Internal vs External Attentional Focus? It depends…

Verbal instructions given to individuals who are learning motor tasks have two types of attentional focuses, externally-focused and internally focused cues. Instructions with an external focus of attention refer to the effects of body movements instead of the movements themselves while internally focused cues directly address the movement of the body or specific body parts (Poolton, Maxwell, Masters, & Raab, 2005). Sam Leahey has good examples of internal and external cues for various exercises and movements in this article.  Whether the use of externally-focused versus internally-focused cues is more efficacious in the learning of motor tasks is controversial in the research.

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Like many topics in Kinesiology, I believe the answer to which attentional focus is better, internal or external, is it depends. What is the purpose of performing the targeted skill? If one is performing a squat, is he or she trying to move better, increase aesthetics (i.e., muscle size), or achieve a weightlifting PR? If a client is doing squats to move better, internal cues may be more effective for optimizing positioning of the knees, feet, and chest. In clients with aesthetic goals, the aim of squatting may be to increase gluteus hypertrophy. Research performed by Calatayud et al. (2016) demonstrated that an internal focus of attention on using certain muscles while performing a bench press increased muscle activity in the specific muscles on loads under 80% of 1RM. Lastly, when the goal of squatting is maximal strength, an external attentional focus is likely to result in better performance according to a study by Halperin, Williams, Martin, and Chapman (2015). They observed that participants with external focuses of attention exerted 9% more force on an isometric mid-thigh pulling exercise compared to participants with internal focuses.

In many studies, performance outcome measures are used to demonstrate the effectiveness of external attentional focus. In research by Wulf, Gartner, McConnel, and Schwarz (2002) task success is measured by how accurately participants hit target areas. The study by Poolton et al. (2005) judged success from accuracy on the putting task. Not all sports training and fitness activities have these kinds of outcome-based goals. Many who weightlift can display impressive amounts of strength despite under-recruiting certain muscles like the gluteal muscles or use of risky techniques. Internal cuing may be warranted to improve recruitment of proper muscles. Volleyball players can focus on jumping faster and higher all day, but if they exhibit knee valgus or other form flaws their success potential is limited and their injury risk is heightened. Internal cues may be necessary to bring a conscious focus back to a pattern that was learned incorrectly.

References

Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Brandt, M…Anderson, L. L. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116(3): 527-533.

Halperin, I., Williams, K., Martin, D. T., & Chapman, D. W. (2015). The effects of attentional focusing instructions on force production during the isometric mid-thigh pull. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001194

Poolton, J. M., Maxwell, J. P., Masters, R. S., & Raab, M. (2005). Benefits of an external focus of attention: Common coding or conscious processing? Journal of Sports Sciences, 24(1): 89-99.

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Will Power and Healthy Habits

Psychological deterrents to exercise and healthy eating adherence are of great interest to me. We’ve previously discussed that people who are more skillful may be more likely to be active, and self-efficacy research reveals that an individual’s belief in his or her ability to successfully do an activity is a large determinant of if he or she will actually do it (Clarke, 2015; Jongen et al., 2016). Other psychological factors contributing to adherence are support and willpower.

A meta-analysis by Burke, Carron, Eys, Ntoumanis, and Estabrooks (2006) demonstrated the value of contact and/or social support in exercise. The more contact and social support available, the greater the adherence was as well as the beneficial effects of the exercise (Burke et al., 2006). I believe this is the reason activities such as Crossfit and spin classes have such loyal patrons. The group or team dynamics increase members’ consistency and, therefore, their results.

Willpower, synonymous with the concepts of self-control and active volition, is another psychological component of diet and exercise adherence. The Fell article (2011) mentions that willpower is a limited resource that gets depleted throughout the day, therefore, the morning is the best time for one to make the decision to exercise. Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice (1998) further demonstrated that one’s willpower is limited and one’s willpower in a certain task (for example, exercise) can be depleted by unrelated acts (such as willpower at work) that share this common resource.

Willpower is important for anyone who is trying to change habits, especially those involving diet or exercise, to understand, as relying solely on will power may not be the most effective method. One of my favorite fitness bloggers, Sohee Lee, writes a lot about how willpower comes into play with diet goals. She discusses how restrained eating (when an individual must resist the urge to eat particular “forbidden” foods) draws more on one’s willpower reserves than unrestrained eating (no food is off-limits), and, often, counter-regulatory eating (overeating “forbidden” foods) results from a period of high restraint (Lee, 2016). Because of this, she recommends a no-food-off-limits approach to healthy eating, and that one should make small changes week by week toward healthier eating as opposed to drastic ones. The less willpower required the more likely the healthy habits will last.

References

Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource [Abstract]? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74(5):1252-65.

Burke, S. M., Carron, A. V., Eys, M. A., Ntoumanis, N., & Estabrooks, P. A. (2006). Group versus individual approach? A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of interventions to promote physical activity. Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, 2(1), 19-35.

