Focus, Language and Performance

In a new post on the USA Volleyball site John Kessel presents a big change in his teaching and feedback. He is adjusting to an external focus when teaching skill to his athletes.

What does this mean?

Based on the work of Gabrielle Wulf, the author of a textbook Attention and Motor Skill Learning,  Kessel  has transitioned to using an external focus of attention for the athlete when giving feedback.

He no longer bases his instruction/correction on the movement of the athlete or technical specificity.

“That said, her (Dr Wulf) work is groundbreaking and it has made me change many of my words. The compilation of research across many sports shows that an external focus of attention for feedback – for both the coach and the athlete – is so clearly superior to an internal focus.”


Well, an internal focus is worse for retention primarily, which is the key to whether or not learning has taken place.

Too often as coaches we pay attention to how they are doing when they are working with us in training, but too little on how they transfer the skill and perform it in a game when the pressure is on.

In other words, retention shows up in performance and under pressure.

He goes further and says that teaching an internal focus is worse than providing “no coaching at all.”

The key he maintains is to move to an external focus, where the coach and athlete turn their concentration to “the effects of movement.”

“In a nutshell, the more you tell the performer, young or old, to focus on something inside their body – especially a body part, but also even the idea of “breathing” – the less effective the learning.  The skill is not only performed less effectively that day; the retention is also inferior.  Internal feedback phrases from the coach often result in a player performing/retaining worse than having no coaching at all.  The research shows this in so many varied sports, that we need a change in volleyball, and I welcome you to share your own change to external feedback phrases from common internal phrases.  The key is to move from an internal focus – concentrating on body movements – to an external focus, or CONCENTRATION ON THE EFFECTS OF MOVEMENT.”

The phrase “worse than having no coaching at all” hits on a gut level.

Kessel goes on to provide examples of the changes in language that he now uses to teach.  He also guides athletes with questions allowing the athlete to develop the language and metaphors for herself in order to deepen retention.

I am currently reading the textbook Attention and Motor Skill Learning to dive deeper into this topic.  In my own individual training sessions I have been applying these principles. It takes discipline and practice to make this change and I have not been doing it long enough to know its effect. But, I am curious enough to work with it.

Finally one other thing really impresses me.  Kessel provides a model of life long learning and change for every coach out there. Don’t stop evolving.

The entire piece can be found here.