Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 648–660 | Cite as

Directing attention to movement effects enhances learning: A review

  • Gabriele WulfEmail author
  • Wolfgang Prinz


Studies investigating the influence of the learner’s focus of attention, induced by instructions or feedback, on motor skill learning are reviewed. In general, directing performers’ attention to the effects of their movements (external focus of attention) appears to be more beneficial than directing their attention to their own movements (internal focus of attention). Preliminary evidence is presented indicating that an internal attentional focus constrains the motor system by interfering with natural control processes, whereas an external focus seems to allow automatic control processes to regulate the movements. Support for the view that actions are controlled by their anticipated effects comes from research demonstrating functional variability in motor control, as well as the benefits of purposeful activity in occupational therapy. We explain these results in terms of the ideomotor principle of human actions (James, 1890) and its more modern derivatives (Hommel, 1996; Prinz, 1990, 1997).


Motor Learning Attentional Focus Retention Test Movement Effect Remote Effect 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Adams, J. A. (1971). A closed-loop theory of motor learning.Journal of Motor Behavior,3, 111–150.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Baumeister, R. F. (1984). Choking under pressure: Self-consciousness and paradoxical effects of incentives on skillful performance.Journal of Personality & Social Psychology,46, 610–620.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bernstein, N. A. (1967).The co-ordination and regulation of movements. Oxford: Pergamon.Google Scholar
  4. Bliss, C. B. (1892–1893). Investigations in reaction time and attention.Studies from the Yale Psychology Laboratory,1, 1–55.Google Scholar
  5. Boder, D. P. (1935). The influence of concomitant activity and fatigue upon certain forms of reciprocal hand movements and its fundamental components.Comparative Psychology Monographs,11 (No. 4).Google Scholar
  6. Elsner, B., &Hommel, B. (2001). Effect anticipation and action control.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,27, 229–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Fitts, P. M. (1964). Perceptual—motor skills learning. In A. W. Melton (Ed.),Categories of human learning (pp. 243–285). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  8. Gallwey, W. T. (1982).The inner game of tennis. New York: Bantam Books.Google Scholar
  9. Gantert, C. J., Honerkamp, J., &Timmer, J. (1992).Analyzing the dynamics of hand tremor time series.Biological Cybernetics,66, 479–484.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Garfield, C. A., &Bennett, H. A. (1985).Peak performance: Mental training techniques of the world’s greatest athletes. Los Angeles: Tarcher.Google Scholar
  11. Gliner, J. A. (1985). Purposeful activity in motor learning theory: An event approach to motor skill acquisition.American Journal of Occupational Therapy,39, 28–34.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Gurfinkel, V. S., Ivanenko, P. Y., Levik, S. Y., &Babakova, I. A. (1995). Kinesthetic reference for human orthograde posture.Neuroscience,68, 229–243.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Hancock, G. R., Butler, M. S., &Fischman, M. G. (1995). On the problem of two-dimensional error scores: Measures and analyses of accuracy, bias, and consistency.Journal of Motor Behavior,27, 241–250.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Henry, F. M. (1968). Specificity vs. generality in learning motor skill. In R. C. Brown Jr. & G. S. Kenyon (Eds.),Classical studies in physical activity (pp. 328–331). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  15. Hommel, B. (1996). Toward an action-concept model of stimulus-response compatibility. In B. Hommel & W. Prinz (Eds.),Theoretical issues of stimulus-response compatibility (pp. 281–320). Amsterdam: North-Holland.Google Scholar
  16. Hommel, B., &Elsner, B. (2000). Action as stimulus control. In A. Schick, M. Meis, & C. Reckhardt (Eds.),Contributions to psychological acoustics (pp. 403–424). University of Oldenburg, Germany: BIS.Google Scholar
  17. Hommel, B., Müsseler, J., Aschersleben, G., & Prinz, W. (in press). The theory of event coding (TEC): A framework for perception and action.Behavioral & Brain Sciences.Google Scholar
  18. Huss, A. J. (1981). From kinesiology to adaptation.American Journal of Occupational Therapy,35, 574–580.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. James, W. (1890).The principles of psychology (Vol. 2). New York: Holt.Google Scholar
