- Athletes perform better if they focus on the intended outcome of an action, rather than the action itself, writes sport scientist Gabrielle Wulf.
- Research shows an external focus of attention can significantly improve performance.
- It could also benefit anybody working towards a physical accomplishment - not just Olympic athletes.
How do you get to the Olympics? Practice, practice, practice … but also know what to concentrate on during the heat of competition.
How fast someone runs, swims or rows; how high or long they jump; how accurately they hit a target; how well they balance; or how much weight they can lift depends to a significant extent on where they focus their attention.
Research suggests that what an athlete concentrates on can be the difference between winning the gold and not even making the team. What might be surprising is that shifting your focus from within yourself – what’s going on in your body – to what’s out there – what you’re trying to accomplish – is a winning strategy.
An athlete’s brain is busy
Consider what the brain needs to do to organize complex movements.
It must coordinate the contractions of the necessary muscles – ensuring that they happen at the right time, for the proper duration, and with the required intensity. It also must inhibit other muscles, basically telling those not involved in the movement to stay on the sidelines for the moment.
Temporary task-specific connections among relevant brain networks are a precondition for smooth, efficient and precise movements. The functional connectivity of certain brain areas and the suppression of other areas enable an athlete to produce elegant jump shots, tennis strokes, golf swings or tumbling routines.
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Learning to produce effective brain activation patterns is a long-term process, of course. Achieving a skill level at which performance is consistently accurate, automatic, fluent and economical requires considerable practice. Athletes hone their skills over many years or even decades.
Nevertheless, at the moment they perform, their focus of attention plays a critical role. If athletes have the wrong focus, their performance will suffer.
Where to target your focus
Based on the findings of numerous studies, it’s clear athletes should never concentrate on their own movements – what movement scientists call an internal focus of attention.
This might seem contradictory to the way many people learn a new sport. After all, those who instruct others in the process of acquiring movement skills typically refer to body movements. Think of a coach telling a young basketball player to flick her wrist while shooting the ball, or a golf coach telling a player to focus on his hip rotation. Consequently, athletes think about how to move their body parts, particularly in the early stages of learning.
But surveys have found that even experienced athletes often focus internally. Especially when they’re under pressure – as they would be during competition – they tend to concentrate on their movements. Often, the result is that they “choke.”
Instead, for optimal performance, the focus should be on the movement goal. This is called an external focus of attention.
It can mean concentrating on a target to be hit, such as the corner of a goal, a golf hole, a bull’s-eye or a catcher’s mitt. It can also be the intended motion or trajectory of an implement such as a javelin, discus or barbell; the desired spin of a ball; the force exerted against an apparatus or piece of equipment, the floor or an opponent; the water being pushed back in swimming or rowing; or the finish line in a race.
What it is not is the hand releasing the object or pulling the water back, the muscles producing the force, or the speed of leg movements.
More efficient to focus on what than how
Focusing on the intended outcome of your actions, rather than your body movements, reveals the body’s remarkable capability to produce effective and efficient movements. Even movement form or technique often improves immediately when a person switches from an internal to an external focus of attention. The body does what it has to do to complete the action – unless you interfere via conscious attempts to control your movements.
With an external focus, movements are more efficient. Because brain and muscle activity are optimized, the resulting movements are produced with less energy. This is seen, for example, in reduced oxygen uptake or lower heart rates for the same physical work when performers adopt an external focus.
Researchers have quantified just how much of an edge this focus shift can provide to athletes. With an external focus:
- The same swimmers swam 1.4% faster over the length of a 25-yard pool.
- Resistance-trained individuals produced 9% greater maximal forces, or were able to complete 11.4% more repetitions with the same weight.
- Boxers punched 4% faster and 5% more forcefully.
- Runners needed 9.5% less oxygen for the same running speed and distance.
- Kayakers completed a 100-meter wildwater sprint 4.3% (or 1.3 seconds) faster.
Considering that races are often won or lost by very small margins, sometimes in the range of hundredths of a second, an athlete’s focus of attention can determine whether or not they win a medal.
Plenty of benefits beyond Olympic stadium
While most people will never be Olympians, an external focus provides benefits regardless of the performer’s level of expertise, age or (dis)ability, or the type of skill.
Whether you are learning to play a musical instrument or are an experienced musician, an external focus will result in better performance. Whether you are an older adult with Parkinson’s disease or a young healthy adult, your balance will be enhanced by an external focus. Whether you are unimpaired or had a stroke, you will perform activities of daily living more effectively with an external focus.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?
One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.
Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).
In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.
One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health
Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.
It turns out your body can more masterfully execute the actions you desire if you’re able to move your conscious focus from what your body is doing and instead think about what you want to accomplish.