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Internal / external focus

In the case of a skilled move or skill, it is always beneficial to focus on the external consequences of the action, rather than the execution of the movement required internally to achieve it. External focus supports the execution of automatic movements that are no longer subject to conscious movement control during movement execution. Internal focus, on the other hand, appears to be useful only when a movement has either not yet been learned and automated, or when danger is imminent.


Internal focus → The directing of attention inwards during the execution of the movement (what exactly do I have to do).

External focus → Directing attention outwards during the execution of the movement (what is the consequence of my action).


Internal and external focus describe two fundamentally different levels at which an action can be planned and controlled during execution. Through internal concentration, one tries to control one's own execution of the movement. On the other hand, in case of external focus, the person focuses on the desired effect of his action. Internal focus is assigned to the conscious mind and external to the subconscious mind.

Internal and external focus play an important role in competitive sport. In a skilful movement it is always advantageous to focus attention on the external consequences of the action. For example, a good golfer should not focus on the necessary arm or hand movements when hitting the ball, but on the resulting flight. This seems paradoxical at first, since the flight of the ball cannot be directly controlled. However, automated movements are performed in a feedforward fashion, meaning they can no longer be consciously controlled during the execution of the movement. Instead, these movements are completely planned in advance and then executed by the motor system, with virtually no further involvement from us. Many activities of daily life are carried out in this way, such as walking, drinking alcohol or driving a car. Internal focus, on the other hand, seems to make sense only when a movement has either not yet been learned and automated, or when danger is imminent and conscious control is desired for safety reasons (e.g., when parking a car or a pot of boiling liquid is raised).

Equilibrium experiment

However, internal and external focus also play a role in learning. Chiviacowsky and his colleagues conducted an interesting study in 2010 on the success of learning to balance on an inclined platform under different conditions of concentration.

The task was to stay in balance as long as possible and not lean to one side. All subjects received feedback about their current position via a screen with the help of an appropriately inclined bar. The internal focus group was told that the bar represented the level of the feet and that it must be kept horizontal. The external focus group was told that the bar represented the level of the platform and that it must be kept horizontal.

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Open Loop and Closed Loop control

Although both groups received exactly the same feedback and practiced the same task, there were significant differences between the groups, particularly in terms of transfer. During the practice phase, the outgroup already showed slightly better balance performance. However, in the transfer phase, the gap increased even more. The reason for this difference lies in the type of motion control. Conscious foot control activates closed-loop feedback control. However, closed-loop movements require many attentional resources, thus blocking working memory and hindering learning success. Indirect balance control, on the other hand, enables a feedforward open-loop control. Open-loop movements are performed automatically, so they require less working memory and therefore lead to better learning outcomes.

Motor programs are external

In fact, automatic movements are stored in external coordinates and not in fixed internal muscle activations and joint positions. For example, when we write, it doesn't matter how we hold our hand or elbow, the writing always looks about the same, even when we write with our foot, the individual writing pattern is largely preserved. Therefore, the motor system knows, in its complexity, what to do to produce a particular movement outcome, and that's WITHOUT conscious control of the movement. Therefore, when practicing, you should focus more and more on the result of the action, and not on the details of the sequence of actions. External focus also facilitates working memory and thus also favors the development of more complex cognitive functions.

What does this mean for my teaching practice?

When practicing with students, you need to focus more and more on the outcome of the action and not on the details of how this solution is arrived at. This also frees up working memory to focus on other aspects, for example content or spelling when writing an essay. Therefore, the goal of the exercise should always be to automate processes as much as possible.


Reflection question

In which school tasks could the internal and external focus play a role?


1) External focus is advantageous for

A) learned movements
B) simple movements
C) complicated movements


1️⃣ → A) learned movements

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