When should we pay attention to external vs. internal cues when learning or practicing MTB skills?
The research is murky, and the implementation is confusing, but the effort to understand might be worth it
It's never occurred to me to think deeply about how I could focus my attention on external vs. internal cues as a way to get better at mountain biking. Instead, I've only had a simple framework of when and where to focus my eyes, what my body is doing, and what my feet and hands are doing where they touch the bike.
When researching my Feb. 27 post on immediate vs. delayed feedback, I noticed that external focus was the feature for Strategy #4 in the GMB Fitness article Learn Movement Skills Faster with these 5 Motor Learning Strategies. The author, Jarlo Ilano, wrote:
With internal cues, you’re focused on the internal experience of the movement, whereas with external cues, you’re more aware of the external effects of the movement.
My recent practice to improve my high manuals (a chunk towards a higher bunny hop) is a good example of internal focus:
Note my internal cue language in that post:
“briefly keep my hips back and low while keeping my arms straight”
“adding the leg/arm extension move to a high manual but on a slope”
An example of external focus: When I’m riding a skinny, it seems to help to focus my eyes on an object that is a bike-length or two ahead instead of immediately in front of the wheel:
Ilano clearly favors external focus in his article:
While you might think an internal focus would create a better motor learning environment, an external focus is correlated with better skill performance, both short and long-term.
Some puzzling research that supports external focus
Ilano didn't provide any resources, so I decided to dig deeper. Twenty years ago, there was considerable research in motor skills academia on whether an internal vs. external focus is more effective. And the consensus was: external is better.
numerous studies conducted over the past decade or so have provided considerable evidence that an external focus of attention is beneficial not only for more advanced performers but for the inexperienced or novice as well. An external focus is not only more effective for performance and learning, compared to an internal focus, but also results in greater movement economy. That is, an external focus appears to speed the learning process so that a higher skill level is achieved sooner. (Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2010). Effortless motor learning? An external focus of attention enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency)
One of the prominent researchers to support this, Gabriele Wulf, described her experience with learning windsurfing which was instrumental in her examining external focus. [See Footnote1 for the complete quotation]
I found it startling that she differentiated between:
The pressure [my feet] were exerting on the board to change its direction.
A focus on the tilt of the board while turning.
This seemingly minuscule difference — in this example, the use of the word ‘feet’ for internal focus —gets mentioned often in the literature and by coaches who refer to it.
Here’s my off-the-cuff list of different ways coaches could phrase the internal and external instructions for turning while windsurfing:
Coach 1 “Use your feet to apply pressure on the board to change its direction.”
Coach 2: “Tilt the board to change direction.”
Coach 3: “Use your feet to tilt the board to change direction.”
Coach 4: “What’s happening with your feet when the board changes direction?”
Coach 5: “What’s happening with the board when it changes direction?”
I’m perplexed about why it would be helpful to assert that only Coach 2 and Coach 5 are using the correct external approach because they don’t use the word ‘feet.’
Moreover, I couldn't find any coach-written articles online implementing this nuance with examples of how it made a significant difference.
Questionable research rationale for an exclusive external focus
The rationale for external focus, according to this 2014 article in LER Magazine, Internal vs external focus: Effects on motor learning, focuses on the negative aspect of conscious control:
Research increasingly supports the view that external focus affects motor learning by directing the attention to the outcomes of movements instead of the movements themselves. The goal is to make actions more automatic and reduce conscious control; and although the mechanism by which this takes place remains murky, internal focus triggers neural activity in the self-system (the collection of drives and responses relating to self-perception) and thereby degrades performance.
That seems relevant for someone accomplished in the skill, but it's hard to understand why it would be effective for someone new to learning the skill. Hypothetical MTB coach says to a newbie: “Here’s a big gap jump. Focus on the landing and just send it.” Um, no.
Gabriele Wulf’s 2016 research paper points to the “anticipation of positive experience” that involves the neurochemical of dopamine to support the idea that external focus is most effective. [See Footnote 2]
Yes, dopamine is the molecule of desire. If you have no clue how to turn while windsurfing and a coach tells you to tilt the board, you might be motivated to follow your coach’s directive. But that’s not an intrinsic or extrinsic trigger for a dopamine boost. Only when you feel the positive result of how the board turns when you tilt it do you get excited with “anticipation of positive experience” the next time you’re practicing the move.
The reality of focus when learning
U.K. skiing coach and Parallel Dreams founder Derek Tate wrote a 2019 article that explains this nuance titled, Focus of attention in sport: Internal or external?
Tate creates three categories of focus for skiing that I think map perfectly to mountain biking:
Body (internal) focusing on body movements, balance, and pressure points
Equipment (internal/external blend) focusing on how the body’s interaction with the equipment creates different effects
Environment (external terrain)
Tate then adds the critical nuance, evidently based on his experience, not any rigorous research:
It is also worth mentioning, at this point, that the learner’s attention will often be on both an internal and external focus at the same time, but as the skill becomes more acquired, the percentage of attention will shift more and more externally, allowing the movements to happen with less conscious effort.