Clark, J. E. (1995). On becoming skillful: Patterns and constraints. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 66(3), 173-183.

Fell, J. S. (2011, April 4). For best exercise, don’t be lonely or late. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-fitness-exercise-adherence-20110404,0,746272.story

Jongen, P. J., Heerings, M., Ruimschotel, R., Hussaarts, A., Duyverman, L., van der Zande, A., & … Visser, L. H. (2016). Intensive social cognitive treatment (can do treatment) with participation of support partners in persons with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis: Observation of improved self-efficacy, quality of life, anxiety and depression 1 year later. BMC Research Notes, 91-8. doi:10.1186/s13104-016-2173-5

Lee, S. (2016) Why can’t I stick to my diet: The what-the-hell effect explained. Sohee Fit. Retrieved from http://www.soheefit.com/what-the-hell/

Sprint Development and Motor Programming Theories

Sprinting is a motor skill used by many athletes to achieve goals in their particular sports. Soccer players sprint up and down a field chasing a soccer ball or opponent player and making breakaways. Baseball players sprint from base to base, and football players sprint to get the ball into the end zone or to make themselves available for a pass. Rugby, lacrosse, and basketball require running as well. These athletes must sprint quickly and efficiently to out-play opponents and sustain performance for the duration of a match. Motor program theories postulate the way our bodies learn and store knowledge about coordinated movements, such as sprinting. Two popular motor theories are the general motor and dynamic systems theories. General motor programs originate movement patterns in the central nervous system. These movements have specific invariant features and flexible parameters that help one adapt the movement to the environment. Dynamic systems propose that movement instructions arise from one’s environmental constraints. These patterns self-organize into stable states defined by order parameters, and they are dynamic within certain control parameters (Magill & Anderson, 2013). Understanding motor theories can help coaches develop athletes’ motor skills with the use of drills that vary appropriate variables to ensure the specific motor skill is being practiced.

Motor program theories postulate the way our bodies learn and store knowledge about coordinated movements, such as sprinting. Two popular motor theories are the general motor and dynamic systems theories. General motor programs originate movement patterns in the central nervous system. These movements have specific invariant features and flexible parameters that help one adapt the movement to the environment. Dynamic systems propose that movement instructions arise from one’s environmental constraints. These patterns self-organize into stable states defined by order parameters, and they are dynamic within certain control parameters (Magill & Anderson, 2013). Understanding motor theories can help coaches develop athletes’ motor skills with the use of drills that vary appropriate variables to ensure the specific motor skill is being practiced.

Two popular motor theories are the general motor and dynamic systems theories. General motor programs originate movement patterns in the central nervous system. These movements have specific invariant features and flexible parameters that help one adapt the movement to the environment. Dynamic systems propose that movement instructions arise from one’s environmental constraints. These patterns self-organize into stable states defined by order parameters, and they are dynamic within certain control parameters (Magill & Anderson, 2013). Understanding motor theories can help coaches develop athletes’ motor skills with the use of drills that vary appropriate variables to ensure the specific motor skill is being practiced.

Motor program theories postulate the way our bodies learn and store knowledge about coordinated movements, such as sprinting. Two popular motor theories are the general motor and dynamic systems theories. General motor programs originate movement patterns in the central nervous system. These movements have specific invariant features and flexible parameters that help one adapt the movement to the environment. Dynamic systems propose that movement instructions arise from one’s environmental constraints. These patterns self-organize into stable states defined by order parameters, and they are dynamic within certain control parameters (Magill & Anderson, 2013). Understanding motor theories can help coaches develop athletes’ motor skills with the use of drills that vary appropriate variables to ensure the specific motor skill is being practiced.

Motor program theories postulate the way our bodies learn and store knowledge about coordinated movements, such as sprinting. Two popular motor theories are the general motor and dynamic systems theories. General motor programs originate movement patterns in the central nervous system. These movements have specific invariant features and flexible parameters that help one adapt the movement to the environment. Dynamic systems propose that movement instructions arise from one’s environmental constraints. These patterns self-organize into stable states defined by order parameters, and they are dynamic within certain control parameters (Magill & Anderson, 2013). Understanding motor theories can help coaches develop athletes’ motor skills with the use of drills that vary appropriate variables to ensure the specific motor skill is being practiced.  Successful sprinting relies on the reciprocal patterning of the arms and legs.  The left arm moves in the opposite direction of the right arm and left leg. Similarly, the right arm moves opposite of the left arm and right leg. A kinematic analysis of arm movements in sprinting by Bhowmick and Bhattacharyya (1988) demonstrated that this arm movement creates angular momentum to counterbalance the angular momentum produced by hip rotation from the leg movement, and it helps elicit forceful leg drive to increase the overall velocity forward.

