Adopting an external focus of attention improves handstand performance.
Were is your focus when practicing handstands? Does it even matter? Yes it does! It turns out that we can significantly improve our performance by adopting an external focus of attention. So what does that all mean? In this post I will be introducing a simplified version of some of the important principles from neuroscience and especially Motor Learning, to answer the former question in simple terms, internal vs external focus of attention basically means whether you are focusing on the performance of the movement, like keeping your elbows straight in the handstand (internal) or the movement outcome, like pushing the floor away (external).
When I first started learning about Motor Learning and focus of attention, I was passionately practicing handstands several hours a week, in my own practice I had a whole “checklist” of cues for my handstand, all the things I had heard so many times before: “Straigthen your elbows, tilt your pelvis, open your shoulders, and so on” and I would repeat those cues to myself like a broken record while in a handstand in the hope that my body finally would listen.
It came as a complete shock to me to learn that my insistent internal focus, in my own handstand practice, might actually have been hindering my performance! I still vividly remember that class when my Motor Learning Professor Shellie Boudreau asked the question, where is your focus? and introduced us to the concept of internal versus external focus of attention from a motor learning and performance standpoint. Now that I have prepared you for the shock let me explain this concept a little bit more in depth.
Internal focus of attention creates noise in our motor control system
Countless studies have shown that when adopting an internal focus of attention, we become more error prone and less accurate in our movements. It is believed that by focusing on the movements themselves, we interfere with the processes that are supposed to run subconsciously, in other words we create “noise in our motor control system”. From an evolutionary standpoint we evolved to not have to think about our movements and mastery of a skill is often described as effortless as if the body knows what to do. Actually there is now plenty of evidence that indeed spinal reflexes play a key role in adaptations to training, the movements we master becomes reflexes but that is for another post. The key point in learning handstands is that as soon as your body has a basic idea of what to do, adopting an external focus of attention will help improve our performance.
Different stages of learning a skill
As simplified below by Karl M Newell’s Model of motor learning, there might be different stages of learning a skill, were initially a internal focus of attention might be appropriate, in the later stages of skill learning a external focus of attention might be more appropriate.
This is just one of the fundamental principles from Motor Learning that has had a major impact on the way I teach handstands today, I noticed that when I adopted external cues like “push the floor away from you” instead of the ones I had been taught like “don’t bend your elbows” my students were somehow “getting it” faster!
Neuroscience and Motor Learning is filled with these interesting paradoxes and subtle ways to supercharge your learning process or improve your teaching. If you are interested in learning more I recommend joining one of our Teacher Trainings were I teach several lectures on these subjects.