When learning, focus on one thing (internal or external) during a practice session
Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman speaks to a variation of what Tate asserts. Here are some excerpts from his Huberman Lab podcast, episode 20, How to Learn Skills Faster.
Note his emphasis on chunking but with the caveat of spending an entire practice session focused on just one element of that chunk:
It turns out it doesn't matter so much what you pay attention to during the learning sequence provided it's something related to the motor behavior that you're performing.
If I decide I'm going to cue my attention to something very specific, like maybe how tightly I'm holding [a tennis racket] or maybe it's my stance, or maybe it's whether or not I rotate my right shoulder as I hit the ball across. It turns out that as long as it's the same thing throughout the session, learning is accelerated.
... you should use your powers of attention to direct your attention to particular aspects of a motor movement once you're familiar with the general theme of the movement. But what you pay attention to exactly is not important. What's important is that you pay attention to one specific thing.
So we're breaking the learning process down into its component parts, as we get more and more skilled… changing it up each time. Maybe I serve the tennis ball and I'm focusing on where the ball lands, and then I'm focusing on the speed, and then I'm focusing on my grip, and then I'm focusing on my stance. You can't try and change them all at once.
The important thing to consider when deciding what to focus on is whether you’re early in the learning process of a skill or a chunk of a skill, in the middle range where you’re trying to put the chunks together, or at a more advanced stage where you’ve got all the elements of a skill but are working on greater consistency.
Learning individual chunks of a mountain biking skill requires a blend of internal and equipment-centered external focus to learn effectively.
When practicing these chunks, focus on one aspect of that chunk during the entire practice session (it's OK to work on other chunks of a different skill during that practice session)
As you combine the chunks into a sequence, gradually shift to a more external focus (typically for mountain biking, it's where to focus your eyes.) Why? Because unconscious complexity improves effectiveness. (Baseball Hall of Fame member Yogi Berra's notable quote comes to mind: "How can you think and hit at the same time?")
Example: my current project for increasing the height of my bunny hop
My effort to improve the height of my bunny hop (in part so I can improve the arm extension motion to get over bigger boulders and logs) has involved working on several chunks.
Last fall, this involved improving a chunk: the height of my manual front-wheel lift, a precursor to the extension motion for a bunny hop.
There are several elements to a manual front-wheel lift, and I identified two weaknesses: 1. a weak compression and 2. a weak tug on the bars while triggering the leg extension.
After consulting with a fellow coach, I improved the weak compression in two separate practice sessions by focusing entirely on the feeling of a sharp stomp of my feet/pedals as I lowered my hip-hinged torso (internal/external blend focusing on the body’s interaction with the equipment).
Retrospection #1: I mistakenly started mixing in work on the other weakness in both those sessions: feeling a stronger tug of my fingers on the grips as my hips moved back horizontally from the sharp leg extension. I know now that I should have kept it separate.
Retrospection #2: Putting those two sub-chunks together for a high manual front-wheel lift chunk probably took longer than it needed to because I didn't give any thought about what to focus on for the blended motion. As I think back, I have no recollection of a focal point. Instead, I vaguely remember, "Well, let's see if this works," and then using some gamification to improve my consistency over several practice sessions.
I know now that I should have picked a spot on the ground as the focal point to trigger the manual and let unconscious complexity do the rest.
When spring arrives, I'll revisit this chunk before I move on to the next one: the explosive arm extension as the hips move rearward, leveling out the bike.
I'm looking forward to it and curious about what more I might learn about internal and external focus.
Update, April 17:
Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years, International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2013, Vol. 6, No. 1, 77-104, Gabriele Wulf:
The line of research examining the influence of an internal versus external focus of attention began with my personal experience in windsurfing. While practicing a power jibe, I found that directing attention to the position of my feet, the pressure they were exerting on the board to change its direction, or the location of my hands on the boom, resulted in many failed attempts and frequent falls into the water over several hours of practice.
With the spontaneous decision to simply focus on the tilt of the board while turning came instantaneous success. Even though not all subsequent jibes were flawless, the difference in the quality and fluidity of the jibes resulting from my change in attentional focus was striking. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first experiments we conducted to examine the effectiveness of instructions inducing an internal or external focus of attention involved balance tasks.
We suggest that motivational and attentional factors contribute to performance and learning by strengthening the coupling of goals to actions. We provide explanations for the performance and learning advantages of these variables on psychological and neuroscientific grounds. We describe a plausible mechanism for expectancy effects rooted in responses of dopamine to the anticipation of positive experience and temporally associated with skill practice. Learner autonomy acts perhaps largely through an enhanced expectancy pathway. Furthermore, we consider the influence of an external focus for the establishment of efficient functional connections across brain networks that subserve skilled movement. We speculate that enhanced expectancies and an external focus propel performers' cognitive and motor systems in productive "forward" directions and prevent "backsliding" into self- and non-task focused states. Expected success presumably breeds further success and helps consolidate memories. We discuss practical implications and future research directions.