Teaching Sports Skills

Have you ever coached one of those motor-gifted athletes who can pull off a perfect left-hand layup or synchronize a dolphin kick, or send a golf ball into orbit on just the first or second try? In fact, if someone can perform all three of these sports skills with a short learning curve, this person is in very select company.

For most of us mortals, mastering a complex sports skill can be a long process peppered with setbacks. Many beginning skiers search for the courage to leave the bunny slope and expend more energy getting up from a fall than actually skiing down the slope. A prolonged process of graduating from the novice level can be discouraging, especially when there are those natural athletes who can jump into rental skis and head to the intermediate slopes after their first lesson.

One of the great joys of a teacher or coach is helping a beginner overcome the seeming inability to learn a new sports skill. The sheer satisfaction of someone finally getting it right can be experienced by both student and instructor. Also, mastering that skill can be a springboard for a lifetime of enjoyment, physical fitness and a boost in self-esteem. Mastering sports skills can even enhance cognitive development and increase academic achievement.

By taking advantage of the latest motor-learning science, you can help your students experience success, early and often!

New Research Leads The Way

Motor-learning researchers have recently discovered that teaching people to focus their attention on the external effects of their effort is the fastest way for them to learn. By asking a novice golfer to keep the clubface in a square position through the first three feet of the backswing is an example of using an external focus of attention. There is overwhelming evidence from over 100 motor-learning research studies that, by focusing attention on the effects of one’s movement (external focus), rather than focusing on the body’s actions (internal focus), it is easier to learn and retain the correct performance of a sports skill. To appreciate the effectiveness of this external focus of attention, it might help to review how the brain and muscles work together to perform a sports movement.

A One-Minute Lesson In Motor Learning

Whether you teach complicated skills, like vaulting off a gymnastics horse to execute a Kasamatsu stretch (complete with multiple twists) or “simply” sinking a four-foot golf putt, the performer’s brain must send signals through individual nerves to tell specific bundles of muscle fibers when to contract in order to perform successfully. As athletes practice a complex motor skill, like spiking a volleyball, the brain develops a motor program that will eventually have efficient messages that dictate when the muscle fibers should contract.

An accurate and well-learned motor program enables the performer to execute a split-second skill, like an ice hockey slap shot … literally on automatic pilot. The timing and sequence of the muscle contractions will require no conscious thinking about body mechanics. The brain’s motor program that provides the automatic control of a movement is what many athletes and coaches mean when they refer to “muscle memory.” Gabriele Wulf gives more detail and great examples of these teaching strategies in her textbook, Attention and Motor Skill Learning (2007).

Repetitive Rhythm

Learning a sports skill with an external focus of attention, e.g., “giving backspin to the basketball when shooting a foul shot,” is extremely effective because it promotes the use of automatic muscle contraction. Conversely, research has shown that teaching with cues that promote an internal focus of attention, e.g., “flex the wrist to release the basketball during a shot,” promotes controlling the muscle contractions in a conscious, deliberate mode. By taking advantage of the automatic mode with an external focus of attention, the movement is not only smoother, more accurate and less fatiguing, but it also allows more of the performer’s attention to process what is happening in the competitive environment.

Cradling a lacrosse ball is another example of how external focus cues can be more effective. Cradling requires a smooth stick movement that begs to be done automatically. Learning to cradle is much easier if the external focus cue is to “keep the ball in constant motion.” Giving instructions that require the learner to be consciously deliberate about every movement performed by the arms during the cradle (internal focus) makes it almost impossible to keep the ball in the pocket of the lacrosse stick.

Also, this conscious mode of attention promoted by internal focus cues may cause an athlete to “choke.” In a soccer penalty kick, for example, it is more effective to use an external focus: contacting a specific spot on the soccer ball, noting the desired trajectory of the ball or aiming for a specific target in the goal mouth.

Changing Tactics

Are you wondering about what types of focus cues you have been using? It’s actually fairly easy to change the phrasing of both your instruction and your feedback so that you encourage your athletes to use an external focus of attention. Here are two examples of changing an internal focus cue to an external focus cue:

Sports Skill

Golf Chip Shot

Change Internal Focus Cue: “Keep your left wrist straight and firm throughout the entire shot" to This External Focus Cue: “Get the ball on the green and rolling toward the hole as fast as you can."

Sports Skill

Racquetball Z-serve

Change Internal Focus Cue: “Keep your knees bent to keep the ball low” to This External Focus Cue: “Aim for a specific target that is low on the front corner wall, so the ball barely makes it over the short line."

Many sports skills can be learned and retained more effectively by using an external focus of attention: skating, skiing, golf, tennis, gymnastics, pole vaulting, jump shooting, hitting a curve ball, serving a volleyball, windsurfing, even riding a unicycle! Promoting an external focus of attention has been shown to be superior for both beginners and experts. So the next time you give a lesson, try to emphasize the “effect” of the movement by giving cues like “square the position of the racquet” or “give the ball a high trajectory” or “aim at the preferred target.” When you help learners use an external focus of attention, they might just start to believe that they are “motor gifted!”

Susan Langlois has over 25 years experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sports facilities consultant. She is currently the campus director at Springfield College School of Human Services in Manchester and St. Johnsbury, N.H. She can be reached at susan.langlois@comcast.net.