Because there is an absence of literature regarding the effects of various attentional foci on specific biomechanical sprint variables, especially kinetic sprint variables, this section will make suggestions based on the previous literature in motor behavior and biomechanics. With regard to sprinting, numerous biomechanical studies have researched the key performance variables needed to sprint optimally (38,39,53,65). One of the primary methods for enhancing sprint velocity is through the application of large mass-specific ground reaction forces (GRFs), over a minimal amount of time (i.e., 0.101–0.083 seconds) (33) during the stance phase (9,11,64). Skilled sprinters achieve high maximal velocities compared with non-sprinters (10.4 ± 0.3 versus 8.7 ± 0.3 m·s−1) by applying larger vertical ground reaction forces (vGRF) during the first half (2.65 ± 0.05 versus 2.21 ± 0.05 N·N−1 or “bodyweights”) of the stance phase during a stride cycle of sprinting (11). Furthermore, elite sprinters have higher hip extension velocity (∼835°/s versus ∼735°/s) and swing back velocity (∼605°/s versus ∼450°/s) compared with their slower counterparts (2). Based on the mechanical determinants of maximal velocity sprinting, coaches could use external focus of attention instructions or cues to enhance sprint performance by asking the athlete to “step down hard” or “accelerate into the ground with maximum effort,” thereby potentially augmenting the athlete's relative GRFs and subsequent sprint velocity.
It has been reported that elite 100-m sprinters (those running in the range of 9.90–9.58 seconds) positively accelerate to ∼50–70 m into the race (24,30), with the best sprinters accelerating furthest into the race. Therefore, using external focus instructions and cues emphasizing, accelerating as far into the run as possible is suggested, as this technique is applied by elite sprint coaches (e.g., “push as far into the run as possible”) (4).
There have been a number of studies performed showing that providing external focus instructions and cues results in enhanced efficiency at a neuromuscular level. Specifically, an external focus has been associated with lower muscle activation than an internal focus when measured by surface electromyography (28,63,72,80), enhanced running economy (by enhanced oxygen consumption efficiency) (57), promotion of phasic heart rate deceleration just before performing a motor skill (42,54), and reduction in heart rate during physical exertion (40) during a variety of activities. Sprinting is a complex motor skill involving numerous muscle groups that must be contracted at appropriate times and intensities throughout the stride cycle to maximize sprint performance. Thereby, optimizing the timing of agonist and antagonist muscle activation, promoting decreased co-contraction at inappropriate times during the stride cycle may subsequently improve sprint velocity (56). Based on the current literature, external attentional focus instructions have been shown to reduce antagonist muscle activity during motor skill execution (27) and overall muscle activation while concurrently enhancing dynamic motor skill performance (72). There is a potential for external and neutral focus of attention instructions and cues to promote more efficient muscle activation and more optimal timing of the agonist and antagonist muscles involved during sprinting to enhance sprinting ability at a neuromuscular level. However, further research will need to be performed to verify this presumption.
Motor learning literature has shown that providing external attentional focus feedback to athletes results in higher learning rates when compared with an internal focus condition (74). Interestingly, in the study by Wulf et al. (74) it was observed that the withdrawal of internal focus feedback to the athletes enhanced their performance to a point where it was equivocal to that of the external focus instruction group. Such a finding suggests that providing internal focusing feedback had a depressing effect on motor learning. The effects of instructing, cueing, and providing feedback emphasizing external attentional focus can additionally transfer over to novel sport conditions, such as high-stress situations (7,43), which may prevent athletes from choking under pressure in competition settings. Ong et al. (43) found that providing external focus instructions promoted an enhanced rate of skill acquisition while simultaneously resulting in positive performance under pressure, whereas internal focus instructions resulted in a slower rate of skill acquisition and poorer performance under pressure among participants. Based on the existing literature, it seems likely that providing external and/or neutral focus of attention instructions and cues to athletes may result in an expedited motor learning process and an enhanced ability to sprint at a high level under pressure situations such as those experienced when peers are watching and during competition.
Sports science literature has shown that providing external focus of attention instructions and cues can result in a lower rating of perceived exertion (RPE) for athletes (12) and has been shown to reduce the perceived level of difficulty for a practiced task (41,57). Relevant to sprinting, in 2 attentional focus running studies, Ziv et al. (81) and Schücker et al. (57) both found that when participants were given external focus instructions, they had lower RPE scores compared with internal focus instructional groups. Furthermore, Lohse and Sherwood (26) found that individuals had an increased resistance to fatigue when focusing externally rather than internally. With regard to sprinting, directing attention externally may therefore help promote an improved sprint performance by enhancing an athlete's resistance to fatigue.
Quality refers to the ability of the verbal instructions and cues to achieve the intended result on administration to the athlete. Because providing external focus verbal instructions and cues has been shown to enhance sprint performance (32,50,52,60), while internal focus instructions and cues have been shown to depress performance, the benchmark for quality is evident. Providing external focus of attention instructions and cues may improve novice and intermediate athlete sprint performance, whereas providing external and neutral focus of attention instructions and cues ensures the likelihood that expert athletes will sprint at more optimal levels. Coaches are encouraged to provide external focus of attention instructions and cues to novice and intermediate athletes, while providing external and neutral focus of attention instructions and cues to expert athletes to enhance sprint performance. Verbal instructions and cues should be specific to the phase of the sprint the athlete is to perform (i.e., acceleration, maximal velocity, deceleration–speed endurance) and specific to the areas of improvement the athlete needs to make to improve biomechanical efficiency and thus sprint performance. Examples of quality instructions and cues that can be provided to athletes can be found in Table 2.