Successful sprinting relies on the reciprocal patterning of the arms and legs.  The left arm moves in the opposite direction of the right arm and left leg. Similarly, the right arm moves opposite of the left arm and right leg. A kinematic analysis of arm movements in sprinting by Bhowmick and Bhattacharyya (1988) demonstrated that this arm movement creates angular momentum to counterbalance the angular momentum produced by hip rotation from the leg movement, and it helps elicit forceful leg drive to increase the overall velocity forward.

Utilizing the generalized motor program theory, I could improve an athlete’s running ability with drills that reinforce the reciprocal patterns of the arms and legs. Drills could initially start from the on floor, using Perry Nickelston’s (n. d.) Primal Gait exercise where, while lying prone, one presses his or her shoulder and the opposite thigh into the ground and extends the opposite shoulder and thigh away from the ground, then alternates to the reciprocal position. The next drill we can progress to is an arm and opposite leg raising from a quadruped position, followed by crawling in the quadruped position using the same reciprocal arm and leg motions. I could then progress my client to walking, or marching, upright with the reciprocal arm and leg patterning and implement another exercise such as a single leg step up with knee drive and reciprocal arm movement to increase strength, power, and stability in this pattern.

When searching the internet for the dynamic systems approach in relation to sprinting, the name Frans Bosch appears frequently. He is a well-known sprinting and jumping coach who consults for many European sports teams. It is a challenge to find original information from Frans Bosch on the internet that is free and in English, but available sources do indicate the value he places on using a dynamic systems approach to train athletes in a way that best transfers to their performance settings. Bosch uses unique coaching techniques and cues to elicit unconscious movement responses (West Ham United FC, 2014). Through drills, he aims to create conditions that optimize the self-organizing system’s chance of finding a satisfactory solution (Hargrove, 2016).

Frans Bosch’s ideas can be incorporated when using dynamic systems theory to develop sprinting. For example, the game of tag allows players to transition from standing still to walking to sprinting based on demands of the environment. This demonstrates the nonlinear behavior that is typical of dynamic systems as participants move through unsteady transition states to attractor ones. Further, the game of tag allows systems to self-organize into the best movement solution for given circumstance. Another possible exercise utilizing dynamic systems theory involves performing sprinting drills on varying terrain (i.e., sand, turf, dirt, grass, hills, winding path, straight path, etc.). This applies dynamic systems theory by altering the constraints of sprinting in order to develop robustness in the skill, another concept that Frans Bosch is a proponent of (West Ham United FC, 2014).

I think that both motor theories have a place in training a particular motor skill such as sprinting. As a coach, I apply both approaches, separately and together, to train my athletes. I progress players from generalized motor program-based drills for reciprocal patterning to dynamic systems drills that call for self-organization, environment-elicited behaviors, and nonlinear state transitions. My goal as a coach is to best prepare my athletes for sports performance and skill robustness to ensure success and reduce injury risk, and I believe that utilizing both systems is the best way to do that.

References

Bhowmick, S., & Bhattacharyya, A. (1988). Kinematic analysis of arm movements in sprint start [Abstract]. Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness, 28(4), 315-323.

Hargrove, T. (2016). Review of “Strength training and coordination: An integrative approach” by Frans Bosch. Better Movement by Todd Hargrove. Retrieved from http://www.bettermovement.org/blog/2016/review-of-strength-training-and-coordination-an-integrative-approach-by-frans-bosch

Magill, R. A., & Anderson, D. I. (2013). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications (10th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Nickelston, P. (n. d). Moving beyond mobility manual 2.0. Retrieved from stopchasingpain.com

West Ham United FC. (2014). The team behind the team [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0nZsAHdDyQ

Bridging the Gap Between Artist and Architect

Have you ever heard the artist vs. architect analogy?

An architect spends years in studying the math, physics, and engineering concepts that lie behind designing a magnificent structure. He draws out the design taking all of this into account. This design is used to create an amazing building that stands up against time.

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An artist sees the building and skillfully recreates it.

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What’s the difference?

The architect understands why the structure is designed a certain way: Why certain materials are used, why specific angles are important, etc. There is a certain amount of artistry to an architect’s work, but it comes within the parameters of structural engineering concepts.

The artist recognizes patterns, angles, and shapes and recreates them but doesn’t understand the “why’s.”

In the world of fitness and coaching, I’m on a journey, bridging the gap between an artist and an architect. Most days I feel like an artist. I observe what reputable coaches do and copy it. I borrow great ideas from multiple coaches and mesh them together. I collect their designs, try them out for myself, and bit by bit figure out the “why’s” behind.

One day I want to be an architect in the fitness and coaching world. I want to understand the why enough to design brilliant training programs for people with different needs and goals.

The next steps for me along this journey include 1) working and learning from other coaches 2) continuing to educate myself through reading on a daily basis 3) practicing my coaching and design skills with clients and 4) pursing either my doctorate in physical therapy or masters in kinesiology.

This is my passion, and everyday I’m a little closer to being an architect.

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