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OPTIMIZING Performance Part III

In previous articles we explored the impact of autonomy and expectancies on performance. To wrap up the final aspect of the OPTIMAL Theory of Learning, this article will examine how an using an ‘external focus of attention’ can be advantageous when providing instruction and feedback. As I have described in a previous post here, subtle differences in the words we use can have a significant impact on the outcomes they produce in terms of movement skill and motor output. Particularly when we are looking for performance, the optimal strategy to provide instruction and feedback changes.

There are several different ways to consider the different ways to provide instruction and feedback. We’ll take a look at three major distinctions and discuss the relative advantages of each. Specifically, the OPTIMAL theory of learning suggests that using an external focus of attention for both instruction and feedback is a superior way to enhance learning and performance.

External Focus of Attention

While it may seem to be a matter of semantics, performance and learning effects are real, and they have been demonstrated in a number of contexts.

External Focus of Attention vs. Internal Focus of Attention

An internal focus of attention is simple to conceptualize. It refers to any focus that is centered on what the body is doing. If a swimmer is paying attention to their arm or leg or biceps or quadriceps is doing, they are using an internal focus of attention. In contrast, when focus is directed outside of the body, an external focus of attention is being used. This could be when the swimmer is focused on the water, the starting block, or the wall.

When considering from an instructional perspective, coaches can provide either internal cuing or external cuing. The coach could be directing a swimmer’s attention externally or internally. There is a significant amount of evidence that short-term performance improves when athletes adopt an external focus of attention. Further, it appears that learning is enhanced when attention is directed externally. Not only will performance improve in the moment, but performance will improve to a greater extent over time.

To illustrate the concept of internal versus external attention, let’s consider a start from the starting block. With an internal focus of attention, a swimmer could focus on pushing as hard as possible with their legs and pulling as hard as possible with their arms. With an external focus of attention, a swimmer could focus on pushing the block as hard as possible and pulling the block as hard as possible with their arms. This very small change in attention can have a real impact. One of the more researched movements in this field are jumping tasks, quite similar to a swimming start. When using very similar language, real differences are consistently demonstrated.

Another impactful dimension of attention is the how far away from the body that focus is directed. When cuing force production during pulling actions in the pool, a typical internal focus could be ‘pull your arm as hard as possible’. A typical external focus could be ‘pull the water as hard as possible’. An external focus incorporating near distance could be ‘throw water past your feet’, while a far distance external cue could be ‘throw water back to the wall behind you’.

Evidence suggests that the greater distance away from the body that attention is focused, the more positive the impact on performance. In the example above, throwing water to the feet would be the most effective way for swimmers to focused their attention. While including a component of distance is not always applicable depending on the specific activity, any opportunity to do so can be advantageous for learning and performance.

When the actual movement outcomes are obvious, using an attainable goal is more reasonable. Using the example of a start, it’s probably more effective to instruct a swimmer to try to dive past the flags than it is to try to dive to the other side of the pool. For some, it may be even more effective to try to dive past the turning T at the bottom of the pool. Directing attention to outcomes that are tangible, challenging, and attainable is the best place to put focus.

This an area which most coaches have an opportunity to significantly improve their effectiveness through enhanced instruction. Most instructional language is very internally focused and it will take a significant effort to reorganize coaching language to focus external. It can be quite helpful to literally write down anything you might say to a swimmer, and translate it from an internal to an external perspective.

When working to ‘translate’ attentional focus from internal to external, it can be useful to consider what objects the swimmer interacts with (typically water, the walls, the blocks), what objects the limbs move towards, and what the swimmer sees. We’ve discussed the first case (push the block, pull the water). In the second case, and example for the swimmer with low arm recoveries could be to reach for the ceiling on each recovery, either with the hand or the elbow depending on how they swim. In the latter case, for the swimmer who lifts their head to breathe, focusing the eyes underwater while breathing can force the swimmer to keep the head low. The same relationships can be established with almost any movement when given appropriate consideration.

