Learn Quicker by Thinking Less about What Your Body Is Doing

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

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For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that if I just put in the time, the nerves would eventually go away.

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Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking the gap between practice and performance, because their practice looks fundamentally different. Specifically, their practice is not just about skill development – it’s about skill retrieval too.

This was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing more fun (and successful), but practicing a more satisfying and positive experience too.

If you’ve been wanting to become more “bulletproof” on stage and get more out of your daily practice too, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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24 Responses

  1. Very interesting. Although, I have no external instrument to fix my attention to (I’m a singer), my body reflects externaly what I do inside it. I found very useful to use a mirror to check whether I look relaxed or not or whether I’m opening too much my mouth. So whatever I fill inside my body I try to fix an external goal also.

    1. Robert – as a singer you DO have an external instrument to fix your attention to – the sound of your voice. While it is true that singing is probably the only physical activity we do that cannot be seen, we do have some guides to help us along the way.

      Intrinsic – the “grab” of the body when initiating sound and the relaxed state of the throat.
      Extrinsic – the sound itself.

      Unfortunately for us singers, we don’t know if we’ve done the process correctly until the sound leaves the body. It’s like not knowing where the fire hose will spray until you turn on the water. You have a general idea of the direction you want it to go (you aim the hose), but you can’t really direct the flow until the water comes blasting out.

      My methodology with beginners is to have be more “end result” orientated; to be more focused on what sound they want to make than the process in how they are making it. Similar to this article’s example of “Shift your weight toward the target”. I use familiar language like “picture yourself trying to get someone’s attention across a noisy street”, as opposed to “grab your support muscles, relax the throat, drop the jaw, think a bright resonant sound and project”. For a beginner the latter example is an overwhelming amount of steps to remember, whereas the former is more intuitive based because we’ve all done that at one time in our lives. We already have a muscle memory of this process, (the brain is familiar with it) and therefore goes more into “auto pilot” for the action. Less fear of failure.

      My motto is: “Think More and Do Less”
      Think more about the sound you want to make and only do what you need to make that happen. Do what you must, but no more.

      Kevin Richards
      RPM Vocal Studios

  2. With beginning violin students I let them see how when I pull the bow well the string vibrates. Even the youngest students can see how the string looks “fatter” when it vibrates. They can understand the difference between pulling the bow well and letting the bow do whatever it wants. With all ages I always try to demonstrate a good result and a bad result to give a purpose for what I am asking. If the student has a good understanding of the external goal there is much more motivation to do what is necessary for the result.

  3. I have been in therapy to resolve focal dystonia for several years, with very specific instructions for movement of my right hand (I’m a guitarist). Progress was maddeningly slow, until my instructor hit upon the achievement of a full, rich, warm tone as a goal rather than a specific set of movements. I immediately saw an acceleration of improvement towards fixing my technique, so this article makes sense to me.

  4. I would think this applies to the drumming too, so while knowing the bodily motions, it might be best to focus on the way the stick is being manipulated rather than only how my wrists are moving. Will try this today.

  5. This is an interesting and important issue in teaching. I do Alexander work – where the idea is to use language to reprogram basic body movements so that we function as a unified whole with freedom of movement, which leads to better playing and better sound.

    It seems that the internal focus approach tends to result in disjointed movement because of the focus on individual parts, and the external focus results in unified movement. It does seem that both approaches are needed in teaching, because often technique problems are a result of one part not doing its job (e.g., wrists need to bend, but many pianists – even young children – stiffen at the wrists when they play).

    Both children and adults do seem to respond better to external examples now that you mention it (e.g., the “puppet guy” on the ceiling with a string attached to their wrist picks it up after each note and drops it to play the next, rather than “lift your wrist and let your and dangle and when it drops it should be level, and then lift it again with a dangling hand, etc.) I’m glad that you pointed this out, because it reinforces that although we need to be aware of the internal issues, external examples are most likely to bring about the results we’re looking for with students – and maybe in our own practicing. Thanks!

  6. As an Alexander Technique teacher (and former focal dystonia sufferer), this article hits home in a big way. All of the musicians who have come to me for help with focal dystonias tend to have far too much of an internal focus as they play their instrument. Essentially, they over-focus on one or two specific parts of themselves as they play, micro-managing these parts at the expense of neglecting the whole of themselves. In doing so, they also cut themselves off from the external experience of more fully perceiving the music. In short, they’re inclined to be guided primarily by what it “feels” like to play, and get overly dependent on this feeling sense.

    My work with these musicians involves getting them to change their habitual patterns of response as they play, so as to help them better integrate the internal with the external. This doesn’t mean to actively ignore the internal sensations, so much as to simply not be so exclusively guided by them. And yes, much of this change in perception involves getting them to keep their “eye on the ball” (e.g., their sound as it manifests itself in the room) rather than what they’re doing with the “bat” (micromanaging their movements). Not only does this remarkably improve their coordination, but also, deeply enriches their musicial expression, enjoyment and satisfaction. Thanks for such a clearly written, very timely article. Research in the next few years on this topic may very well turn much conventional wisdom about learning motor skills on its head.