  20. Jeka, J. J., Schöner, G., Dijkstra, T., Ribeiro, P., &Lackner, J. R. (1997). Coupling of fingertip somatosensory information to head and body sway.Experimental Brain Research,113, 475–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kimble, G. A., &Perlmuter, L. C. (1970). The problem of volition.Psychological Review,77, 361–384.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. King, L. J. (1978). Toward a science of adaptive responses.American Journal of Occupational Therapy,32, 429–437.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Klatzky, R. L. (1984).Memory and awareness: An informationprocessing perspective. New York: Freeman.Google Scholar
  24. Klemm, O. (1930). Gedanken über Leibesübungen [Thoughts on physical education].Neue Psychologische Studien,9, 145–167.Google Scholar
  25. Lang, E. M., Nelson, D. L., &Bush, M. A. (1992). Comparison of performance in materials-based occupation, imagery-based occupation, and rote exercise in nursing home residents.American Journal of Occupational Therapy,46, 607–611.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Lee, D. N., Lishman, J. R., &Thomson, J. A. (1982). Regulation of gait in long jumping.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,8, 448–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lidor, R., Tennant, L. K., &Singer, R. N. (1996). The generalizability effect of three learning strategies across motor task performances.International Journal of Sport Psychology,27, 23–36.Google Scholar
  28. Loosch, E. (1993). Das Ganze läuft genauer ab als seine Teile [The whole runs more accurately than its parts].Sportpsychologie,7, 26–30.Google Scholar
  29. Loosch, E. (1995). Funktionelle Variabilität in Dartwurf [Functional variability in dart throwing].Sportwissenschaft,25, 417–425.Google Scholar
  30. Loosch, E. (1997). Variabilität: Phänomen und Prinzip menschlicher Bewegung [Variability: Phenomenon and principle of human movement].Sportwissenschaft,27, 294–309.Google Scholar
  31. Lotze, R. H. (1852).Medicinische Psychologie oder Physiologie der Seele [Medical psychology or physiology of the soul]. Leipzig: Weidmann’sche Buchhandlung.Google Scholar
  32. Maddox, M. D., Wulf, G., &Wright, D. L. (1999). The effect of an internal vs. external focus of attention on the learning of a tennis stroke.Journal of Exercise Psychology,21, S78.Google Scholar
  33. Magill, R. A., Chamberlin, C. J., &Hall, K. G. (1991). Verbal knowledge of results as redundant information for learning an anticipation timing skill.Human Movement Science,10, 485–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Massaro, D. W. (1990). An information-processing analysis of perception and action. In O. Neumann & W. Prinz (Eds.),Relationships between perception and action: Current approaches (pp. 133–166). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  35. Masters, R. S. W. (1992). Knowledge, knerves and know-how: The role of explicit versus implicit knowledge in the breakdown of a complex motor skill under pressure.British Journal of Psychology,83, 343–358.Google Scholar
  36. McNevin, N. H., Shea, C. H., & Wulf, G. (2001).Increasing the distance of an external focus of attention enhances learning. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
  37. McNevin, N. H., Wulf, G., &Carlson, C. (2000). Effects of attentional focus, self-control, and dyad training effects on motor learning: Implications for physical rehabilitation.Physical Therapy,80, 373–385.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Meinel, K., &Schnabel, G. (1976).Bewegungslehre [Movement science]. Berlin: Sportverlag.Google Scholar
  39. Müller, H., &Loosch, E. (1999). Functional variability and an equifinal path of movement during targeted throwing.Journal of Human Movement Studies,36, 103–126.Google Scholar
  40. Newell, K. M., Gao, F., &Sprague, R. L. (1995). The dynamics of finger tremor in tardive dyskinesia.Chaos,5, 43–47.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Newell, K. M., &Slifkin, A. B. (1996). The nature of movement variability. In J. Piek (Ed.).Motor control and human skill: A multidisciplinary perspective (pp. 143–159). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Google Scholar
  42. Nicholson, D. E., &Schmidt, R. A. (1991). Scheduling information feedback to enhance training effectiveness. InProceedings of the Human Factors Society 35th Annual Meeting (pp. 1400–1403). Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors Society.Google Scholar
  43. Park. J.-H., Shea, C. H., McNevin, N. H., & Wulf, G. (2000, June).Attentional focus and the control of dynamic balance. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity, San Diego.Google Scholar
  44. Prinz, W. (1990). A common coding approach to perception and action. In O. Neumann & W. Prinz (Eds.),Relationships between perception and action (pp. 167–201). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  45. Prinz, W. (1992). Why don’t we perceive our brain states?European Journal of Cognitive Psychology,4, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Prinz, W. (1997). Perception and action planning.European Journal of Cognitive Psychology,9, 129–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Prinz, W., Aschersleben, G., Hommel, B., &Vogt, S. (1995). Handlungen als Ereignisse [Actions as events]. In D. Dörner & E. van der Meer (Eds.),Das Gedächtnis: Probleme—Trends—Perspektiven (pp. 129–168). Göttingen: Hogrefe.Google Scholar
