Different focus approaches when learning sports skills

The purpose of this study is to investigate three different methods of focus of attention while learning a motor skill. The first method is where the learner only uses an external focus of attention (Wulf & Weigelt 1997). The second method is a “non-awareness” technique (Logan 1988) where the subject holds an internal focus of attention. The final method is Singer’s “5-step approach” (1988) where the learner goes through a number of steps focusing internally, before carrying out a task without thinking about it. Finally a control group will be used whereby no instruction pertinent to the subject’s focus of attention will be issued.

While reviewing the literature it was seen that the first experimental investigation into attentional focus while performing a motor skill was conducted by James in 1890. This field of research was left relatively dormant until 1988 when Logan presented a non-awareness approach to motor skill learning, where the performer conducted the skill while trying not to think about the task at hand. In 1997 Wulf & Weigelt studied the effect of external and internal foci of attention while learning a motor skill. Over the next decade Wulf took the lead in this area of research, while strongly advocating the benefits of external focus of attention to motor skill learning/performance e. In 1998 Singer presented his “5 step approach” to motor skill learning. This is a learning strategy and based on work carried out by Fitts & Posner (1967) and Lidor (1997).

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It is clear that much research has been conducted in the area of attentional focus during motor skill learning. Three interesting strategies have been developed (external focus, Singer’s five step approach and non-awareness); however no direct comparison has been conducted to date. It is the intent of this study to address this current gap in the literature.

The current study looks to ascertain the most effective focus of attention while learning a motor skill by means of comparing three pre-existing techniques (as shown previously) and a control group. This will be the first known study to compare these attentional focus techniques. Results will be significant in that the most successful strategy/ focus of attention should be identified adding to a better understanding of the concept. Thus, allowing for practical recommendations for coaches and physical educators.


2.1. External Focus of Attention

The concept of maintaining an external focus of attention while learning a motor skill was first suggested over a hundred years ago by William James (James 1890). He suggested that actions are controlled more effectively if attention is directed to the intended outcome of the action, or its “remote effects” rather than to its “close effects”, such as kinaesthetic feedback. He described this concept very simply:

“Keep your eye at the placed aimed at and your hand will fetch, think of your hand and you will likely to miss your aim” (James 1890).

The first experimental evidence concerning the effect of an external focus on motor skill performance was provided by Wulf and Weigelt (1997). In this study it was seen that body-related instructions degraded the learning of a ski simulator task, relative to no instruction at all. Thus the traditional approach to motor skill learning, where by students are instructed to concentrate on the co-ordination of body segment movements may not be optimal for performance.

Wulf et al. (1998) further showed the benefit of external focus of attention while learning motor skills. Here a two experiment approach was taken. In experiment one while conducting a ski simulator task subjects were more successful when instructed to exert force on the wheels of the platform which they were standing as opposed to concentrating on exerting force through their feet. Similarly in experiment two, while balancing on a stabliometer subjects who were instructed to concentrate on markers on the platform performed better than those who concentrated on their feet. These experiments are consistent in showing that minor differences in attentional focus induced by the instruction given to learners, can have a decisive effect not only on performance during acquisition of the skill but also when learning, as measured by delayed retention tests where no instruction is given.

Wulf, Lauterbach and Tool (1999) studied the advantages of an external focus of attention in golf. Two groups of volunteers were used. Group one held an internal focus of attention i.e. subjects focused on the swinging motion of the arms and conducted practice swings with and without the club. Group two focused externally on the club movement. They were instructed to “feel” the weight of the club head and to concentrate on the swing cycle of the club. A scoring system relevant to the target was put in place. It was found that both groups improved accuracy during the retention test, however group two (external focus) greatly outperformed group one. However it could be argued the club head is in fact an internal focus, as the club acts as an extension of the arms while the skill is being performed. Thus, adversely affecting the results of this study.

While it has been shown that subjects who hold an external focus of attention while learning a motor skill outperform those who maintain an internal focus (Wulf, HoB, & Prince, 1998, Al- Abood et al 2002, Wulf et al 1999), comparison to a control condition had not been investigated. Wulf and Su (2007) set out to clarify this issue. In their study they used a similar procedure to Wulf and colleagues (1999- golf shot accuracy); however a control group was added. Thirty subjects were randomly assigned to three groups. Group one received internal focus instruction, group two received external focus instructions, where as the control group received no attentional focus instructions. On the retention test it was found that the external focus group outperformed the other two groups, thus confirming previous findings. Interestingly, the control group demonstrated almost identical performance to the internal focus group in both practice and retention. The results demonstrate that adopting an external focus of attention enhances learning while internal focus is essentially ineffective.

