Course:KIN366/ConceptLibrary/Attentional Focus

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Movement Experiences for Young Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
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Attentional Focus is the ability to focus on cues in the environment that are relevant to the task at hand, and also includes the suppression of distracting stimuli (Wulf, 2007). Motor skill performance is influenced by an individual’s focus of attention. That is, movement execution greatly depends on what the performer is focusing on while executing the skill. The learning process, as a whole, is affected by what the performer is focusing on while completing a skill. How fast a skill is learned and how long it will be retained relies heavily on the individual’s focus of attention that is induced by the instructions or feedback given to him or her. Research and evidence have been used to determine the connection between attentional focus and children’s movement skill acquisition and retention (Wulf, 2001).

Internal vs. External Focus of Attention

Typically, performers are given instructions on the correct movement patterns and techniques prior to executing a movement (Wulf, 2001). Zentgraf and Munzert (2009) found that the initial focus during task execution mediated by a verbal instruction strongly impacts an individual’s performance and learning. The instructions given can be used to elicit an external focus of attention or an internal focus of attention.

Internal Focus of Attention

An internal focus of attention is when the performer of a movement focuses on the movements of the body (Wulf, 2000). For example, when a child is trying to balance on a narrow curb and they focus on the force of their feet they are using an internal focus of attention. Less experienced performers are associated with an internal focus of attention (Chun, et al., 2011). Many training sessions involving non-expert performers include instructions on how to perform the correct movement skills (Wulf, 2007). These instructions usually involve the teaching of correct body movements, including form, order, and timing of limb movements. This type of instruction generates an internal focus of attention for the learner.

External Focus of Attention

An external focus of attention is when the performer of a movement focuses on the effect of his or her movement on the environment (Wulf, 2000). For example, if a child is focusing on the force being exerted on a curb while trying to balance on it they are using an external focus of attention. An external focus of attention has been typically associated with expert performers (Chun, et al., 2011). Studies have shown that an external focus of attention has advantages over an internal focus of attention concerning the acquisition and retention of movement skills in adults.

Evidence of the Advantages of an External Focus of Attention vs. Internal Focus of Attention in Adults

Studies conducted by Gabriele Wulf have provided evidence that adult performers using an external focus attention acquire and retain movement skills better compared to adult performers using an internal focus of attention (Wulf, 2007).


A study conducted by Wulf (1999) involved the use of golf to demonstrate the performance benefits of an external focus of attention versus an internal focus of attention. Two randomly generated groups were established and given different focus cues prior to the experiment. One group (internal focus group) were told to focus on the swing of their arms while hitting the ball. The other group (external focus group) were told to focus on the swing of the club while hitting the ball. Both groups were instructed to aim for a 90 cm target and to focus on their instructed cues while hitting the ball. The results showed better accuracy from the external focus group and suggested that an external focus of attention can improve performance during movement skills for adults.


Another study conducted by Wulf (2007) included basketball free throw shooting. Participants were given instruction to shoot free throws, but participants in one group were told to concentrate on the movement of the wrist while shooting and the other group was told to concentrate on the front of the rim. Those concentrating on their wrists were using an internal focus of attention and those concentrating on the rim were using an external focus of attention. The results showed that the externally focused group shot with a higher accuracy compared to the internally focused group.

Attentional Focus and Children's Motor Learning

Michal Emanuel (2008) conducted an experiment with 34 children (aged 8-10) that compared the effects of both internal and external focus of attention on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of movement skills. Emanuel used dart throwing as the basis for her experiment and instructed one group of children to focus on the movement of their arms, hand, and wrist when throwing the dart at the target. Thus, this group would be using an internal focus of attention during the experiment. The other group of children were instructed to focus on the target, dart, and path of the dart. This group was using an external focus of attention throughout the experiment. In the acquisition phase of the experiment, there was not a statistically consistent pattern of improvement for either the internal or external focus groups. Results from the retention and transfer phases showed that the group using an internal focus of attention had better accuracy results than the external focus group. These findings contradict the findings from Wulf’s adult experiments which showed better movement performances from individuals using an external focus of attention. Emanuel (2008) concluded that the findings from the dart throwing experiment may be due to the low experience levels of the children. Adult performers show more automatic motor control from prior experience/practice of the movement skill. Unlike adults, children may use body movement guidance (instructions on internal focus of attention) to improve their motor learning. Another explanation given by Emanuel (2008) is that children have different information processing skills compared to adults. Children often collect irrelevant cues from the environment and process information at slower rates compared to adults. The differences in information processing result in poor performances when children are focusing on external cues.

Practical Applications for Children

Recommendations for Instructors

Instructors should facilitate an internal focus of attention when teaching children (Emanuel, 2008). This can be accomplished by providing them with internal cues such as focusing on wrist movement and leg movement when shooting a basketball. Benefits from an internal focus of attention diminish as the child transitions to adulthood because of improvements in their information processing skills. Once the child is old enough to attend to relevant cues and stimuli, then the instructor should provide external cues to facilitate an external focus of attention. Instead of telling the participant to focus on wrist movement during a basketball shot they should be instructed to focus on external cues such as the rim. Instructors should reflect on the performance results of their participants to determine if they are at the age when internal focus of attention is more beneficial or if they are old enough to benefit from external focus of attention.

Tips for Instructors

The following tips are based on the evidence that an internal focus of attention is more beneficial for children than an external focus of attention:

  • Instructors should try minimizing the amount of external cues and stimuli during the training of children. This can include practicing in an environment that does not have distracting stimuli for children such as other groups in the same environment, parents, and other hazards such as poor equipment or cars.
  • Instructing children by describing proper body movements and techniques will provide children with an internal focus of attention
  • Instructors should have children focus on their own body movements instead of the equipment or environment
  • The use of internal cue words should be used instead of external cue words
  • If the instructor cannot remove irrelevant cues they should allow the child to adjust to his or her environment before teaching complex movement skills


Chun, M. M., Golomb, D. J, & Turk-Browne, B. N. (2011). A taxonomy of external and internal attention. An Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 73-101. Retrieved from

Emanuel, M., Jarus, T., & Brat, O. (2008). Effect of focus of attention and age on motor acquisition, retention, and transfer: A randomized trial. Phys Ther, 88(2), 251-60.

Wulf, G. (2007) Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 10 years of research. Bewegung and Training, 1:4e14. Retrieved from

Wulf, G., Lauterbach, B., & Toole, T. (1999). Learning advantages of an external focus of attention in golf. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 70, 120-126.

Wulf, G., McNevin, N., & Shea, C.H. (2001) The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attention focus. Q J Exp Psychol, 54:1143e54. Retrieved from

Zentgraf, K. & Munzert, J. (2009). Effect of attentional focus instructions on movement kinematics. Psychol Sport Exerc. 10:520e5. Retrieved from