Coaching has traditionally been an art passed down from generation to generation of coaches. While coaches sometimes experiment with how they teach and give feedback, they have rarely incorporated the findings of scientific research into their practices. However, there’s a robust body of literature on how to deliver coaching and feedback in a way that improves both performance and learning by significant margins.
In fact, despite there being a plethora of motor learning theories about – each with differing takes on critical issues – most theorists agree on one important issue regarding instruction and feedback: an “external” focus of attention is better than an “internal” focus. In this article, we’ll define focus of attention, differentiate between internal and external focuses, and learn how to use those insights to build extremely effective verbal instructions and cues.
Internal vs External Focus of Attention
Gabriele Wulf (2007) published a groundbreaking paper where she defined and tested internal and external focuses of attention. According to this work, an internal focus is “where attention is directed to the action itself” whereas an external focus is “where…attention is directed to the effect of the action.” What the research has found is that, whenever athletes are focused on monitoring their own bodies, they need to make greater errors. An internal focus of attention contributes to that self-consciousness.
On the other hand, focusing on the effect of the action, or on a target external to oneself, leads to fewer errors due to self-consciousness and improved performance (Chris Button, et al., 2021). This is because the body is better able to organize itself when it’s focused on accomplishing an external task and not processing internal instructions for how to move (156).
If you think about how you walk through a crowd, or run through an obstacle course, you rarely consciously think about how your body is moving or exactly what you’re going to do. That’s because your body is adept at what’s called “self-organization” – it has systems to manage these movement functions by itself so that your conscious attention can focus on other things.
These different types of attentional focus also form the two major categories of verbal cueing. According to Coker (2009), a verbal cue is a “word or concise phrase that focuses the learner’s attention or prompts a movement or movement sequence” (162) and can be used by athletes to help enhance their own learning, as self-talk (163).
Internal cues describe an action based on more literal descriptions of how athletes’ limbs move, how it feels inside their bodies (e.g., “place your hands, palms facing down, on the surfboard”). External cues combine analogies with directing an athlete’s attention outside of himself, at his target or at the successful completion of a task (e.g., “turn the board as if it were a water log”).
Constructing External Cues
In his cutting edge work, The Language of Coaching: The Art & Science of Teaching Movement (2020), Dr. Nick Winkelman takes a deep dive into how to identify and construct external cues for both instruction and performance enhancement. To help us construct our own effective external cues, he outlines the “3D” method:
Description works differently than with internal cues. Here, you’re using power words and analogies to make a word picture of how an athlete should perform. Examples of power words could be punch, smash, and snap; these are all visceral words that come with built-in connotations of how to perform a movement with explosivity.
Direction builds off of description and bridges it to distance. Distance is either an actual or hyperbolic signal of how far an action should extend. Consider this cue for describing a barbell bench press:
“Smash the barbell through the ceiling.”
“Through” is the word here that indicates direction. Adding “the ceiling” further indicates distance. This cue is hyperbolic, since it’s impossible to smash a barbell through the ceiling from a bench, but its action-orientation drives effective performance. Consider this cue for the start of a race:
“Burst out of the blocks.”
“Out” indicates direction in this case and adding “blocks” indicates how far. Other words that communicate directionality include away, from, off, toward, to, and into.
That said, pay special attention to where you want your athletes to head. A racer, for example, might perform better if you tell her to drive off of the ground rather than drive into it. That’s because she’s trying to propel herself away from the floor rather than ground herself in it.
Conversely, a climber might perform better if you tell him to dig into a hold rather than clasp onto it, because “into” communicates a greater degree of depth and stability to the movement for climbing.
Is External Focus the Cure to Choking Under Pressure?
Winkelman echoes the research – and the anecdotes of high level athletes and coaches – in his summary of choking in The Language of Coaching. Choking isn’t so much as an inability to control general nervousness as it is too much focus on what the body is doing. Internal cueing directs athletes to focus on their bodies, and trains them, in a way, almost to be “in their heads.”
This focus of attention can help cause an athlete to choke under high pressure, yet internal cues are by far the most dominant type of cue used by coaches across sports. This is one of the reasons why choking remains an ongoing problem at every level of sport performance, amateur to elite.
Research has shown that keeping an athletes’ attention off themselves and on their targets, opponents, or goals helps to insulate against choking. Continuing to cue an athlete to focus outward will help him or her more consistently train to keep an external focus of attention naturally and automatically.
There are two types of cues that coaches can use to aid performance and learning in their athletes: internal and external. Internal cues are very much focused on the output of the athlete’s body: what it feels like inside, literal descriptions of how a move looks or should look. External cues make use of analogies instead of literal description, but have the distinction of directing an athlete’s attention away from his body and toward his target. Of the two, research strongly shows that external cues are vastly superior to internal cues for both driving better performance and facilitating better skill learning.
Unfortunately, coaches model their coaching styles after their own coaches, rarely using experimentation or published research to guide their development. Internal cues and instructions are by far the most predominant type of cue used by coaches regardless of sport. This leads to poorer performance and learning and can even contribute to athletes choking under pressure. Therefore, coaches should adopt external cues in their everyday practices because it could vastly improve the performance and learning of their athletes.