Maintaining an external focus of attention while learning a motor skill, has been shown to promote a more automatic type of movement control than concentrating on body movements (Wulf et al 2001). A possible explanation for this has been suggested by Mc Nevin, Shea, & Wulf (2000) with their “constrained action hypothesis theory”. This theory suggests that while focusing on body movements during motor skill performance a subject inhibits the motor system by interfering with the automatic motor control processes that would normally regulate the movement. Focusing on the outcome effect (external) may allow for a more fluid performance of the motor system as the performer is not causing interference by consciously trying to implement many motor movements in stages in order to achieve the desired end result (motor skill performance). Wulf and colleagues (2001) sought to prove this theory by using a secondary probe reaction time (RT) task. Performance on the secondary probe RT task is assumed to be related to the attentional demands of the primary task i.e. poorer secondary task performance is interpreted to indicate that the primary task required more attention. Faster probe RT times should indicate more automatic motor skill control. As this is a characteristic of external focus of attention during motor skill learning, subjects who concentrate on an external stimulus should show faster probe RT results than those with an internal focus of attention ( more processing activities are associated with conscious control).Results showed that the external focus group consistently outperformed the conscious control group. Thus, confirming the hypothesis.

Singers “5 step approach” (5-SA) (1988)
Learning Strategies

The 5-SA can be classified as a form of learning strategy. Learning strategies first originated in the educational psychology literature by way of the teaching-learning process framework. Due to the shift from a behaviourist approach to a more cognitive approach, more emphasis is placed on the information processing and encoding components of learning (Weinstein & Mayer, 1986).The learner actively assimilate information and influences the learning process. In this regard the learner instructor relationship is very important. The outcome/effectiveness of the learning process is based on both how the information is presented and how it is assimilated by the learner. Therefore, the instructor’s teaching strategies have a significant impact on the learning process. Teaching strategies include “the teacher’s performance during teaching” while learning strategies include “behaviours that the learner engages in during learning that are intended to influence affective and cognitive processing during encoding” (Weinstein & Mayer, 1986, p. 316). Therefore, learning strategies when put into action by the learner have a significant impact on the learning process and also in turn the learning outcomes.

The Stages of motor learning model (Fitts & Posner, 1967) provides an excellent framework for the learning process. This model suggests that there are three continuous stages of motor learning: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. The cognitive stage is characterized by the individual determining what is to be done in order to perform the motor task. Once this knowledge has been acquired, the individual enters the associative stage in which small adjustments are made in order to perfect the newly acquired motor skill and errors progressively decrease. The autonomous stage is achieved when the movement pattern can be performed automatically; that is, with little to no cognitive control. Thus teaching strategies can be tailored to suit the individual stages, while the effectiveness of the instruction can be assessed by the rate at which the student moves through the stages.

Explanation of 5-SA

The 5-SA is a learning strategy developed by Singer (1988) based on anecdotal and empirical support for the utility for learning of its five component sub- strategies (Lidor, 1997). These are readying, imaging, focusing, executing, and evaluating. Each sub strategy is described in more detail below.

Readying. In this stage the learner is instructed before commencing a practice trial of the specific motor task to: (1) think positively about performing the task; (2) become aware of his or her attitudinal-emotional state; (3) determine the state in which he or she performs the task best; (4) attain this state consistently prior to each performance; and (5) attempt to do things in preparation that are associated with previous best performances. Here the purpose is to create an optimal preparatory state within the learner before completing the task. Previous research has provided evidence that learning can be affected by the psychological state of the learner during practice (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996).The research suggests that there is an optimal state of attention, motivation, and emotion for learning. Therefore if the learner makes the effort to implement this strategy, learning should be more efficient.

Imaging. For the imaging sub strategy, the learner is instructed prior to the task to (1) imagine him or herself performing the task accurately and quickly and (2) feel confident performing the movements. There is considerable research supporting the positive effects of imagery on learning and performance. Researchers have proposed that mental imagery can positively affect learning via motivational and cognitive pathways (Hall, 2001). By forming an internalized picture of himself or herself executing the intended act successfully, the learner increases confidence and affirms his or her capabilities for performing the task (Bandura, 1997).

Focusing. Here, the learner is instructed prior to the task to (1) focus his or her attention on one feature relevant to the task and (2) attempt to block out all other thoughts. The reason why this sub strategy is included is that it helps focus the learner’s attention on task relevant information and filter out distracters (Singer, 1988). Research has supported the use of strategies that encourage learners to focus on task-relevant information. Boutcher and Zinsser (1990) examined the verbal reports of novice and elite golfers during putting and found that while elite golfers tended to focus on a single external or internal putt cue (e.g. the back of the ball or the feel and rhythm of the putt), novice golfers tended to have many thoughts about putting mechanics and focused on avoiding hitting the ball too hard. Furthermore, Boutcher and Crews (1987) examined the use of an attentional pre-shot routine on male and female golf performance and showed that males and females who received routine training decreased the variability of their putting performance and females also improved putting performance.

