Attentional Focus

The human brain is remarkable. In the incredible book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman takes us through the research and understanding of what he calls the 2 "systems" of the brain. Essentially we have subconscious system, which is working at an incredible pace to process all the information coming into our brains at a time, and the conscious system, which works much slower to properly digest and analyse conscious thought. What we know is that our conscious brain can only truly focus on 1 thing at a time. Despite common belief, this is true for females as well. We all turn down the music in the car if it is too loud while we are looking for a street address at night. Our brain knows to remove distractions so we can focus our limited attentional focus on a difficult task.

When we have multiple things to do, our brain will rapidly move from focusing on 1 to the other. We can't truly focus on 2 things consciously at the same time. However, if our subconscious brain can manage the task, and that it doesn't require conscious thought, then we will be able to do that and something else at the same time. This is why when we were first learning to drive the car we wouldn't have been able to have music on and sing and dance in the drivers sear while trying to figure out which peddle is which. But once you have learnt to drive and the task becomes autonomous, we are able to pull off these things at the same time (Disclaimer: please focus on the road and traffic around you...).


Internal vs External Focus and Cues

Further to this, where we should be directing peoples attention will depend on what we are trying to achieve. It has been shown that the majority of coaches and professionals use primarily internal cues. Internal cues are anything that is within our body (e.g. "squeeze your glutes") where as an external cue is anything outside the athlete (e.g. "touch the roof"). Given the above information regarding attentional focus, our cuing should be directed at what we are trying to achieve. 

For performance outcomes, should we be using internal or external cuing?

Effects of varying attentional focus on health-related physical fitness performance, by Bredin, Dickson and Warburton, in Applied Physiology: Nutrition and Metabolism, 2013

As we can see from the above picture, external cues improved performance of a vertical jump task compared to no cues. Interestingly, internal cues actually reduced performance when compared to no cues at all. Therefore if we are giving internal cues when performance is the goal, we are likely actually reducing performance. If I am thinking about squeezing my glutes for example, I am obviously then not focusing on jumping as high as I can. Want to lift a heavy weight, focus on lifting a heavy weight. Want to shoot a ball in, focus on getting the ball in. 

This is not to say internal cues don't have a place. We can use internal cues when we are trying to learn or hone a specific technical point. "Squeeze your glutes" may help posteriorly tilt the athletes pelvis straightening out a lordotic lumbar spine and so may be the perfect cue to use. However, like everything so far, timing and application of the type of cue based on the specific situation is very important. 

The other thing to note about internal versus external cues is external cues tend to be more relatable to the athlete as they can tell a story. A great example of this is when coaching acceleration technique. "Take off like an aeroplane, not like a helicopter" is probably going to be a much better cue than "maintain an effective forward lean of your whole body to allow for maximal horizontal propulsion"

Effective coaches will carefully manipulate the timing and type of cue based on where they want the athletes focus.

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