Focused attention is a massively important skill not only for learning and skill acquisition in sport but for all areas of life. Yet, surprisingly, it is not something that we ever seem to be taught rather we are expected to simply be able to 'pay attention' and to do so in a modern world that places so many demands on this limited resource. As coaches and instructors in sport we need to understand the relationship between focusing attention, the task(s) that we are setting and asking our learners to do, and the environment in which the tasks are to be performed. In other words, we need to understand the interaction of the performer, the task, and the environmental factors.
In 2019 I developed a framework to aid coaches and instructors with their understanding and decision making surrounding this phenomenon of attentional focus. The framework is called BEE Focused with the BEE acronym standing for Body, Equipment, and Environment. You can read my original articles on this in the Parallel Dreams Coaching Academy blog titled:
Learning Zones - part 2: Mapping learning zones onto the Diamond Model of Skill Acquisition (where I first introduced the idea) and Focus of Attention in Sport: Internal or external?
The BEE Focused idea came about as a result of studying flow psychology as part of my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP). The research that was most relevant came from Gabriele Wulf and Rebecca Lewthwaite and was documented in a chapter called Effortless Motor Learning: An external focus of attention enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency in the 2010 book Effortless Attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action, edited by Brian Bruya. This blog article provides an update on my BEE Focused framework taking into account more recent research and reviews of 'focused attention' while also addressing how the framework links with skill acquisition, mental effort during learning, performance threads and the learners own level of skill. It is a fascinating and complex subject yet the purpose of the BEE Focused framework remains the same: to distil this complexity into a relatively simple and useable structure for sports coaches and instructors so that they can help their students to learn more quickly and robustly. My hope is that this latest blog will get coaches and instructors to reflect on their practice and to discuss this topic during coach education, CPD training, and on relevant social media platforms.
A recap on BEE Focused 2019
Below is a diagram of the BEE Focused framework which is in my original blog and in my book Learn, Enjoy, Flow & Grow (2020).
To recap, the diagram depicts the idea that attentional focus is on a continuum moving gradually from an internal bodily focus to an even wider and further external focus. Each of the three attentional foci have validity and, despite the research by Wulf & Lewthwaite (2010, 2016) advocating that an external focus of attention is preferable, coaches and instructors should be aware that where the learner focuses their attention should be determined by the type of sport and its requirements, the nature of the task, the environmental conditions, and the ability of the learner with the latter including both skill level and psychological aspects such as confidence, motivation etc. And the continuum is multi directional meaning that the learner can change their attentional focus depending on the intended outcome. To read more of my original thinking around this and to understand how it fits with the concept of learning zones read my two blog articles noted earlier in the introduction.
BEE Focused 2023
Wulf & Lewthwaite continued to develop their theories around focused attention and in 2016 published their seminal work, Optimising performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning known as OPTIMAL theory. In essence, this theory considers the interaction of motor, social, cognitive and affective aspects of human functioning proposing that an external focus of attention combined with intrinsic motivation leads to increased focus on the task goal resulting in improved motor learning and performance. The potential benefits of using an external focus of attention are:
Automaticity of movement patterns (enhanced motor learning)
More efficient, economic, and accurate movements
A reduction in conscious processing (less mental effort)
This updated blog has come about because of my seminar titled 'Focus of Attention in Snowsports' for the International Association of Education and Science in Snowsports (IAESS). In preparing for that seminar I came across a review article by Vitoria Gottwald, Marianne Davies and Robin Owen (2023) about ecological dynamics perspectives of focus of attention in skill acquisition. My thanks goes to Richard Barbour who made me aware of this paper. Richard is a Snowsport England Senior Coach and he teamed up with Marianne Davies to deliver training on this subject at the UK Snowsports Coaching Conference in September 2023. He also has a ski coaching podcast called Locked in Shed which has several episodes about Focus of Attention where he interviews Marianne Davies. I would highly recommend listening to these.
