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Increasing the Distance of an External Focus of Attention Enhances Standing Long Jump Performance

Porter, Jared M.1; Anton, Philip M.1; Wu, Will F.W.2

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: September 2012 - Volume 26 - Issue 9 - p 2389–2393
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823f275c
Original Research
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Porter, JM, Anton, PM, and Wu, WFW. Increasing the distance of an external focus of attention enhances standing long jump performance. J Strength Cond Res 26(9): 2389–2393, 2012—Numerous studies have demonstrated that using verbal instructions to direct a performers attention externally (i.e., toward the effect of the movement) significantly enhances motor skill performance. Limited research has also demonstrated that increasing the distance of an external focus relative to the body magnifies the effect of an external focus of attention. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effect of increasing the distance of an external focus of attention on standing long jump performance. Using a counterbalanced within-participant design, recreationally trained male subjects (n = 35) performed 2 standing long jumps following 3 different sets of verbal instructions (total of 6 jumps; each separated by 1 minute of seated rest). One set of instructions was designed to focus attention externally near the body (EXN); another set of instructions directed attention externally to a target farther from the body (EXF); the last set of instructions served as a control condition (CON) and did not encourage a specific focus of attention. The results indicated that the EXN and EXF conditions elicited jump distances that were significantly greater than the CON condition. In addition, the subjects in the EXF condition jumped significantly farther than those in the EXN condition. These findings suggest that increasing the distance of an external focus of attention, relative to the body, immediately improves standing long jump performance.

1Department of Kinesiology, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Carbondale, Illinois

2Department of Kinesiology, California State University, Long Beach, California

Address correspondence to Jared M. Porter, jporter@siu.edu.

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Introduction

Numerous studies have demonstrated that consciously directing attention externally rather than internally enhances motor skill performance (for a review, see [15]). An external focus of attention is achieved when conscious attentional resources are directed toward the result of a movement or the effect the movement has on the environment (18). Conversely, when an internal focus of attention is used, cognitive resources are consciously directed inward toward the performer's movement. Recent studies have demonstrated that standing long jump (11,14) and vertical jump (16,17) performance are enhanced by directing the performer's attention externally rather than internally during the jumping action. Similar findings have been demonstrated using a variety of tasks (for a review, see [15]), and populations (9,19,21).

The benefits of an external focus of attention are typically explained using the constrained action hypothesis (20). This hypothesis suggests that directing attention externally facilitates nonconscious automatic cognitive processing, which allows the motor control system to produce fast and accurate movements. The automaticity that is facilitated by an external focus of attention promotes efficient neuromuscular activation (5), optimal movement patterns and elevated force generation (16), and enhanced agility performance (10). In contrast, when attention is directed internally, automatic processing is interrupted. This interruption “constrains” the motor control system, negatively influencing motor skill execution. Numerous studies have been conducted to validate the predictions made by the constrained action hypothesis (e.g., see [15]).

McNevin et al. (6) demonstrated that the manipulation of the external focus distance relative to the body resulted in an amplification of motor skill learning and performance. In their study, the participants performed a balance task on a stabiliometer while following instructions that directed their attention either internally to their feet, externally toward markers near their feet, or externally toward markers placed at a greater distance from their feet. The results indicated that both external conditions were superior to the internal condition, but the authors also found that the external far focus furthest away from the body resulted in performance that was superior to external focus nearer the body. The findings reported by McNevin et al. (6) indicate that coaches can improve athletic performance by simply prompting athletes to focus on a cue that is located away from their body. It is also worth noting that these skill improvements were not the result of physiological or mechanical changes but highlight the importance of the performer's cognitive state on movement organization and execution.