Executing. It is at this stage that the learner is instructed immediately prior to performing the task to (1) execute the task without any thought about the act itself or the possible outcome and (2) carry out the task. This stage facilitates the execution of the motor skill by directing the performer to avoid “over thinking” the movements or the desired outcome of the task during execution (Singer, 1988).This stage encourages a more automatic performance of the skill. This may be useful during learning to reduce the tendency by learners to overanalyze the task during its execution. Therefore, avoiding the characteristically “awkward” movements of novice learners.

Evaluating. The evaluating sub strategy is the only one undertaken after a given attempt to perform the task being learned. Immediately after the task, the learner is instructed to: (1) use the available feedback to learn from; (2) assess the performance outcome of the task and the effectiveness of each step in the routine; and (3) adjust any procedure next time, if necessary. This stage is included to encourage both analysis of task performance and the effectiveness of the implementation of the 5-SA.

Effectiveness of the 5-SA

Singer, Flora and Abourezk (1989) examined the effectiveness of the 5-SA for learning a novel complex motor task in which participants used a stylus to touch a sequence of six pressure sensitive targets. Subjects who were instructed in the 5-SA performed significantly better than the control (not instructed in the 5-SA). Singer, DeFrancesco, and Randall (1989) studied the effectiveness of the 5-SA using two primary tasks, a novel complex motor task,(as described in the previous study) a table tennis serve, and a transfer task, underhand dart-throwing. The results showed that participants instructed in the 5-SA performed significantly faster during both the primary and transfer tasks.

Studies have also been conducted outside of a laboratory environment. Lidor, Arnon, and Bronstein (1999) tested the effectiveness of the 5-SA using basketball players during their regular practice sessions and found that players instructed in the learning strategy improved their free throw performance over that of the control group. Additionally, Lidor (1997) found that elementary and middle school students could effectively utilize the 5-SA when learning, respectively, a bowling throw and overhand ball throw in a school setting. It is clear that the 5-SA is a validated and reliable learning strategy, which is an effective tool to both the student and instructor.

Logan’s Non-Awareness Approach (1988)

Logan presents a novel explanation for motor skill learning. He describes skills as being largely consisted of automatic processes and procedures. This is a special topic in the field of attentional focus. As a practitioner becomes more advanced in the motor skill procedure there is a gradual withdrawal of attention (Logan 1978). Response to stimuli becomes fast and effortless because this response is not subject to attentional limitations. Thus the response can be seen as automatic in nature as it is not subject to conscious control. Automaticity is a memory phenomenon guided by memory retrieval. Performance is automatic when it is based on single step direct access retrieval of past solutions from memory (Logan 1988). Novices learn motor skills throughout life; gradually these develop into “habits” or basic motor skills in order for everyday function and basic tasks. As they gain experience novices tend to learn specific solutions to specific problems, which they retrieve when the same problem is encounter again. When enough experience is gained, solutions for most problems will be readily available. This explains why experienced performers or specifically trained novices can perform motor kills in an automatic nature.

Three important assumptions are associated with this theory.

Encoding into memory is an obligatory consequence of attention. The level of clarity of the memory is directly proportional the attention.

Retrieval from memory is obligatory. Again attention is crucial to encoding and retrieval.

Each encounter with a stimulus is encoded, stored and retrieved separately. This leads to automatic retrieval.

So in practice a novice learner can through practice and maintenance of high levels of attention reach an automatic level of motor skill performance. This is the basis of Logan’s “non-awareness approach”, where the learner after structured and monitored practice is instructed to perform the task while clearing his/her mind so as no particular thought process is in action. Thus reaching a process that can begin and run on to completion without intention i.e. autonomous (Zbrodoff & Logan, 1986).

Comparison Studies

Lidor (2004) conducted a study comparing Singers five step approach, a non-awareness strategy, awareness strategy, and a control group. Fifty six female novice basketball players (mean age = 12.58 yrs) were randomly assigned to each group. The task of the study was the basketball free throw. The participants were naive to the purpose and hypothesis of the study. Results showed that the five step approach group and the non-awareness group performed better than the control and awareness groups from session three until the end of the study. The retention test also indicated that the control participants declined in their ability to shoot free throws successfully. In comparison the strategy participants were able to improve their shooting ability. Data analysis showed that the non-awareness and five step approach groups achieved the highest level of accuracy of performance.