  7. I am a fiddler and fiddle teacher and I’ve been finding that the more I have students focus on the sound they are producing and ask them to hear clearly the effect they are trying to produce, the better their progress. After all, in music most of the reason we are moving our bodies the way we do is to produce a particular sound or quality of sound.

  8. It is probably impossible for anyone to completely understand the intricacies and interrelatedness of the body’s separate parts. What we think we do with our hands (which are complicated enough!) is so related to what we do with our arms, shoulders, back,… even feet and weight distribution. I have had better luck in my own teaching by asking students to focus externally and trusting the body parts to all work together with our marvelous brain as the director. Too often have I made the mistake of describing the perfect bow hold, for example, only to have the student end up playing with “the claw.”

  9. I totally agree with the idea of focusing more externally. For one thing, more intense focus on the smaller details of fingers in bow hold, for example, produces too much intensity and the “claw” which Martha V so well describes. For a straight bow, use targets rather than discuss what the arm and hand are doing, and so on. And I really like what Julia Plumb said about focusing primarily on the music and the quality of the sound produced. I have tried to use these concepts in my teaching of cello over a long career, although it took me a while to come to them. The books by Timothy Gallwey about the Inner Game of Tennis from the 1970s were helpful in this, despite the title. Always love what Dr. Noa gets us thinking about.

  10. Another way to teach awareness is with an inclusive model. This is where the performer is aware both internally and externally. The focus changes throughout, but the performer never loses sight of the elements of playing. Performers can adjust effort level at any time so they don’t get caught overworking, diminishing expression. Barbara Conable coined this, Inclusive Awareness. It takes some practice, but is an effective way to uncover reliable technique and beautiful expression, and deal with nerves. In my Body Mapping teaching I enjoy guiding clients through this process and showing them how they can integrate Inclusive Awareness into their playing. The music soars out almost effortlessly.

  11. Whether one credits Timothy Galley, Arnold Jacobs, or even Prof. Harold Hill, the message is approximately the same. It’s the product, not the process, that is a greatest target and goal. AJ used the term “analysis paralysis” when referring to students who overthought the movements in the body/muscles rather than concentrating on the musical product.

  12. I think it goes both ways. In my own playing, sometimes all it takes is a detailed comment about changing my wrist position to fix a problem. Sometimes talking exclusively about the desired effect (external objective?) isn’t enough, especially for older students. Perhaps you can train yourself to stop thinking about the motions of your arms after they become habitual. This is especially useful when correcting bad habits; you HAVE to think be aware of how your body moves in order to be able to change it.

  13. Thanks for this, particularly the links, great evidence for what I’ve been wondering about as I work on and experiment with my own teaching lately (I’m a movement and parkour coach). When I began coaching the majority of cues I gave were internal. For the past year I’ve worked on simplifying my cues, which unintentionally lead me towards external cues. While the changes are anecdotal I have seen much quicker progress in many movements, especially from kids, with the focus on an external objective.

    The fine points of form seem to often times require a shift back towards an internal focus, but I’ve found a handful of challenges that have an external goal (staying balanced on a narrow rail while performing a squat) which teach good form because it’s difficult to succeed at it without proper execution.

  14. Perhaps there is an important visual component – one’s eyes can track a free throw arc, an arrow flying at a target, a bow moving across a string. When asked to make specific motions with your body, you can’t necessarily see the motion of your back, your shoulder, etc. A mirror may help somewhat but there is the reversal aspect.

  15. I totally agree with the points made in the article and comments. Learning to listen to the effect you are trying to produce certainly makes a lot of intuitive sense, and it seems that often the body will naturally mold itself to that outward goal we envision. But Joanna’s comment about the refining by attention to details really resonated with me, also. I have found that, especially as an older student, I may practice something particularly difficult over and over, with no results, or unsatisfactory results, and feel that I’m “hitting a wall” by doing the same thing repeatedly, and getting the same poor outcome. Then my teacher will, on occasion, point out a specific technique to use, such as a quick release & return of the thumb after the 4th note in an arpeggio (Chopin Etude No. 1) or focusing on allowing the upper body to sway with the rolling tide of covering 6 octaves and crossing arms (Liszt Un Sospiro). Sometimes this specific body-focused instruction will provide a key breakthrough that unlocks the path to improvement.

    Again, I do totally agree with Dr. Noa’s observations overall. But I also wonder whether this is more contextual, by which I mean focusing on the external global effects initially, until a basic sense and feel for the piece is achieved. Then later on, attention to a more refined, detailed technique is needed, once the essential feel has become comfortable.