It’s important to consider that while these effects are real and significant, they are not tremendous. It’s not as if you will be able to change two words and Johnny age-grouper will turn into the next Olympian. More often than not, you will not be able to see the effect. However, that does not mean that the effect is not there. In addition, these small effects compound over time, especially when considering the length of the typical swimming career.

Movement Dynamics and Movement Outcomes

The distinction between an external focus versus internal focus of attention can also be considered from the perspective of movement dynamics versus movement outcomes. Focusing on movement dynamics is synonymous with focusing on the nature of the movements of the limbs and body. It is a focus on where the various parts of the body are in space, what they are doing, where they are moving, and how they are moving. It is similar to an internal focus of attention in that the focus is on the physical body. In swimming, this could be a focus on head position, pulling patterns, or starting block positions.

In contrast, a movement outcome focus is centered on what the end goal, or outcome of a movement is. What gets accomplished? This is similar to an external focus of attention in that the focus is external to the body, focused on a specific outcome to be achieved. A movement outcome focus could be focusing on the achieving a maximal gliding distance off the wall during a flip turn. A typical movement dynamic focus would be on body alignment, head position, or leg alignment- the dynamics of the movement. In contrast, focusing on achieving a specific distance is a focusing on the movement outcome.

With this perspective, we are shifting the focus from the difference between inward vs. outward attention, to the difference between means and ends. The value in this perspective is that it helps distinguish between attention on the goals we seek as compared to the strategies required to achieve them. As sport is always about accomplishing the ends, with the means being secondary, it makes sense to center attention there.

In swimming, there is often a focus on what swimmers are doing as opposed to what they need to accomplish. This approach then puts precedence on the means versus the ends. When considering the example of a swimmer’s gliding performance described above, focusing on alignment is focusing on the means whereas focusing on the distance achieved is focusing on the ends. In the end, the means employed are not what is important; what’s important is that the end is achieved.

When considering the vertical jump example above, the movement dynamics can be considered all of the positions, velocities, and forces associated with any of the joints or limbs, as well as the muscular contractions involved. A focus on any of these movement components would be a focus on movement dynamics. During the jump, a focus on rapid knee extension, creating a large hip flexion, or activating the glutes would all be a focus on movement dynamics, or what is actually happening during movement. Relative to an internal focus of attention, there are many similarities yet there is more detail relative to an ‘internal focus on the body’.

With movement outcomes, the focus is on what happens as a result of movement. How is the body displaced, where the body moving toward, and where is the body moving away from? A focus on exploding up, driving away from the floor, or driving toward the ceiling would all be focused on the outcome of movement, with little concern about how it happens. Again, subtle differences that can provide a different perspective as to how these ideas can be interpreted.

The two perspectives are very similar, with subtle yet significant differences. I’ve described both approaches as many coaches struggle with applying the concept of an external focus. Having multiple lenses from which to understand these ideas can help coaches more fully understand and apply these ideas.

The Caveat

Much of the research on focus of attention has been conducted with relatively simple movement tasks. It’s not clear to what extent this research applies to to more complex movements such as swimming, particularly in beginners who have little to no conception of how to organize their bodies in time and space to comply with the demands of the sport.

For beginners, focusing on the movement dynamics (i.e. what is being done) can be beneficial to establish a general understanding of the movement structure they are trying to accomplish. As they simply have no concept of how their limbs and torso should be organized in space, directly referring to how the strokes are performed can be very valuable. It is a starting point.

However, for those individuals with a reasonably established movement structure, external cuing is likely more effective. This has been validated with a couple studies in moderately skilled swimmers. Again, exceptions exist even in experienced swimmers if they are learning a novel skill or component of a stroke. During this period, an internal focus can be useful to help the swimmer get the basic idea of the new concept.

The important idea is to consider how language can be used to facilitate your goals. What is the best way to get a change that is going to last? There aren’t rules, just results. At the same time, certain strategies will prove more effective over time.


Analogy is simply the use of comparison. In coaching, it is a particularly valuable to tool for teaching. Analogy is a type of external focus of attention, providing swimmers with an outcome to achieve as opposed to what needs to be done to achieve it. It allows for swimmers to search for solutions.