As mentioned above, previous studies have demonstrated that directing attention externally rather than internally can improve jumping ability (11,14,16,17). Although the results of the McNevin et al. (6) study provided initial evidence that increasing the distance of an external focus away from the body can magnify balance performance, it has not been established if these findings generalize complex skills such as jumping. In the McNevin et al. (6) study, the authors used a continuous task that required object manipulation (the subject continuously controlled and regulated the stability of the balance platform). However, balance tasks such as this are rarely used in sport-related contexts. Instead, many sport contexts comprise discrete movements that are ballistic in nature, much like a standing long jump or vertical jump. Thus, it is important to test, both for theoretical and practical reasons, the performance enhancing effects that may exist when performing sport-related actions. The purpose of this study was to determine if increasing the distance of an external focus of attention relative to the body is generalizable to the standing long jump—a discrete, power-based movement with no object manipulation. We hypothesized that providing verbal instruction that focused attention on a target that was 3 m away from the subject would result in superior jumping performance compared with performance following instructions that directed attention externally to a cue near the subject's feet. We also hypothesized that both the external conditions would result in superior jump performances compared with a control condition in which instructions containing no specific focus of attention were given. Considering that many coaches and sport organizations use the standing long jump to assess athletic performance and training effectiveness (11,14), such findings would be invaluable for practitioners.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

This study used a within-subject design to investigate potential performance benefits when increasing the distance of an external focus of attention. A total of 3 experimental conditions were examined in this study. The first was a control condition in which the participants executed the standing long jump following neutral instructions that did not induce a specific focus of attention; in this condition, the subjects were allowed to choose their focus of attention. The remaining 2 conditions provided verbal instructions that either promoted an external focus of attention that was near the body or at a distance that was further from the body. The order in which the different verbal instructions were provided was counterbalanced across the subjects to eliminate the possibility of order effects. Because most practitioners use performance outcome measures to evaluate motor performance, jumping distance was used as the dependent variable. Additionally, this dependent measure is consistent with previous research using the standing long jump (11,14). Recreationally trained male participants (n = 35) completed a 5-minute warm-up followed by 2 jumps in each of the 3 experimental conditions. Before each jump, the prescribed instructions were read aloud to each subject. The distance jumped by each subject was recorded in a computer spreadsheet and stored for later analysis. An analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to examine significant performance differences between the 3 conditions.

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Subjects

Recreationally active young male adults (n = 35, age 22.3 ± 2.5 years, height 179.1 ± 7.3 cm, body weight 81.4 ± 13.0 kg) were recruited from a general undergraduate student population (none of the subjects were former or current collegiate athletes). The subjects were instructed to wear athletic clothing and shoes for the duration of the data collection session. During the recruitment process, the participants were screened to ensure that they had not received formal jump training before their involvement in this study. Presumably, all the participants had prior experience with the standing long jump. Thus, the subjects were considered to be moderately skilled, and the task was not considered novel. All the subjects signed an informed consent before their participation in the study. The university's Institutional Review Board approved the consent form and all the experimental methods.

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Apparatus and Task

All data were collected in a distraction-free, well-controlled research laboratory. The only individuals present at the time of testing were the subject and a member of the research staff. Identical to the Porter et al. (11) study, a large black rubber composite floor mat (4.57 m × 0.61 m) was used to assess the distance jumped by each subject. The jumping mat had a start line at one end with a series of incremental white parallel lines continuing out in front of the subject. The parallel lines continued out to a distance of 144 in.; lines were separated by a distance of 0.5 in. Numeric values corresponding to the distance of the marked lines were visible on the surface of the jumping mat. Data were collected in inches and later converted to centimeters for data analysis. After the subjects completed each jump, the distance was measured from the start line to the back of the heel nearest to the start line. The distanced jumped was recorded to the nearest half inch for each attempt.

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Procedures

After the subjects signed the informed consent, they completed a warm-up of brisk walking for 5 minutes at a moderate intensity level. Walking speed was monitored by a member of the research team. After the warm-up, the subjects sat for 1 minute. During the 1-minute rest period, the subjects were given general instructions about the jumping task and were provided a demonstration. The subjects were then asked to assume a standing position at the start line where they received instructions for the first condition. Verbal instructions were presented in a counterbalanced manner to prevent order effects. The control condition (CON) instructions were, “jump to the best of your ability.” The external near (EXN) instructions were, “jump as far past the start line as possible.” The white start line was clearly marked and located directly in front of each subject's feet. The external far (EXF) instructions were, “jump as close to the cone as possible.” The 30-cm high gray cone was placed directly in front of the subject at a distance of 3 m. The cone was only visible during the EXF condition; it was removed from the jumping mat when the subjects completed the CON and EXN conditions trials. The subjects completed 2 consecutive jumps in each condition for a total of 6 trials. Each jump was separated by a seated rest that lasted 1 minute. The subjects completed all the 6 jumps in 1 testing session; total test time for each subject was approximately 20 minutes.

