The impact of attentional focus on the execution of skills has received more attention than its impact on the actual performance, which often involves technical performance and cognitive skills. The purpose of this literature review is to determine the impact of attentional focus on information processing, movement accuracy, and peak performance. Any interactions between the three factors are also explained.
Information processing may be defined as the entire course of signal perception, interpretation, and reaction to the sign. Reaction time is the interval between perceiving a signal and responding to it. An external focus of attention is attained when the performer gives attention to the effects of a planned movement, whereas an internal focus of attention entails concentrating on the movement itself (Zachry, Wulf, Mercer, & Bezodis, 2005). These factors play a vital role in the implementation of daily activities, including sports.
Exceptional performance in sports depends on the efficacy of the start, which is also determined by the speed with which an athlete responds to the start signal. Response to signals is a component of the efficacy of information processing and reaction time. Therefore, there is a need to understand the impact of attentional focus on information processing to obtain peak performance during physical activity.
Attentional Focus and Movement Accuracy
Zachry et al. (2005) used electromyography (EMG) to establish the neuromuscular interactions in external and internal foci with respect to overall outcomes. The precision of free basketball throws was higher in the external than the internal focus of attention. Furthermore, there was a lower EMG action of the biceps and triceps muscles in the external focus. These findings indicated that there was movement economy in the external focus of attention, which was attributed to the attenuation of noise in the motor system.
Lohse, Sherwood, and Healy (2010) confirmed the findings reported by Zachry et al. (2005) by blending surface EMG with motion analysis to determine the specific alterations in motor performance in dart-throwing in different attentional foci. There were fewer absolute errors, shorter planning time between throws, and minimal EMG activity of the triceps in the external focus of control as opposed to the internal focus, which implied that the external focus of control enhanced movement economy.
Attentional Focus and Peak Performance
The adoption of an external focus of control has been linked with enhanced execution and learning of motor skills compared to an internal focus (Zachry et al., 2005). Tsetseli, Zetou, Vernadakis, and Michalopoulou (2016) examined the effects of an internal and external focus of attention on various constituents of game performance in tennis. These included skill implementation, base, and decision making, which were measured using the Game Performance Assessment Instrument (GPAI) in three-game conditions. There was a significant improvement in the decision-making skills of the group that received instructions to focus externally.
A similar trend was noted for the retention test, thus proving that learning was also promoted by an external focus of attention. It was concluded that decision making, which is a vital part of game performance, could benefit from directives that target the external focus of control.
Another aspect of peak performance that improved with an external focus of attention was jumping height in physical activity. Wulf, Dufek, Lozano, and Pettigrew (2010) investigated the neurophysiological machinery of this phenomenon using EMG and observed that greater jump heights and lower EMG activities were obtained with an external focus of attention compared to the internal focus.
Similarly, Hill, Schücker, Hagemann, and Strauß (2017) demonstrated that the external focus resulted in a better running economy in endurance sports, whereas Cohn (1991) showed that psychological relaxation, which corresponded to an external focus, enhanced peak performance. Brewer, Van Raalte, Linder, and Van Raalte (1991) also reported that an external focus of attention together with positive feedback enhanced peak performance in competitive sports.
Attentional focus affects movement accuracy and peak performance. An external focus leads to the creation of effective movement outlines, which enhance peak performance. Additionally, there is a minimal neuromuscular activity in the external focus of attention, which signifies the economy of movement.
Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J. L., Linder, D. E., & Van Raalte, N. S. (1991). Peak performance and the perils of retrospective introspection. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 13(3), 227-238.
Cohn, P. J. (1991). An exploratory study on peak performance in golf. The Sport Psychologist, 5(1), 1-14.
Hill, A., Schücker, L., Hagemann, N., & Strauß, B. (2017). Further evidence for an external focus of attention in running: Looking at specific focus instructions and individual differences. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 39(5), 352-365.
Lohse, K. R., Sherwood, D. E., & Healy, A. F. (2010). How changing the focus of attention affects performance, kinematics, and electromyography in dart throwing. Human Movement Science, 29(4), 542-555.
Tsetseli, M., Zetou, E., Vernadakis, N., & Michalopoulou, M. (2016). The effect of internal and external focus of attention on game performance in tennis. Acta Gymnica, 46(4), 162-173.
Wulf, G., Dufek, J. S., Lozano, L., & Pettigrew, C. (2010). Increased jump height and reduced EMG activity with an external focus. Human Movement Science, 29(3), 440-448.
Zachry, T., Wulf, G., Mercer, J., & Bezodis, N. (2005). Increased movement accuracy and reduced EMG activity as the result of adopting an external focus of attention. Brain Research Bulletin, 67(4), 304-309.