Summary: Improve your motor learning and athletic performance by focusing your thoughts externally rather than thinking about your body and how it’s moving.
This article summarizes the science that compares internal and external coaching cues. You can apply these principles to any sport or motor learning task.
To skip the background theory and get straight to practical suggestions, scroll down to the heading “Try this for One Skate”.
The science behind coaching cues
Last summer I got interested in an area of sport science called attentional focus research, which examines how coaching cues affect motor learning.
Scientists divide coaching cues into 2 categories: internal cues and external cues.
Internal cues draw your attention to your body. They reference part of your body and what it’s doing. Internal cues might focus your attention on activating a certain muscle, moving a body part or changing a body angle.
External cues reference something in the environment outside your body. An external cue might make you think about a piece of sports equipment or even the ground beneath your feet. Often they direct your attention to some outcome or consequence of your movement.
External cues are better
Researchers have been studying internal and external cues for almost two decades. There’s a huge body of research in this field and a solid consensus that external cueing is the way to go. External cues outperform internal cues on pretty much all measures of motor learning and performance.
An example is this study of gymnasts. The subject’s task was to perform a vertical maximum jump with a 180 degree turn while airborne. This skill demands high precision and maximum force production.
The gymnasts’ performance was evaluated both quantitively and qualitatively: The researchers measured jump height and 2 experienced gymnastics judges used an international code of points system to rate movement form.
Every gymnast had a piece of yellow tape (2 x 5 cm) attached to his or her chest at approximately the same location at which the hands cross during the turn. They were randomly assigned to 3 groups and given one of the following cues:
- Control – no focus instructions
- External Cue – “While airborne, focus on the direction in which the tape marker is pointing after the half turn.”
- Internal Cue – “While airborne, focus on the direction in which your hands are pointing after the half turn.”
- Jump height was about 1 cm greater with the external cue. The difference was significant (P < .001).
- As for movement quality, execution deductions were smallest when participants were cued externally. The effect was significant (P = .001).
So the gymnasts’ jump performance was both quantitatively and qualitatively better with the external cue.
Early research comparing internal and external focus of attention
Sport scientist, Gabriele Wulf is a pioneer in focus of attention research. Back in the 1990’s she was windsurfing when she noticed she was more successful when she focussed her attention on the tilt of the board, rather than the pressure of her feet on the board or the location of her hands on the boom.
Her observations made her wonder whether focus of attention affects motor learning. She wanted to test the effectiveness of instructions that directed people to focus on their body (internal focus) versus instructions that directed attention externally, on the effect of the movement on the environment.
She took her ideas back to the lab and, in 1998, published the first research comparing the effect of internal versus eternal focus of attention on motor learning.
Here’s one of her early experiments:
Participants stood on the platform of a ski-simulator. The basic task was to move the platform rhythmically from side to side as far as possible, using slalom skiing-type movements.
The internal focus group was instructed to exert force on the outer foot. The external focus group was instructed to exert force on the outer wheels. The control group received the basic instructions to move the platform as much as possible.
Results: The external focus group produced significantly larger amplitude movements.
An external focus of attention is always better
Many, many research papers have been published since that first study. Among cognitive scientists it’s now a well established fact that external cues improve sports performance and motor learning better than internal cues.
Here are some of the ways external cues outperform internal cues. For a full review, including references, see Wulf, 2013.
- Improve balance
- Improve throwing accuracy
- Result in longer lasting motor learning
- Reduce muscular activity (which means movements are more efficient)
- Reduce unnecessary co-contraction of agonist and antagonist muscles
- Increase maximum force production
- Increase speed
- Increase endurance
- Increase time to fatigue
The evidence is unequivocal
There’s no doubt that body-related instructions are not as effective for motor learning or for sport performance as external cues. This is true for beginners, experts, and people of all ages. Even people who state a preference for body-related instructions perform better when cued externally.
The research favouring an external focus of attention is especially compelling when you consider these are short duration experiments, with limited numbers of trials. If scientists discover significant outcomes during short trials, imagine the improvements we’d get if we used external cues throughout an athlete’s entire development?
How does an external focus of attention promote better performance?
Scientists don’t have an answer to this question, although they have theories.
The “Constrained Action Hypothesis” was an early favourite. In this theory, an internal focus, where an athlete or performer thinks about his body movements, interferes with automatic control processes and constrains coordination.
In contrast, an external focus of attention promotes an automatic mode of motor control and frees up unconscious, quick and reflexive movements.
There’s evidence for this theory, but it fails to address how an internal focus produces more conscious control and an external focus produces more automaticity. It’s not simply about distracting the mind. For this to work, the external focus needs to be directed to some sort of action-effect of the movement.
Wulf and her colleagues have since expanded the Constrained Action Hypothesis. They theorize that thinking about body parts or movements act as a “self-invoking trigger” and leads to episodes of “micro-choking”.
Somehow instructions that direct focus internally “facilitate access to the neural representations of self and result in self-evaluative and self-regulatory processing” that degrades performance (Wulf, 2013).
Honestly, I don’t really know what that means.