So, what on earth is the Ecological Dynamics Account for Attentional Focus (it is certainly not something I had come across before)! The EDAAF is all about the relationship between the performer and their physical environment. In other words, it is the interaction of the performer’s intention and the perceived environmental information that controls movement. Furthermore, movements are continually organised and reorganised as a result of the interaction between the performer, the task, and the environmental constraints. Hence, tasks that involve a high degree of proprioceptive and bodily awareness may benefit from an internal focus of attention. While tasks that require a high-level of environmental awareness may benefit from an external focus of attention. The potential benefits of an Ecological Dynamics Account for Attentional Focus are:
Greater functional adaptability in open environments (e.g., snowsports environment)
That limited attentional resources are distributed to the most relevant information coming from the Body, Equipment or Environment
Takes into account a wider range of foci to aid superior performance (internal, external proximal & external distal)
The Gottwald et al., review paper concludes by suggesting a more flexible approach to attentional focus rather than it being a binary choice between internal and external with recent wisdom proposing that an external focus of attention is superior. The authors argue that there are far more aspects to take in account when deciding whether to use an internal focus or an external focus of attention such as focus distance, whether the body or environmental information is guiding the task, and wider psychological considerations to name a few. Having also revisited my own writings on the subject I was pleased to see that my skepticism surrounding always using an external focus of attention was well founded and that the BEE Focused idea already encompassed aspects of this review such as 'focus distance' which I had dealt with by separating the external focus into two levels - equipment and environment - adding validity to my original concept. The table below is an update for 2023 to my framework and takes into account some parts of the Gottwald et al. review (notably proximal and distal focus) while also relating it to the Diamond Model of Skill Acquisition and flow theory. I expand on my thinking below this table.
The focus of attention here is primarily on the movements of the body but this will also include feelings and sensations and proprioceptive awareness. Where equipment is used, such as in snowsports, there will be a link between those movements and how they interact with the equipment. While the focus is mostly 'internal' in sports like skiing & snowboarding there needs to be enough external awareness for safety reasons (other skiers/terrain etc.) so the attention is divided. That external awareness will likely be proximal. Because attention is a limited resource it is important that beginners are in their comfort zone so that the lion share of their attentional resources can be directed to bodily movements. Not surprisingly, attention here is effortful especially when learning a new movement pattern. Movement patterns/motor learning is highly correlated with learning the techniques of a sport. Finally, while beginners will likely need to spend time using an IFA there will be opportunities to direct their attention more externally depending on the task and environment. And conversely higher skilled performers may well prefer an IFA when honing a specific technique.
Sports vary considerably in terms of the performer, the equipment used, and the environment so you will need to think about how this relationship works for your own sport. Snowsports have a very clear interaction between the body/ski or board/snow and, as I mentioned in earlier writings, it was only by looking at the research of Wulf and Lewthwaite that I realised that they considered the equipment to be an external focus! Having now studied the Gottwald review paper and the idea of proximal and distal external focus it suggests that EFA1 should include the close environment hence in snowsports this would mean the immediate terrain (proximal and width). Happily, this was already hinted at in the original depiction of BEE Focused with the statement, "your equipment (skis etc.) and its interaction with the snow". Attention will remain predominately effortful when focusing in this way with a real sense of the linking between body/equipment/snow. In snowsports this is where the learner can begin to feel the power of the skis or board in a curve and consequently experience more performance. As with IFA this level of external focus will still be very technically oriented. With regard to learner ability this level of external focus is more readily accessible to a beginner than EFA2 but will probably mean they are becoming more of an intermediate.
In many sports getting comfortable with an external focus of attention is crucial. Skiing and snowboarding take place in an incredibly open environment where there are many, many variables which include the snow conditions, changes in terrain (steepness/convexities/rolls/gullies etc.), width available, weather/visibility, other slope users etc. Therefore, the need to become automatic yet adaptable with movement patterns is crucial so that there is sufficient attentional resources available for the wider environment - varied distance (proximal and distal), width (with the ability to tune in and out peripherally). As the performer becomes more comfortable with their environment - on any given day - they will be able to move from effortful to effortless attention, to narrow their attentional focus (tuning out unnecessary foci) making flow state more likely to occur. There will be a much greater emphasise on tactical decision making and all of this is more achievable for the highly skilled performer.
BEE Focused mapped onto the DMSA
The shape of the DMSA has always been a crucial part of its conception. The idea is that knowledge expands and continues to do so as the movements are learned and their repertoire increased. This carries on as performance develops with greater adaptability and variation being added hence the widening shape through these stages. Then in the final part of skill acquisition performance is honed and attention narrows to focus only on what is required as flow state is entered. There is a natural correlation here with focus of attention which starts really narrow when focusing internally on the body and then gradually expands as more of the external foci are brought into consciousness. The final model below maps the DMSA onto the BEE Focused framework. It must be acknowledged that no model is perfect and, as suggested by Wulf and Lewthwaite, a learner may be focusing externally to improve their motor learning. But, from all the reading and research that I have done I believe that in order to enter a flow state the performer needs to have effortless attention which comes from being externally focused on the environment where the task is being done.