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Statistical Analyses

The 2 jumps within each experimental condition were averaged for the statistical analysis. Data were analyzed using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) version 16. The criterion for significance was set using an alpha level of p ≤ 0.05. A 1-way ANOVA with repeated measures was used to determine significant differences between the experimental conditions. The reliability of the dependent variable was determined by calculating intraclass correlation coefficient reliabilities (ICCRs). Cohen's effect size (ES) statistics (Cohen's d) were calculated to determine the magnitude of observed significant differences. Effect sizes were based on the criteria of d < 0.30, small; d = 0.31–0.70, moderate; and d > 0.71, large.

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Results

The results of the ANOVA revealed a significant main effect for condition, F(1, 34) = 93.66, p = < 0.001, partial η2 = 0.734. Post hoc least significant difference tests indicated that the EXN (207 ± 30.46 cm, SEM = 5.15) and EXF (212.74 ± 28.89 cm, SEM = 4.88) conditions produced jumping distances that were significantly greater than that in the CON (195.92 ± 31.26 cm, SEM = 5.28; ES = 0.19, ES = 0.28, respectively). In addition, the post hoc analysis revealed that jump distances measured for the EXN and EXF conditions were significantly different (ES = 0.08). The average jump distances for each group are displayed in Figure 1. The ICCR suggest that the dependent variable was reliable (r = 0.97).

Figure 1

Figure 1

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Discussion

The purpose of this experiment was to investigate the effect of increasing the distance of external focus of attention on standing long jump performance. Specifically, we sought to examine if the McNevin et al. (6) findings would generalize to a discrete power-based skill with no object manipulation. We predicted that focusing attentional resources on a target that was located a greater distance from the body would result in a greater jumping distance compared with focusing attention externally on a cue nearer the body. We also predicted that the subjects using either method of external focus of attention would jump significantly farther compared with those in a control condition in which the subjects received instructions that promoted neither an internal or external focus of attention. Based on the results of the study, the hypotheses were supported.

The present findings are consistent with the predictions of the constrained action hypothesis. Providing verbal instructions that directed participants' attention externally (near or far) elicited automatic motor behaviors that resulted in a greater jumping distance compared with neutral instructions that did not promote automaticity within the motor control system. Consistent with the McNevin et al. (6) findings, the EXF condition jumped significantly farther than the EXN condition did, whereas both external focus of attention conditions jumped significantly farther than the CON condition did. Also, the results of this study provide evidence that the performance benefit of the EXF condition generalizes to whole-body actions that have a high power demand.

According to McNevin et al. (6), performance was depressed in the EXN condition because focusing on cues that are near or on the body cause the performer to exert more active control over the action. According to the authors, this causes a degradation of the natural movement dynamics within the action. The findings of this and previous studies suggest that increasing the distance of an external focus of attention relative to the body immediately enhance standing long jump performance because the EXF verbal instructions reduce active control over the action. Marchant et al. (5) recently demonstrated that verbal instructions that encourage an external focus of attention elicited greater force production and lower muscular activity compared with instructions that encouraged an internal focus of attention. For this study, this suggests that the participants in the EXF condition generated more force or displayed a more efficient muscle fiber recruitment pattern compared with trials conducted in the CON and EXN conditions. This prediction is consistent with findings reported by Vance et al. (13). Future investigations using electromyography, kinematics, and kinetics are needed to explore these possibilities.