Are internal cues ever better?
As a general rule, external cues are preferred when coaching movement. But internal cues don’t cause irreversible harm and can sometimes be useful. They can help beginners better understand the skill and they are useful in rehab situations, like when you’re trying to activate a specific muscle.
The art of coaching is based in science
Many athletes and coaches have an intuitive understanding that external focus cues are better than instructions that make us to think about our body parts and movements. Everyone knows and loves the feeling of flow that comes from moving naturally, without thinking too much.
It doesn’t take many years of coaching to learn that most of what we know about the biomechanics of ski technique doesn’t serve as useful instruction. With experience, thoughtful coaches discover the power of external cues. One of our own drills, “The Invisible Wall”, is probably so popular and effective because it cues an external focus.
Last summer, when I went deep into this science, I was really excited. The research resonated strongly with my experience and I knew it gave me a framework I needed to improve my coaching. I resolved to never use internal coaching cues again.
Easier in theory than in practice
Now, here we are in the middle of the ski season, and I have to report that I failed to keep my resolution. Last week I was out skiing and spent most of the time thinking about my shin angle. How pathetic is that? Even worse, I’ve been cueing my athletes the same way.
Obviously, this will be a long term project, but once I recognized my problem I started to make some progress.
Try this for One Skate
I’ll share one idea I’ve been experimenting with that’s been successful so far. It’s for One Skate (V2 Skate, Gear 3) and it’s built on two of our most popular drills: the One Skate Dance and the Invisible Wall.
Balance is a big problem for beginners in One Skate. They should balance on a flat ski before they push against the snow. When in balance, the ski recovers beneath the skier and the hip, knee and foot align vertically.
Without good balance, skiers ride the inside edge of their skis and never get their feet fully underneath themselves. Their bodies make a sort of X-shape, with their torso in the middle and their arms and legs out to the sides. We say, they are skiing between their skis.
One drill you might have encountered to address this problem is called the boot tap drill. The skier is told to tap his feet together after each leg push. This is what it sort of looks like:
I have not found this drill helpful. In my experience, people tap their boots together, then swing their foot back out so it still lands on the snow wide of their hip. Until now, I didn’t have any good alternatives.
Two Invisible Walls for One Skate
Here’s what I’m experimenting with at the moment to help people “get their feet under them” in one skate. I call it Two Invisible Walls for One Skate.
I set people up with the one skate dance. I talk about how the drill takes the legs through flexion and extension (very “internal”, I know). I tell them we’ll call that “pumping their leg against the ground”. (See, I converted it into an external cue!)
Then I have my client imagine they are standing between two parallel invisible walls that are a little wider than shoulder width apart. They can “pump against the ground” with their legs as much as they like, but they have to keep their feet inside the invisible walls.
This feels very restrictive at first, but it works like a charm to get the feet under the body. It also teaches them to have a really powerful and aggressive kick. In fact it’s a great way to teach yourself how to One Skate up steeper hills.
If you want to try this, bear in mind you have to experiment on different terrain, depending on snow speed, incline and your strength. You want it to feel a little difficult to push, but not too hard. I mix this exercise together with a lot of work on double pole.
So far I like this drill better than anything else I’ve tried. I’ll be curious to hear how it works for you.
We can do better
I think there’s still value in explaining correct technique in terms of what the body is doing and how it’s moving. Skiers need a mental picture of good technique and a clear understanding the biomechanics involved. But we should try not to use technique description as instruction.
For example, maybe it’s true that a skier’s toe, knee and nose are aligned in some techniques, but telling someone to align their toe, knee and nose is not a great cue. “Hips forward”, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, is equally ineffective. It’s descriptively accurate, but it doesn’t help people ski better.
This is going to be challenging. When you can clearly see a movement problem, it’s just so tempting to tell someone to move their body another way instead. We don’t have to be dogmatic, so if it’s a simple adjustment, a descriptive correction is probably just fine. Like I said, internal cues don’t cause irreversible damage.
I want to make special mention of metaphors. A metaphor is a cue like “paw the ground like a bull” for teaching people to push down and back against their wax pocket in diagonal stride.
Metaphors can be quite good and seem to fit the external cue criteria, but you should be careful with them. Metaphors are problematic because they mean different things to different people. They are almost too abstract and external. If you use a metaphor, be sure to give a precise description of what you mean and demonstrate the exact movement you want.
We need to creatively re-think many of our instructional cues. Somehow, we have to think beyond the body part or body movement to the outcome, then find a way to focus attention there instead.
Even if you aren’t working with a coach, you probably have some aspect of technique you’re working on. Think about the movement and what you’re trying to achieve. Is there a way to adjust your thinking so you’re focussing externally?
Abdollahipour R., Wulf G., Psotta R., Palomo Nieto M. Performance of gymnastics skill benefits from an external focus of attention. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2015:1807–1813.
Wulf, G. (2013). Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6, 77–104.
Wulf, G., Ho ̈ß, M., & Prinz, W. (1998). Instructions for motor learning: Differential effects of internal versus external focus of attention. Journal of Motor Behavior, 30, 169?179.