I’m not much of a tennis player, but I wanted to give my kids an introduction to the sport last summer, so we picked up some kid-sized rackets and headed out to do some hitting. Naturally, I started by walking them through the basic grip, stance, and swing…and managed to overwhelm them with instructions and paralyze them with too many things to think about. I also totally sucked all the fun out of what is essentially whacking balls with a handheld trampoline.

Instructions are a big part of learning any new motor skill – especially instructions centered around technique and learning the correct movements of our body.

This makes perfect intuitive sense, but is this actually the most effective way to learn a new skill?

Recent research suggests that this is actually not a particularly effective approach – that focusing on our body movements actually results in worse performance and a slower rate of learning.

Say what?

Golf 101

22 young adults with no prior golf experience were tasked with hitting golf balls at a target 15 meters away. They were given 10 balls, a 9 iron, and then a 10 minute mini-lesson on the essentials of the “pitch shot,” including the proper grip, stance, and posture.

Then, they received one of two different sets of instructions regarding the swing.

One group (the internal-focus group) was given instructions designed to direct their attention to the movement of their arms – how the left and right arms go from being straight and bent during the backswing, to straight during the swing, to bent and straight during the follow-through.

The other group (the external-focus group) was given instructions designed to direct their attention to the movement of the club – specifically, to make the club move like a pendulum.

Then, the participants had 80 chances to practice hitting the target (8 sets of 10 shots).

Internal vs. external focus

As you would expect, both groups improved with practice.

But one group significantly and consistently outperformed the other.

From the very first set of 10 practice shots, the external-focus group hit more shots nearer the target. They maintained their accuracy advantage over all 8 practice sets, averaging a score of 21.0 (out of 50), which was almost twice that of the internal-focus group (10.8).

To see if this was just a temporary practice effect, or if there might some longer-lasting learning involved, the researchers brought the participants back the following day and had them take 30 more shots at the target (3 sets of 10) with no specific instructions.

Once again, the external-focus group outperformed the internal-focus group, suggesting that the external strategy may have contributed not just to greater performance, but greater learning and retention as well.

Movements vs. effects of movements

Studies of other sport skills have also observed this phenomenon.

Improved free throw shooting percentage. More accurate dart throwing. Higher vertical jumps, even.

At some point, utilizing an internal focus to deepen one’s understanding of the mechanics of a skill is a necessary part of the learning process and the development of mastery, but the evidence seems to suggest that there are instances in which motor learning can be accelerated if we focus less on the movements of our bodies, and more on the desired effects of our movements.

Take action

What might this look like in practice?

The literature suggests that we can hasten learning of new skills by helping our students focus less on their movements, and more on the external effects of their movements.

A couple examples from the literature:

Volleyball: “Shift your weight from the back leg to the front leg while hitting the ball” (internal) vs. “Shift your weight toward the target” (external)

Soccer: “Position your foot below the ball’s midline to lift the ball” (internal) vs. “Strike the ball below its midline to lift it” (external)

Or, rather than focusing on the movements of the shoulder, arm, and hand needed to produce a certain kind of sound in a soft exposed passage (internal), perhaps placing our attention on the kind of friction desired between the bow and strings (external) may be more effective.

It seems that the difference in language can be rather subtle. And that ultimately, the closer we can get to focusing on the desired external objective, the more successfully our bodies will self-organize around achieving that objective.

There are many unanswered questions remaining in this area of research, and to be honest, a part of me remains a little skeptical despite the evidence that has been accumulating in the last few decades. But it’s certainly intriguing…

I’m curious – what are your thoughts about this? How does this fit with your playing and teaching experiences?

Additional reading

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because this is something Timothy Gallwey wrote about in the classic Inner Game of Tennis.

And here’s a helpful review of the literature in this area – what we know, what we don’t know, and what’s next: Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 10 years of research

photo credit: Frédéric de Villamil via photopin cc