As I’ve discussed previously, swimmers learn and perform through the use of kinesthetic feelings. The language of movement is sensation. Analogy is particularly useful for providing instructions related to how movement should feel. For the swimmer who consistently swims with a very high head, a coach could instruct them to ‘swim so it feels like you’re buried under water’. This analogy provides sensations that the swimmer can search for.

Analogy can also be effective for helping swimmers understand what they are trying to accomplish. For instance, a coach could instruct a swimmer to ‘blast off the block like a rocket ship’. This creates the image and understanding of the power required, without referring specific movement dynamics that could accomplish the task. The opportunities for using analogies are endless, only requiring a little creativity and an understanding of the individual you are coaching.

For analogies to be effective, they have to make sense to the swimmer. For analogies to make sense, they need to be somehow related to a swimmer’s past experience. Analogies are particularly effective when they are memorable in some way, ridiculous even, or related to something the swimmer particularly values. The more it ‘clicks’ with a swimmer, the more impactful it will be. A surfing analogy will resonate a lot deeper with a surfer than with someone who has never surfed.

Any one analogy will also be more or less appropriate depending on age, swimming skill, and life experience. Younger swimmers will benefit much more from simple analogies, as well as analogies that relate to experiences they are currently having life. As swimmers accumulate life experiences, there are more options that coaches can use to create effective comparisons. As swimming experience grows, and kinesthetic awareness improves, providing more detailed analogies can be effective, and likely necessary.

In the OPTIMAL theory of learning, the use of external cuing is considered to be the superior method of instruction. However, much of the research is conducted on relatively simple movement tasks. For more complex movement tasks with many interdependent parts such as full stroke swimming, external cuing may not always be as effective during the initial stages of learning for beginners. They may need some help to organize the general pattern, and referring to the movement dynamics can be helpful initially, especially if it works!

What is important for coaches is that language can have a big impact on performance. As there is a lot of nuance when considering the implementation of language to enhance performance, the following tips can be useful in summarizing how to communicate with your swimmers on a daily basis.

  • Whenever possible refer to the external effects of movement, as opposed what the body is actually doing (i.e. press the water backwards).

  • If necessary, refer to what the body needs to do to get the swimmer in the ball park (i.e. pull your arm backward). However, once they get the general idea, focus on the effects.

  • Whenever performance is the desired outcome, focus externally.

  • When possible, shifting the location of the movement effect can positively impact performance.

  • When possible, use analogies while ensuring the analogies are relevant to the swimmer.

While the value of autonomy and expectancies is more consistent with most coaches’ experience, the formal description of external cuing is probably less so. However, many coaches have experienced the positive impact of using analogy to enhance performance, and analogy is a type of external cuing. Coaches can then appreciate how the importance and the impact of language. With this appreciation, coaches can then work to improve the strategic use of language to enhance skill acquisition and performance.

Moving Forward

We’ve gone through three separate strategies that comprise the OPTIMAL theory of learning. While each strategy can be effective in its own right, the research group has shown that the impact of these strategies is both additive and synergistic. Using all three approaches positively impacts performance to a greater extent than simply using one or two.

As coaches, we’re often wrapped up in the details of our training program, the volume, the intensity, and the intervals. This approach is certainly justified as these details do greatly impact performance progression over time.

However, it appears that how these training programs are administered can be greatly impactful as well. While any coach knows that this is what coaching is all about, it can useful to have several concrete and practical strategies to employ every day.

While ineffective training programs will still be ineffective if coached well, effective coaching can make effective training programs even better. Small changes in how we choose to communicate, and how we frame training, can make a huge difference.

For those interesting in learning more, please consider the following articles, which are available for free, by clicking on the links below.

Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMALtheory of motor learning

Onward and upward: Optimizing motor performance

Optimizing motivation and attention for motor performance and learning

Triple play: Additive contributions of enhanced expectancies, autonomy support, and external attentional focus to motor learning

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