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Focus of attention

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  • Pages: 7
  • Word count: 1547
  • Category: Swimming

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Numerous studies over the past 15 years have tested the effects of giving varying instructional cues and types of feedback, specifically related to motor learning and skill acquisition. Within this exploration of attentional cues researchers have primarily been concerned with testing whether there are any discrepancies between promoting an external focus of attention, an internal focus of attention, or neutral focus of attention. This area of study is driven by the constrained action hypothesis, which states that trying to consciously control one’s movements (focusing internally) constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control processes that would normally regulate the movement (Wulf, McNevin, Fuchs, Ritter, & Toole, 2000). If one were to instead focus on the movement effect (focusing externally) the motor system may be able to better self-organize and be free from conscious control, allowing a more effective movement to occur.

Previous studies have backed the constrained action hypothesis and have demonstrated learning and performances advantages in maximal force production skills when participants held external focuses of attention rather than internal or neutral focuses. Porter et al. (2013) discovered increased standing long jump performances when participants focused externally on jumping towards a cone, rather than jumping to “do their best”. Coker (2016) expanded on that study and exhibited that an external focus of attention increased performances considerably more when obtainable goals were present. Marchant, Grieg, and Scott (2009) found that an external focus of attention on a bicep curl task led to a greater force production and lower levels of muscular activity than when compared to an internal or neutral focus of attention during a bicep curling task. Additional research has shown that adopting an external focus of attention leads to increases in performances in complex motor skills involving agility (Porter, Nolan, Ostrowski, & Wulf, 2010), stability (Wulf, McNevin, & Shea, 2001) and golf shooting accuracy (Wulf, Lauterbach, & Toole, 1999). External foci of attention have also been shown to increase economy of movement in submaximal or continuous motor skills such as running (Schucker, Hagemann, Strauss, & Volker, 2009), and swimming (Freudenheim, Wulf, Madureira, Pasetto, & Correa, 2010).

In relation to motor skill performance, the action of diving off the starting blocks to begin a swimming race is renowned as one of the most important components of swimming in general. (Swander, 2008). The ability to dive into the water rapidly and efficiently is an important skill to gain an advantage over a swimmer’s opponents by creating a lead in all events, ranging from sprints to longer distances. Coaches are constantly looking for ways to improve their swimmer’s ability to enter the water quickly and more effectively. When teaching swimmers how to produce an efficient swimming start, coaches need to give sound instructions to their learners. While previous studies have examined the effect of instructing an external focus of attention on power-based land movements, the proposed experiment explained in this text will test the effects of an external focus of attention in an aquatic setting.

The purpose of the future study will be to examine the effects of different instructional foci on the ‘start’ movement in swimming. This experiment will offer insight on how different attentional foci may affect the performances of a skilled athlete population that has had several years of experience performing swimming starts. Specifically, we want to examine if there are performance advantages in giving any type of attentional focus (internal or external) when compared to a ‘normal’ focus. We additionally would like to compare if an external focus of attention will provide greater performance benefits than when adopting an internal focus of attention. In line with previous research examining the effects of attentional focuses on power-based motor skills, we hypothesize that swimmers in the external condition will perform starts resulting in greater start distances compared to the internal and control conditions.



Forty (N = 40) current members of a Division I swimming team will participate in the study, with gender equally distributed (20 females, 20 males). Participants will be required to have at least four years of competitive swimming experience prior to their time in college and will presumably be familiar with the ‘start’ movement in swimming. Each male and female participant will be randomly selected from the total active members of the university swimming team.

Apparatus and Task

Participants will be performing swimming starts, which is the initial motion used to begin races in three of the four stroke disciplines (freestyle, butterfly, and breaststroke), as well as the individual medley races. Each participant will perform a dive with their prescribed condition instructions and glide for as long as they can, trying to reach the furthest distance possible. The proposed experiment will be conducted within the university’s aquatic center. The pool will be set up for short-course swimming with 25 yards of total length from starting block to bulkhead. Olympic standard starting blocks will be used for participants to dive from. The Olympic standard starting blocks housed in the university’s aquatic center have a seven-inch “fin” protruding from the back of the block allowing for additional power. Participants may adjust the fin to their preferential position when performing their starts. Eight total participants and four members of the research team will be present for each day of data collection. A 100’ Komelon Fiberglass Measuring Tape will be used for measuring distance from the starting block.


Prior to data collection participants will be randomly assigned to a weekday to come to the aquatic center and be tested. Eight participants will be assigned to complete their trials on Monday, eight more on Tuesday, and so on, until all forty participants have been tested. Nine total trials will be completed by each participant on the day of their assigned testing. Upon arriving at the aquatic center, participants will complete a brief 10-minute land warm-up consisting of various jumping and stretching exercises. Following the land warm-up participants will complete two practice starts to acclimate themselves to the motion.

After completing their warm-up starts, all participants will receive the general instructions about the experimental procedure. A member of the research team will explain to participants that they will be “performing swimming starts, with the goal being to reach the furthest distance you can.” The eight present participants will then be randomly split into two groups, one on each side of the pool. Each side of the pool had a ladder attached to the wall, making it easier on participants to exit the pool after performing their starts, as well as making it easier for research members to measure the distance each participant reaches. Four participants will form a line behind the block and wait for further instructions. Once the first participant is positioned correctly on the staring block a member of the research team will read instructions prescribed to their initial experimental condition. Instructions will be read to each participant in a counterbalanced order to control for possible order effects.

Participants will then complete three starts in the initially assigned condition, then wait in line until the three other participants have completed their three trials of their respective condition. To control for variability within participants, a within-subjects design will be used in the study which allows comparison between each participant individuals across each experimental condition. When participants are in the control condition (CON), they will be read the following instructions: “Perform a start as you normally would.” When participants are in the internal focus condition (INT), they will be read the following instructions: “Perform a start, focusing on extending your legs as quickly as possible.” When participants are in the external condition (EXT), they will be read the following instructions: “Perform a start, focusing on pushing off of the fin with as much force as possible.”

After participants complete their dive, one member of the research team will follow the participant along the side of the pool, noting where each participant stops moving. The member of the research team will then measure the distance from the starting block wall to the furthest distance the participants hands reach, once they stop moving. Participants will then exit the pool and walk back to the starting block to complete their next two trials. Once the participant has completed three trials of their initial condition, they will get back in line and wait their turn to perform the next three trials of the next condition. Once all forty participants have completed their nine trials, researchers will send a de-briefing statement explaining the nature and purpose of the proposed study.

Dependent Variables and Analysis

The distance each participants hands reach after each dive will serve as the dependent variable of the study. All trials will be measured in yards and then converted to feet upon completion of all participants’ trials. Because we will use a within-subjects design to test all focuses of attention, we will be able to compare each participant’s dive to their other dives for further analysis. After all data has been collected, researchers will compare each participant’s averaged start distance across each experimental condition. As previously stated in the introduction, we expect to see dives in the external focus condition reaching further distances than the internal or control conditions.  

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