One important question that needs to be answered is why the participants in the CON condition did not choose to focus their attention more effectively? This question is especially interesting considering the familiarity the subjects had with the practiced jumping task. Although we did consider the subjects in this study to be low or moderately skilled long jumpers, we did not consider the standing long jump to be a novel motor skill. Presumably, the subjects involved in this study have performed a horizontal jump many times throughout their lives (e.g., jumping over a water puddle, playing a variety of games and recreation sports, involvement in youth physical education programs, etc.). It seems reasonable to assume that individuals would self-organize an optimal focus of attention (i.e., external) through the course of performing the jumping task throughout their lives; however, the results of this study suggest otherwise. This quandary warrants further investigation; specifically, an investigation that addresses how athletes focus their attention when provided no explicit instructions. We hypothesize that athletes will use strategies in which they have the most experience. For example, if their skill development was primarily derived from movement-based instruction, then they will use movement-based attentional strategies (i.e., internal focus).

Understanding how to most effectively use verbal instruction to enhance performance is critical for all practitioners. This statement is valuable considering the findings of a recent study in which elite U.S. track and field athletes competing at the U.S. Track and Field Outdoor National Championships were surveyed regarding methods related to focusing attention (12). In that study, the athletes competing in various events were surveyed regarding the content of feedback provided by their coach during practice. The results of the survey revealed that 84.5% of athletes reported that their coach provided feedback that promoted an internal focus of attention. Furthermore, 69% of athletes indicated that they used an internal focus cue while competing. The results of that study indicate that coaches were not using methods consistent with experimental findings and that athletes were very likely using an inappropriate focus of attention during practice and competition. It is clear that researchers in this area must be more effective at disseminating their experimental findings to practitioners promoting the use of evidence-based practices. Moreover, clarifying the discrepancy between research findings and the methodology that practitioners use is critical when considering the design of practice and rehabilitation environments for athletes or patients.

The results of this study also demonstrate the need for practitioners to use standardized instructions when training and assessing motor skill performance. As demonstrated in this study, very small variations in verbal instructions can result in immediate and significant behavioral changes. On review of several popular textbooks and assessment manuals that discuss motor skill evaluation (1–4,7,8), we were surprised to discover that none of the publications provided standardized instructions for the practitioner to use when implementing motor ability tests. Future publications should list standardized instructions to be used while assessing motor actions and these instructions should direct a learner's attention externally.

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Practical Applications

Strength and conditioning coaches and other practitioners can easily adopt methods similar to those used in this study when teaching and assessing the standing long jump and other power-oriented tasks. Specifically, coaches can incorporate simple modifications into their verbal instructions to immediately improve jumping ability. Based on the findings presented here and conclusions drawn from previous research (11,14), directing attention externally toward a target that is some distance from the body facilitates improvements in jumping ability. It is also suggested that coaches avoid providing instructions to athletes that reference the body and consequently encourage an internal focus of attention. Coaches should also avoid using general or vague instructions that do not consciously direct attentional resources externally. As demonstrated by the CON condition in this study, providing general or vague instructions does not enhance performance compared with using an external focus of attention.

As a general strategy, when a coach is evaluating an athlete's standing long jump performance, he or she should place a cone, piece of tape, or some other target at a distance that is just beyond the athletes' jumping ability. After the target has been placed, the coach should simply tell the athlete to jump toward the target (i.e., cone, tape, etc.). If athletes are competing in a venue that does not allow them to place an object in front of them (e.g., NFL combine, track and field meet), then the athlete should be instructed to “pick a spot” such as a specific point on a jumping mat or the end of the sand pit, and jump toward it. Doing so will generate an optimal external focus of attention that maximizes jumping ability.

Coaches can also create a predetermined set of coaching cues that are based on commonly observed errors when teaching and assessing activities (e.g. long jump, power clean, weighted throw, etc.). The predetermined cues should be short concise phrases that direct attention to the effects of the movement rather than to the movements themselves. Having predetermined cues will help to ensure that coaches avoid instructional cues that cause the performer to focus on body segments, which consequently reduce motor skill performance.

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Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank Nicole Wikoff, Justin Ostrowski, and Alfred (AJ) Gains for their assistance in this study.

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Keywords:

skill assessment; verbal instructions; motor learning; motor control

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