentional focus should be directed, the various types of attentional focus must be clarified: (a) Associative: focus is on body sensations; (b) Dissociative: focus is on something unrelated, and is often used to block pain or other sensations; (c) Width: focus is either broad or narrow; (d) Direction: internal focus is directed toward body mechanics and external focus is directed toward an implement being held or toward a target in the distance (Wulf, 2013). The assigned readings discuss attentional focus in terms of direction, so that will be the main topic of this response.
When learning new skills, or refining techniques, it is recommended to direct focus of attention externally. A review article by Wulf (2013), explains that with external focus, retention is increased, and movement patterns are learned more efficiently, thus allowing athletes to develop their skills and reach higher levels faster. Additionally, after skills and techniques are learned, external focus of attention allows for automaticity of the movement patterns; individuals do not think about what their bodies must do to perform tasks, and the execution of movements is more rapid and efficient (Makaruk & Porter, 2013). Moreover, with external focus of attention, there is less self-imposed pressure to perform proper mechanics, less “paralysis by analysis,” more resistance to skill failure, and more accuracy (Davis & Sime, 2005; Wulf, 2013). When athletes focus attention internally, the conscious control of the movements may cause interference, which “constrains” the motor program and results in less than optimal performance (Makaruk & Porter, 2013).
After movement patterns, techniques, and skills are learned, it is still recommended to direct focus of attention externally during resistance training sessions, because it facilitates greater efficiency, force production, speed, and muscular endurance (Makaruk & Porter, 2013; Wulf, 2013). External focus of control produces more efficient execution of movements- there is greater force produced with less energy expended as demonstrated with lower EMG activity in studies reviewed by Wulf (2013). Furthermore, Wulf (2013) noted that internal focus of attention resulted in co-contractions of agonist and antagonist muscles, resulting in less accurate force production due to increased muscle activity. On the contrary, the greater efficiency and subsequent reduced muscle activity from directing attention externally results in more accurate force production, thus allowing greater maximal force to be produced (Wulf, 2013). External focus of attention also yields more targeted muscle fiber recruitment, better timing of the recruitment, and greater coordination of the muscles, all resulting in greater force production (Makaruk & Porter, 2013; Wulf, 2013). Additionally, external focus of attention allows for more fluidity in movements due to automaticity, and less self-talk of mechanics or body position; movements can be executed more rapidly without internal distraction (Wulf, 2013). Finally, external focus of attention enhances muscular endurance by altering the perception of effort and fatigue, and thus allowing more repetitions before failure (Makaruk & Porter, 2013; Marcora & Staiano, 2010; Wulf, 2013). For example, by focusing attention on an implement or external target, such as pretending to be sitting in a chair during an isometric wall sit, athletes think less about the physical and technical requirements of the task at hand and can perform the task for a longer duration (Makaruk & Porter, 2013).
Properly cueing athletes to focus their attention externally is a learned skill that takes a combination of knowledge and creativity (Makaruk & Porter, 2013). Most coaches are aware that word choice, timing, inflection etc. are all critical when cueing movement execution, but cueing the direction of attentional focus is often overlooked. Words are powerful and must be carefully considered and strategically used so that athletes are not confused or overwhelmed. Too many words, confusing phrases, and poor timing of the cueing are examples that might lead to less than optimal performances (Poolton et al., 2006; Wulf, 2013). Communication is a science and an art that must be learned and practiced just like any other skill, but it is crucial in helping athletes appropriately direct their focus of attention (externally) during resistance training. *Coaches need to practice various skills and techniques, much like their athletes need to practice.
Davis, P. & Sime, W. (2005). Toward a psychophysiology of performance: Sport psychology principles dealing with anxiety. International Journal of Stress Management, 12(4), 363-378.
Makaruk, H. & Porter, J. (2013). Focus of attention for strength and conditioning training. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 1-7.
Marcora, S. & Staiano, W. (2010). The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: Mind over muscle? European Journal of Applied Physiology, 109, 763-770.
Poolton, J., Maxwell, J., Masters, R., & Raab, M. (2006). Benefits of an external focus of attention: Common coding or conscious processing? Journal of Sports Sciences, 24, 89-99.
Wulf, G. (2013). Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), 77-104.
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About Crystal Chariton
Owner/head coach at Alpha Human Performance, providing combined sessions of bodywork and movement training. Pursuing a DSc in Human and Sports Performance through Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions. Currently holds M.A. in Kinesiology- Sport and Exercise Psychology, B.S. in Elementary Education, LMT, NSCA- CSCS, NASM- CPT, and USAW. She has experience teaching and coaching preK-12, university, and professional athletes. Main research interests include mindfulness, sports anxiety, and athlete burnout.