Effects of attentional-focus instructions on movement kinematics

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Background:Recent research has shown that internal (body-related) attention-focus instructions disrupt motor learning and performance, whereas paying attention to the environmental effects of movements (external focus) leads to better performance than an internal focus [see, for reviews, Wulf, G. (2007). Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 10 years of research. E-Journal Bewegung und Training, 1, 4–14.; Wulf, G., & Prinz, W. (2001). Directing attention to movement effects enhances learning: a review. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8, 648–660.]. However, Beilock's studies [Beilock, S. L., Bertenthal, B. I., McCoy, A. M., & Carr, T. H. (2004). Haste does not always make waste: expertise, direction of attention, and speed versus accuracy in performing sensorimotor skills. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11, 373–379.] suggest that an internal focus is detrimental in experts but not in novices. Because detrimental effects of consciously attending to movements have generally been measured by performance scores such as accuracy scores or reaction times, it remains unclear how internal and external attentional-focus instructions influence movement kinematics when learning a new skill. To fill this gap, the present study investigated attentional-focus effects on a biomechanical level.Methods:A video of an expert juggler demonstrating a two-ball juggling task was presented to juggling novices. Experimental groups were given either body-related (internal group) or ball-related (external group) verbal instructions or no attention-guiding instructions (control group). In the retention phase without attention-guiding instructions, the body-movement and ball-flight aspects of performance focused on in the verbal instruction were subjected to biomechanical analyses.Results and Conclusions:Juggling performance improved equally in all three groups. However, internally vs. externally instructed acquisition phases had differential effects on the kinematics of the upper body as well as ball trajectories when performing the juggling task. Remarkably, ball trajectories in the control group who received no specific attentional cueing were similar to those in the externally instructed group. This suggests that task-relevant information is picked up independently of instructions, and that external instructions provide redundant information. Internal instructions for object-related tasks, however, may confront novice learners with the need to process additional information. As a result, task difficulty might be unnecessarily enhanced in an observational learning setting.

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