    1. Well put, Cindy. Ultimately, I think it’s both. My impression is that we will constantly be cycling through periods of internal focus and external focus as we proceed through the various stages of motor learning in an iterative fashion.

      1. Yes Dr. Noa. We go through stages of “awareness” – both internal and external as the brain tweaks the processes we are giving the brain as we train. “Bodily conscious” I believe is the correct neuroscience term. The brain focuses externally while we train and then goes into internal focus as it correlates all those new synaptic instruction. The “Plateau and Mountain” cycle of learning.

        Conscious thought and then subconscious motion. “In the zone” as it applies to sports.

  16. I agree that externally-focused instruction produces better short-term results, but I think Dr. Kageyama will agree with me: playing any instrument (learning healthy vocal technique is even harder) involves developing movements that were previously unfamiliar. As such, all that externally-focused instruction does is just show a person how to use familiar movements to achieve certain results. There’s a certain sense in which the person has acquired nothing new, only a new way of using what they already had. In order to access the best sound possible on any instrument (especially voice!), or perhaps to bring their playing (or singing) to another level, they need to develop movements they may never have felt proprioceptively or even noticed visually in someone else’s playing. I’m a big stickler for this part of learning because I want to burst every time I see my fellow students trying to force some result using movements that interfere with their desired result. Sometimes, these movements are even good for doing the exact opposite of what they want. They try harder and harder with these movements, which of course only pushes them farther and farther away from the sound they want.

    Therefore, with my own students and when I exchange tips with my colleagues, I harp relentlessly on the relationship between technique and sound. How does the movement feel, and what sound do you get when you do it that way? If you use a similar motion with one or two things different about it, how does it feel different, and what does it change about the sound? If I run into a situation where I can’t figure out how to make the sound I want (and sometimes that’s playing a run fast enough), sometimes I just flop my hands and arms around a bit just to see what kind of sounds I get. Sometimes it makes me feel childish, but actually I am in precisely the position of a child – unfamiliarity. What do curious children do? They ask questions and experiment (or play around) to see how the system works. Through repetition they recognize patterns, what happens if they do A and what happens differently if they do B. I find patient experimentation to be effective in practicing leaps. I practice missing the leap by specific intervals so that my muscles learn what a 12th feels like, as opposed to a 13th or an 11th. Come performance time, I can trust them to draw up the motion for a 12th and not either of the other two similar motions because they are familiar with the difference in the resulting sound. When we want to learn a piece, is not practice the thing we turn to? Why should not practice then be about learning?

    All that to say that avoiding internal focus is a recipe for running yourself or your students into a plateau. It’s probably the best solution if you intend only to develop the skill minimally, but even a person who wants to develop an amateur ability in a musical instrument should take a slower approach which focuses on the relationship between internal and external elements. As for the little Kageyamas, they might have been much less frustrated and much more interested if they were more focused on what their bodies felt like and how the ball moves differently if they stand the way their dad told them to 😉

    1. Elliot – Of course. Experimentation is the key to true understanding of one’s abilities. “Having no style as style. No limitation as limitation.”

      In training the voice we focus on mostly internal sensation. What did it feel like? Where did I feel it? And if I play around with those sensations, what is the result? If I do more less of this, do I get that sound? Voice training is A LOT of trial and error since we are tweaking an end result.

      Since the voice is an instrument that cannot be seen or tweaked until we make a sound, focusing on internal sensations is key to developing awareness of how to manipulate the very complex coordinations associated with proper voice technique. In many respects making very odd sounds can lead a singer to discover ways of making sound they have never experienced before.

      In voice training, the idea is to simplify the physical coordinations as much as possible so that the brain can do all the miniscule tweaks on its own the way it was designed to do. We “think” the sound we wish to create, breath into that thought and listen/see/fell the result. Each time we do those steps, the brain tweaks the process ever so slightly to try to get the desired thought.

      Our motto at RPM Vocal Studios is “Think More. Do Less.”

    2. Thanks for this addition to the post, Elliot! Well put and very nicely articulated. There’s a point where we really do need to have a deeper understanding of the mechanisms involved in order to take things to a higher level – as much as I enjoyed the Inner Game of Tennis as a kid, not knowing the mechanics of how to hit a high-bouncing backhand makes it difficult to rely on with any sort of consistency…though I can’t say that I’m all that successful in hitting it anyway!

  17. I am a jazz guitarist. Recently I took a lesson with Gypsy jazz guitar master, Gonzalo Bergara. His picking technique is unreal and he gets an amazing tone. When we talked about picking movements he said that you must focus your attention to the tip of the pick. When I started talking about wrist movement, and he waved it off, and said, as long as it wasn’t extreme or hurting you, not to bother with it. That it will take care of itself. Much like the Alexander Technique concepts, get out of your body’s way and let it do it. It can do it better than your “thinking” mind.

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