  48. Reeve, T. G., Fischman, M. G., Christina, R. W., &Cauraugh, J. H. (1994). Using one-dimensional task error measures to assess performance on two-dimensional tasks: Comment on “attentional control, distractors, and motor performance.”Human Performance,7, 315–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Rice, M. S. (1998). Purposefulness and cross transfer in a forearm supination and pronation task.Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy,5, 31–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Riley, M. A., Stoffregen, T. A., Grocki, M. J., &Turvey, M. T. (1999). Postural stabilization for the control of touching.Human Movement Science,18, 795–817.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Salmoni, A. W., Schmidt, R. A., &Walter, C. B. (1984). Knowledge of results and motor learning: A review and critical appraisal.Psychological Bulletin,95, 355–386.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. Sanders, A. F. (1980). Stage analysis of reaction processes. In G. E. Stelmach & J. Requin (Eds.),Tutorials in motor behavior (pp. 331–354). Amsterdam: North-Holland.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Schmidt, R. A. (1988).Motor control and learning: A behavioral emphasis (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Google Scholar
  54. Schmidt, R. A. (1991). Frequent augmented feedback can degrade learning: Evidence and interpretations. In J. Requin & G. E. Stelmach (Eds.),Tutorials in motor neuroscience (pp. 59–75). Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  55. Schmidt, R. A., Lange, C., &Young, D. E. (1990). Optimizing summary knowledge of results for skill learning.Human Movement Science,9, 325–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Schmidt, R. A., &Lee, T. D. (1999).Motor control and learning: A behavioral emphasis (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Google Scholar
  57. Schmidt, R. A., &Wulf, G. (1997). Continuous concurrent feedback degrades skill learning: Implications for training and simulation.Human Factors,39, 509–525.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Schmidt, R. A., Young, D. E., Swinnen, S., &Shapiro, D. E. (1989). Summary knowledge of results for skill acquisition: Support for the guidance hypothesis.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,15, 352–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Schneider, W., &Fisk, A. D. (1983). Attention theory and mechanisms for skilled performance. In R. A. Magill (Ed.),Memory and control of action (pp. 119–143). Amsterdam: North-Holland.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Shea, C. H., &Wulf, G. (1999). Enhancing motor learning through external-focus instructions and feedback.Human Movement Science,18, 553–571.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Singer, R. N. (1985). Sport performance: A five-step mental approach.Journal of Physical Education & Recreation,57, 82–84.Google Scholar
  62. Singer, R. N. (1988). Strategies and metastrategies in learning and performing self-paced athletic skills.Sport Psychologist,2, 49–68.Google Scholar
  63. Singer, R. N., Cauraugh, J. H., Tennant, L. K., Murphey, M., Chen, D., &Lidor, R. (1991). Attention and distractors: Considerations for enhancing sport performances.International Journal of Sport Psychology,22, 95–114.Google Scholar
  64. Singer, R. N., Lidor, R., &Cauraugh, J. H. (1993). To be aware or not aware: What to think about while learning and performing a motor skill.Sport Psychologist,7, 19–30.Google Scholar
  65. Singer, R. N., Lidor, R., &Cauraugh, J. H. (1994). Focus of attention during motor skill performance.Journal of Sports Sciences,12, 335–340.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Singer, R. N., &Suwanthada, S. (1986). The generalizability effectiveness of a learning strategy on achievement in related closed motor skills.Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport,57, 205–214.Google Scholar
  67. Steinbeck, T. M. (1986). Purposeful activity and performance.American Journal of Occupational Therapy,40, 529–534.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Thompson, J. M. T., &Stewart, H. B. (1986).Nonlinear dynamics and chaos. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  69. Todorov, E., Shadmehr, R., &Bizzi, E. (1997). Augmented feedback presented in a virtual environment accelerates learning of a difficult motor task.Journal of Motor Behavior,29, 147–158.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  70. Trillhose, A. (1995). Zu Aspekten der Schrittgestaltung im Anlauf und des Brettaufsatzsprunges bei turnerischen Stützsprüngen am Pferd [Aspects concerning the step regulation and jump on the board in horse vaulting].Leistungssport,25, 37–39.Google Scholar
