Distal and proximal attentional focus effects on the performance of closed and open continuous motor skills
Banks, Stephen David
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Attentional focus research has reliably demonstrated that an external (beyond the body) focus is superior in terms of skill performance, retention and transfer relative to an internal conscious focus on movement mechanics. This thesis extends current knowledge by evaluating the impact of external focus distance on the performance of continuous skills in an applied context. Specifically, two external focus points of different distances were compared to an undirected attention condition. Three separate studies were conducted using different kayak sprinting disciplines; two of these took place in benign environments using relatively closed skills whilst the third was carried out in an open skill context. In all cases a within-participants experimental design was employed with an independent variable of conscious focus and a dependent variable of performance time. In Study 1, using competent, experienced kayakers (n = 20) in a surf ski sprinting task, the distal external condition significantly outperformed both the undirected focus and proximal external conditions (p < .001 in both cases). The undirected focus condition was significantly faster than the proximal external focus condition (p = .003). The effect size was large (ηp2 = .55). Study 2 examined the same attentional points using youth racers in K1 sprint kayaks (n = 16). The undirected focus condition was significantly faster than the proximal external condition (p = .028); the effect size was large (ηp2 = .23). In Study 3 experienced kayakers (n = 27) were tested in a wild water racing task against the same experimental conditions. The distal external focus condition significantly surpassed both the proximal external condition and the undirected focus condition (p < .001 in both cases). The effect size was large (ηp2 = .53). The studies in this thesis show that the distance of a specified external focus is important and can have a significant influence on performance. In contrast to previous work the proximal external focus did not provide a performance advantage relative to an undirected focus condition; in studies 1 and 2 it was actually detrimental. A distal external focus was beneficial compared to both other conditions in two studies and insignificantly different to the undirected focus trial in Study 2. This thesis brings together work on focus distance and skill type in three applied and non-contrived sporting contexts. The main practical implication of this research is that distance of focus should be considered by learners and coaches with a view to optimising conscious attention. A distal external focus appears to be particularly useful in targeting attention on a pertinent point whilst simultaneously excluding cognitive competition, distractions and unnecessary attentional switching which could undermine skilled performance.