An example of BEE Focused in action
While this article is not only related to 'snowsports' I felt it would be useful to give an example of how the instructions that you, as a coach, give a learner can be varied so as to direct their focus of attention to the body, equipment or wider environment even though the task is exactly the same. Hence, I am using my own sport of alpine skiing for this example and a drill called the Stork Turn.
The Stork Turn is essentially a balancing drill that tests lateral and fore/aft balance. The skier is required to remain balanced against the outside ski with the inside ski lifted at the tail. The skier also needs to manage the steering elements (edge/pressure/rotation) on the outside ski so that the turn is smooth and rounded.
The pictures below illustrate the drill.
Photographer: Derek Tate, Skier: Ralph Revah, Location: Les Grands Montets
IFA instructions (body's movements & feelings and interaction with equipment):
"Focus on balancing on your whole foot on the outside ski feeling the ball, arc, and heel all at the same time. Lift up your inside knee to retract the inside leg and keep it lifted throughout the turn".
EFA1 instructions (equipment - skis - and their interaction with the snow)
"Focus on balancing against the sweet spot of the outside ski of the turn while lifting the tail of the inside ski and keeping the tip in contact with the snow.
NB: The sweet spot is where the index mark on your boot and the index mark on the ski align meaning the ski can more easily be pressed into reverse camber".
EFA2 instructions (the equipment moving towards the wider environment and terrain)
While balancing on the outside ski throughout the turn focus on a rounded turn shape with a fairly constant speed that slows slightly towards the end of the turn. Keep the corridor wide so that the turn is patient.
The three sets of instructions above indicate how the language used can direct the learners attention internally or externally. Of course ski instructors may use differing words and technical language but the point is to recognise that what we say will influence where the focus is directed. There is also a great opportunity here to give learners in a group lesson different instructions depending on their ability level and familiarity with the drill. As an instructor you can decide which set of instructors is most appropriate for individuals in the group. This is also a good example of working with Inclusion Teaching Style - same overall task with different instructions to suit the differing skill levels. Another approach would be to repeat the drill several times allowing the learners to experience each set of instructions and then discover which type of attentional focus work best for them. This would be a good example of the Guided Discovery Teaching Style.
In conclusion, focus of attention in sport is very important and learning how to focus internally and with different levels of external focus will aid you and your students as you acquire new skills, refine existing skills and perform in all kinds of conditions. Ultimately, it will help make your sport more enjoyable with the possibility of flow state becoming more of a reality.
ReferenceS & RESOURCES
Gottwald, V., Davies, M., & Owen, R. (2023). Every story has two sides: evaluating information processing and ecological dynamics perspectives of focus of attention in skill acquisition. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 5(May). https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2023.1176635
Tate, D. (2019a). Mindful ascending for flowing descending: Can teaching alpine ski instructors mindfulness strategies foster more flow experiences on the slopes? Buckinghamshire New University.
Tate, D. (2019b). Focus of attention in sport: Internal or external? Parallel Dreams Coaching Academy Blog. https://www.paralleldreams.co.uk/post/focus-of-attention-in-sport-internal-or-external
Tate, D. (2019c). Learning zones - part 2: Mapping learning zones onto the diamond model of skill acquisition. Parallel Dreams Coaching Academy Blog. https://www.paralleldreams.co.uk/post/learning-zones-part-2
Tate, D. N. (2020). Learn, Enjoy, Flow and Grow: Using the principles of positive psychology to help find passion and meaning in life (First). Parallel Dreams Publishing.
Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2010). Effortless motor learning?: An external focus of attention enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency. In B. Bruya (Ed.), Effortless attention : A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action (pp. 75–101). The MIT Press.
Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2016). Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 23(5), 1382–1414. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-015-0999-9
Also, Locked in Shed - ski coaching podcast with host Richard Barbour
About the author
Derek Tate is an alpine skiing coach and director of British Alpine Ski School Chamonix. He is a mental skills coach, positive psychology practitioner and author. His recent books include, "Six Steps for Training the Mind", "Learn, Enjoy, Flow & Grow" and "Transformational Flow Coaching". You can learn more from his author page.