  71. van der Linden, D. W., Cauraugh, J. H., &Greene, T. A. (1993). The effect of frequency of kinetic feedback on learning an isometric force production task in nondisabled subjects.Physical Therapy,73, 79–87.Google Scholar
  72. Voigt, E. (1933). über den Aufbau von Bewegungsgestalten [About the organization of movement “Gestalts”].Neue Psychologische Studien,12, 1–45.Google Scholar
  73. Weeks, D. L., &Kordus, R. N. (1998). Relative frequency of knowledge of performance and motor skill learning.Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport,69, 224–230.Google Scholar
  74. Weiss, P. H., Jeannerod, M., Paulignan, Y., &Freund, H.-J. (2000). Is the organization of goal-directed action modality specif ic? A common temporal structure.Neuropsychologia,38, 1136–1147.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  75. Welford, A. T. (1968).Fundamentals of skill. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  76. Winstein, C. J., Pohl, P. S., Cardinale, C., Green, A., Scholtz, L., &Waters, C. S. (1996). Learning a partial-weight-bearing skill: Effectiveness of two forms of feedback.Physical Therapy,76, 985–993.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  77. Winstein, C. J., &Schmidt, R. A. (1990). Reduced frequency of knowledge of results enhances motor skill learning.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,16, 677–691.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Wu, C., Trombly, C. A., &Lin, K. (1994). The relationship between occupational form and occupational performance: A kinematic perspective.American Journal of Occupational Therapy,48, 679–688.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  79. Wu, C., Trombly, C. A., Lin, K., &Tickle-Degnen, L. (1998). Effects of object affordances on reaching performance in persons with and without cerebrovascular accident.American Journal of Occupational Therapy,52, 447–456.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  80. Wulf, G., Höß, M., &Prinz, W. (1998). Instructions for motor learning: Differential effects of internal versus external focus of attention.Journal of Motor Behavior,30, 169–179.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  81. Wulf, G., Lauterbach, B., &Toole, T. (1999). Learning advantages of an external focus of attention in golf.Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport,70, 120–126.Google Scholar
  82. Wulf, G., McConnel, N., Gärtner, M., & Schwarz, A. (in press). Feedback and attentional focus: Enhancing the learning of the volleyball serve through external-focus feedback.Journal of Motor Behavior.Google Scholar
  83. Wulf, G., McNevin, N. H., Fuchs, T., Ritter, F., &Toole, T. (2000). Attentional focus in complex motor skill learning.Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport,71, 229–239.Google Scholar
  84. Wulf, G., McNevin, N. H., &Shea, C. H. (2001). The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attentional focus.Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,54A, 1143–1154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Wulf, G., &Schmidt, R. A. (1989). The learning of generalized motor programs: Reducing the relative frequency of knowledge of results enhances memory.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning,Memory, & Cognition,15, 748–757.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Wulf, G., &Schmidt, R. A. (1996). Average KR degrades parameter learning.Journal of Motor Behavior,28, 371–381.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  87. Wulf, G., Schmidt, R. A., &Deubel, H. (1993). Reduced feedback frequency enhances generalized motor program learning but not parameterization learning.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,19, 1134–1550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Wulf, G., Shea, C. H., & Park, J.-H. (in press). Attention in motor learning: Preferences for and advantages of an external focus.Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport.Google Scholar
  89. Wulf, G., &Weigelt, C. (1997). Instructions about physical principles in learning a complex motor skill: To tell or not to tell.Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport,68, 362–367.Google Scholar
  90. Yoder, R. M., Nelson, D. L., &Smith, D. A. (1989). Added purpose versus rote exercise in female nursing home residents.American Journal of Occupational Therapy,43, 581–586.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  91. Young, D. E., &Schmidt, R. A. (1992). Augmented kinematic feedback for motor learning.Journal of Motor Behavior,24, 261–273.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of KinesiologyUniversity of Nevada, Las Vegas
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for Psychological ResearchMunichGermany

Personalised recommendations