With regard to frequency of instruction and cues provided to athletes, to the author's knowledge, no studies have been performed with the intent to specifically explore this idea with sprinting. However, the 4 studies (18,32,50,52) that have examined how altering focus of attention effects sprint performance, all provided the verbal cues or instructions before each trial (i.e., 100% frequency). Taking these studies collectively, what is known is that a 100% provision level for external and neutral focus of attention instructions is likely to result in sprint performance improvements dependent on the skill level of the athlete. Therefore, based on the current literature, to enhance the sprint performance of athletes, coaches are encouraged to administer external and neutral verbal instructions to athletes before each sprint repetition. What is not known is how a reduced frequency of verbal instruction and cue administration would affect sprinting ability. For example, what if verbal cues were administered every-other sprint repetition or only once during a set of multiple sprint runs? A number of these issues still need to be clarified. This is an important issue considering that previous research has demonstrated that reducing the frequency of feedback provided after trials results in enhanced learning compared with feedback provided after each trial; furthermore, delaying feedback administration for several seconds has been found to be more effective in promoting learning compared with feedback provided during or immediately after motor skill performance (23). However, Wulf et al. (76) found that a 100% provision rate for feedback was more beneficial for complex motor skills, as has been suggested by Eriksson et al. (15); though, this issue may be dependent on the expertise level of the athlete. Although the research previously mentioned focused on feedback administration, instruction and cue provision is likely to have similar effects on the attentional focus and subsequent performance of the individual.
One area that is underdeveloped in motor behavior literature is how the quantity of verbal instructions and cues affect motor skill performance. In regard to short-term memory, our biological limit is about 4 items (or chunks) of information on average (13). Similarly, it is known that verbal instructions and cues can have an impact on working memory, which is closely tied to the efficacy of motor skill acquisition (36). The conscious processing hypothesis (45) states the load placed on working memory has a direct impact on performance, with internal focus instructions having a greater demand on working memory compared with external focus instructions. As a result, poorer performances associated with the adoption of an internal focus of attention may be the byproduct of increased working memory demands placed on the individual. This may be a result of internal focus instructions and cues in particular, having a larger amount of information (i.e., quantity), which may disrupt working memory by engaging explicit processing of mechanical rules about how to perform sprinting (36), thus potentially causing a decrement in sprint performance. We propose that providing short and concise external directing instructions will lessen the demand that is placed on the athlete's working memory and therefore lead to enhanced sprinting ability.
Based on the current evidence available, coaches are encouraged to provide either external and/or neutral focus of attention instructions and cues to athletes at 100% frequency levels with the quantity of verbal instructions and cues kept minimal. Verbal instructions and cues used during training should be specific to the biomechanical areas in need of most immediate improvement. The coach should take note of landmark positions in the stance and flight phases of the stride cycle (e.g., toe-on, toe-off, mid-stance, and mid-flight positions). Based on the coach's evaluation of the athletes' mechanics in the various phases of the stride cycle, specific verbal instructions and cues can then be implemented in order of priority. Identification of the mechanical flaw in need of the most improvement should be the top priority for implementation of verbal instructions and cues; identification and improvement of the main biomechanical flaws may augment multiple other biomechanical subareas that may have also been in need of improvement (44). For example, a coach that has an athlete who becomes fully upright within the first 3 steps of the starting blocks during practice may encourage the athlete to “Keep a straight posture while driving out at an aggressively low angle and claw the track back for the first 10–15 m.” Encouraging a more straight forward leaning torso angle during acceleration may potentially enhance the orientation of the resultant force vector in the horizontal direction during toe-off and thus may result in faster acceleration velocity as a byproduct of higher net anteroposterior GRF (53), which has been associated with faster sprinting velocity more than less acute torso and shin angles at take-off (16,21).
Because of the nature of competition, stress and anxiety will likely be heightened during these periods, potentially leading to a higher chance of the athlete choking due to the performance pressures (6). Therefore, it is especially important for coaches to be very careful with the quality and quantity of the verbal instructions and cues that are provided to the athlete during competition. Verbal instructions and cues provided during competition should elicit an external or neutral focus of attention and should be brief in nature to enhance sprint performance and to prevent the choking phenomenon from occurring (7,52,60). An example of an external and neutral focus of attention instruction during competition would be “Push through with an aggressive acceleration velocity and stay relaxed during the later stage of the race.”
Coaches can implement external and/or neutral focus of attention instructions and cues to enhance sprint performance in athletes by simply encouraging a movement goal while omitting body parts and/or limbs when providing instructions and cues. For example, as opposed to saying to an athlete, “Accelerate your foot down hard into the ground during maximal velocity,” the coach could alternatively say, “Accelerate down hard into the ground during maximal velocity.” The movement goal is stated and the referencing to body parts is omitted, leading the athlete to potentially focus externally, thus leading to a greater chance for enhanced sprint performance due to enhanced vGRF during maximal velocity.
In summary, the way coaches provide athletes verbal instructions and cues plays an integral role in the skill development of sprinting. Because sprinting is a critical locomotor skill that is an essential determining factor in numerous team and individual sports, it is imperative that coaches use as many methods as possible to enhance the biomotor ability of speed. As this article demonstrates, providing appropriate verbal instructions and cues is a simple and effective way to enhance sprint performance in athletes. More specifically, the current literature suggests that verbal instructions and cues administered to the athlete should emphasize an external or neutral focus of attention to optimize sprinting performance. However, further research will need to be conducted to determine the mechanisms that underpin how sprint performance changes occur and the extent that instruction and cue frequency and quantity affect sprint performance.
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