Attention to the work or the surroundings (external attention) seems to be typically preferable to attention to the body (internal focus) while executing or acquiring a movement skill.

But there are a few restrictions:

  • Despite the overall advantages of outward attention, there may be specific situations when internal focus is more advantageous;
  • top athletes and coaches commonly employ internal focus, and we should assume that they are aware of their actions;
  • The disadvantages of an internal focus that is more localized and specialized may be avoided by an internal focus that is “holistic”;

It is often oversimplified and disrespectful to the complexity and dynamic of attention to distinguish between internal and exterior concentration.

An excellent description of these ideas may be found in a recent paper:

One concentration approach cannot be used for all people in all situations to achieve attentional focus.

The quotations from this paper and others with more context may be found below.

What athletes do in practice

Although random controlled trials are a great source of proof, we should equally be concerned about in-the-field experience. Many studies have questioned top movers and

coaches what kind of attentional focus they really use to acquire and practice their talents, and it is abundantly obvious from these that internal concentration is routinely used. For instance:

Guss-West and Wulf (2016) conducted a poll of 58 professional dancers and discovered that 36.1% of respondents concentrated on internal cues, 27.7% on external cues, and 36.1% employed a combination of internal and exterior focus signals when dancing. Similar to this, the majority (69%) of US track and field athletes said they paid attention to internal signals while competing.

Fairbrother was released in 2016. Tiger Woods has long said that he has always controlled his swing using the feel of his hands. That is internal focus.

According to many research, internal focus is more often employed during practice sessions whereas external focus is more frequently used during competition. For instance, among golfers:

Skilled golfers were more likely to concentrate on movement and the ensuing kinesthetic feelings during practice. Golfers were more likely to pay attention to movement outcomes, psychological emotions (such as confidence or concentration), and visual information (such as hand placement or the target) during competition.

Internal focus for correcting bad behaviour

Why would practicing internal attention over competitiveness be more likely? Perhaps because internal attention is beneficial for changing harmful habits that have developed into habitual behaviors. Gabriel Wulf argued that exterior signals are preferable because they elicit the automaticity and naturalness that define expert performance, as opposed to internal attention, which produces the self-conscious control mechanisms linked to beginner performance and choking. This concept is known as the “constrained action hypothesis.”

Automaticity appears beneficial, but what if you wish to alter your movement pattern? Since outward attention isn’t a particularly effective strategy right now, you may require interior focus to impede your usual movement pattern and consider alternatives:

An internal focus of attention may “be indispensable when an athlete seeks to replace a suboptimal technique by a more optimal one in order to reach a higher level of performance,” according to Oudejans, Koedijker, and Beek’s 2007 research. …

Shusterman (2008) asserts that “we cannot only rely on our habits to change on their own via unconscious trial and error… The consequences of our behavior will “simply reinforce these bad habits” if we keep it in mind.

In order for the coach to assist the athlete in regaining the ‘old’ desired technique or in refining and acquiring a new ideal movement pattern, it appears plausible to guess that the ineffective or impacted habit must be brought under the control of awareness.

Toner 2016. Anders Ericsson’s concept of “deliberate practice” is congruent with the need for some level of self-awareness and internal focus:

Similar to this, the purposeful practice paradigm developed by Ericsson postulates that expert performers attempt to resist automaticity and so prevent “arrested development” by staying within the “cognitive” and “associative” phases [of motor learning].

Rossano (2003) has said more broadly that “expertise demands purposeful practice. Intentional practice necessitates awareness.

Toner 2016. The main lesson I learned from this was to employ an external focus if you want your movement to be automatic and to save your precious attentional resources for other uses, as you probably would in a competition. An inward concentration, though, could be advantageous if you wish to suppress ingrained movement patterns and investigate new ones.

Holistic perspective and a smooth movement experience

A “holistic” internal focus, which pays attention to the complex emotions connected with effective movement, such as being rhythmic, smooth, balanced, or explosive, is discussed in many publications as having possible advantages. Attending to localized and precise sensations, such as the hip joint moving or the glutes contracting, is significantly different from this. Natural movement patterns might be disrupted by this “micro” emphasis, but a holistic approach tends to encourage them:

A holistic focus of attention (i.e., concentrating on feeling explosive) and an external focus of attention (focused on leaping toward a cone) have both been proven to have a comparable advantage over an internal focus (focusing on quickly extending the legs) during the completion of a standing long jump. This kind of signal is also in line with several of the athlete self-reported cues mentioned in the sentence above (such as “conveying a jazzy feel” and “being fluid and smooth”), so it would be a good choice.

Unlock exclusive content now! Sign up for our membership plan to access premium features and unlock this private content. Click here to subscribe and enjoy unlimited access today.

Enroll now 

And unlock the content.