3. 1. Background

3. 1. 1. Recruiting Participants

Volunteers were recruited through an email, with an information sheet attached, sent around to all students of the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences. Others were recruited by word of mouth. Once a total of 20 people had volunteered (5 per group) an email containing information about testing and timings for pre-testing over a number of days was sent out. Each participant could select their own testing slot within the allotted times, and then contact the research investigators to confirm.

3. 1. 2. Equipment

A basic ambidextrous putter was used by all subjects throughout the testing (Cobra CNC Classic, B Model). A putting mat provided the surface, and the same hole was used in each trial. All except two other holes were covered up, and the target hole was designated by having a green golf putting cup placed beneath it. It was also pointed out to the volunteers on each occasion. Each putt was taken at a distance of 250cm, at a point marked with a clear white line approximately 3cm X 1.5cm. If a putt was not successful in reaching its target, a standard measuring tape was used to measure the distance from the centre of the ball to the nearest edge of the hole (error distance).

3. 1. 3. Data Collection

Data was manually inputted into Microsoft Excel. Putt results were scored as follows:

Ball in the hole – 5 Points

Ball < 10cm from hole - 4 Points

Ball < 20cm from hole - 3 Points

Ball < 30cm from hole - 2 Points

Ball < 40cm from hole - 1 Point

Ball 40cm + from hole – 0 Points

After each shot was taken, the distance from the ball to the hole and the appropriate score value were recorded using Excel. The overall total of both distance from the hole (cm) and score (points) were recorded at the end of each session. With only one tester recording the distances throughout, using the same measuring tape and a standardised system (centre of the ball to the nearest edge of the hole; rounding down if the value was .5) the variability in the measurements was kept minimal.

3. 2. Test Procedure

3. 2. 1. Pre-Testing

For pre-testing each participant was given one demonstration of the golf putt, informed again of the procedure and given a chance to ask any questions before starting also. Participants could take one practice putt if they felt it necessary. Once ready, they took ten putts in their own time, from the same point to the same hole as previously described. Between each putt the distance from the ball to the hole was taken as outlined above. Subjects were not given any feedback on their results other than obviously being able to see the final resting point of the ball. They were also unaware of specific details of the scoring system being used.

3. 2. 2. Testing

On arriving for Test One, participants were given as much time as they required to read through a “hint sheet” (Appendix 3&4) containing brief guidelines to their appropriate strategy, depending on which group they had been assigned to. Participants were given the opportunity to clarify any questions they may have had after reading the sheet. They were then informed that again distance would be measured in between putts, and also that after their fifth and tenth putts they would be asked how much they kept to their focus guideline when performing their putts. Details of this Manipulation Check Questionnaire can be found in Appendix 2. Again throughout this phase participants were given no additional feedback. Subjects finished each session once they had completed the ten putts in their own time and answered the questions asked. Throughout this testing phase the control group received no extra focus instructions and simply carried out the ten putts in their own time. Upon arriving at each subsequent session the same procedure was implemented. The structure for Tests Two and Three were identical to Test One.

3. 2. 3. Retention Test

The structure of the retention test was similar to the Pre-Test. Participants were required to perform ten putts again in their own time. On this occasion they were not asked to use any focus strategies, and no questions were asked during their putts. Measurements between attempts were taken as before. For all participants the Retention Test took place between two and four days after their third test session.

3. 3. Data Analysis

Using Microsoft Excel, the overall score and error distance per group was found for each stage of testing. The means of the scores for each group were then calculated. Using SPSS the data was found to be normally distributed by performing a Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. For this reason the difference between the group means was analysed for significance using a paired 2-sample for means T-test in Microsoft Excel.

For a significant result the confidence interval was set at 95% (p<0.05).


4. 1. Data Table and Figures

Table 1: Group Mean Scores for each trial.
Practise 1
Practise 2
Practise 3












































Table 1: Group mean scores for testing and practice session with the standard deviation (SD) showed for each.

Figure 2: Group Mean Scores per trial.

Figure 2: Values from table 1 are graphically represented.

The non-awareness (NA) group steadily improved until the retention test where scores were lowest overall.

The 5 step approach (5-SA) group improved the most overall showing the best performance during practice session 3.

The external focus (Ex) group produced the lowest pre-test scores with a reduction in scores for practice session 1 before steadily increasing in performance.

The control group (C) produced the lowest scores overall, showing a reduction in performance from pre-test to retention test.

Figure 3: Group Total Overall Scores.

Figure 3:The non-awareness (NA) group and the five step approach (5-SA) group both performed significantly better than the external focus group (EX) with P values of p=0.05 and p=0.03 respectively

Figure 4: Overall Improvement from Pre-Test to Retention Test per group.

Figure 4: It is clear that the five step approach (5-sa) group improved the most from pre-test to retention test (total improvement = 41pts). The non-awareness group (NA) improved b 9ts, while the external focus (EX) group improved by 25pts. The control group (C) was the only group to show a reduction in performance (-9pts).

4.2. Results

The purpose of this study was to investigate three different methods of focus of attention while learning a motor skill. The first method is where the learner only uses an external focus of attention (Wulf & Weigelt 1997). The second method is a “non-awareness” technique (Logan 1988) where the subject holds an internal focus of attention. The final method is Singer’s “5-step approach” (5-SA) (1988) where the learner goes through a number of steps focusing internally, before carrying out a task without thinking about it.

It can be seen from the results that Singer’s 5-SA produces the highest group mean scores (fig.2), group total values (fig.3) and the most improvement from pre test to retention test (fig.4) in the learners that were tested. This was not expected. The 5-SA is a learning strategy. Weinstein and Mayer (1986) showed that the outcome/effectiveness of the learning process is based both on how the information is presented and how it is assimilated by the learner. As a result the performance of the 5-SA group was very much dependent on how well the volunteers assimilated the learning strategy and how effectively it was presented by the researchers. Other studies have shown the effectiveness of the 5-SA (Singer, Flora, Abourezk 1989, Singer, DeFrancesco, Randall 1989) however those with the most similar motor skills (Lidor et al. 1999 (basketball free throw)) did not use absolute novices (subjects were initially given twenty free throws in the early stages of testing). As the volunteers were learning a new motor skill it was thought that being introduced to a new learning strategy also may cause a certain degree of confusion and possibly poor results.

The subjects recruited for this particular study may have been familiar with pre performance routines due to their educational backgrounds (all students of the department of Phys Ed & Sport sciences). Therefore, increasing the probability of better assimilation of the instruction and in turn better performance overall. Also through observation during testing it was clear that the subjects in the 5-SA group used more time to prepare themselves before putting the ball. The increased preparation time intervals may provide further support for the use of the strategies by the participants across trials; if more time were needed for the strategy participants to prepare themselves for the putting, then it appears that they were closely following the steps for the 5-SA . This is in line with findings by Lidor and colleagues (1999).

The 5-SA group performed significantly better that the external focus group (p=0.03). The non-awareness group also performed significantly better (p=0.05) than the external focus group for mean scores, as did the control group but no significance was found. However the external focus group did show an improvement from pre-test to retention test. The poor performance of the external focus conflicts with much existing research conducted by Wulf and colleagues (Wulf et al. 1998, Wulf et al. 1999, Wulf 2000, Wulf 2007). In most of the research it was found that maintaining an external focus of attention while learning a motor skill produced better results than maintaining an internal focus of attention. So why then in this study did the external focus group perform so poorly in comparison to the other groups? Possibly the external focus instructions were not clear or many of the volunteers chose to ignore this instruction. It was found in the early stages of the testing that some volunteers found it difficult to grasp the concept of taking a mental picture of the hole, keeping it in the “quite eye” and concentrating on the back of the ball while putting. This was overcome by allowing practice swings while the subjected implemented the external focus instructions and breaks for questions as required by the subject. The same practice and questions was permitted for every group, however some of the external focus group needed more.

4.3. Limitations

During testing the distance from the centre of the ball to the edge of the hole was measured by hand, using a measuring tape. Human error could have been present in terms of consistently recording each measurement precisely as before. This was attempted to be avoided by using the same individual for all measurements. Thus variability in measurement was kept to a minimum.

A low sample number was obtained (n=20) due to conflicting schedules and time constraints. This caused a low statistical power and the sampling error could not be lowered significantly.

Subjects were exclusively selected from the Physical Education and Sport Sciences department of the University of Limerick. As a result they may have been familiar with certain elements of the test/attention focus procedure.

4.4. Future Research

As this is the first known study to compare external focus, Singer’s 5-SA, Logan’s non-awareness technique and a control condition while learning a motor skill it would be beneficial to repeat this study with a larger sample number to give results greater statistical power. Also replicating the study could validate the results found.

It would also be beneficial to repeat the study with a different motor skill with possible more testing sessions so as the check if the results are easily transferable to new motor skills.

To date most of the research has concentrated on closed skills. Further studies could look to test the application of procedure on an open skill to see if the results can be replicated

It can be seen from the results of this study

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