A few weeks ago, while cruising around the web, I found out about external vs. internal focus in learning motor skills, especially related to golf. This the basis of research being conducted at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas by Dr. Gabrielle Wulf.
It goes right to the core of what you need to think you’re doing when you are taught something, learning it by yourself, or even practicing something you already know how to do.
The difference between internal and external focus is simple. Internal focus involves instructions for moving body parts–what you need to do. External focus, in golf, revolves around what the club needs to do. That will guide your body to do the right thing. (The ghost of Ernest Jones is nodding his head.)
Listen to this podcast. It’s only 13 minutes long.
In Wulf’s study involving golf, subjects who had never hit a golf ball before were taught grip, stance, and posture for a pitch shot. Then the subjects were split into two groups.
The internal focus group (IFG) was taught how their arms move, bend, and straighten at various points in the swing. The external focus group (EFG) was taught how the club swings like a pendulum. When swinging the club they were to “focus on the weight of the clubhead, the straight-line direction of the clubhead path, and the acceleration of the clubhead moving toward the bottom of the arc.”
After practicing what they were taught, all subjects hit blocks of ten golf balls each to a target 50 feet away. Outcomes were measured by how close the ball landed to the center of the target.
The results were that the EFG performed significantly better than IFG. As the trials proceeded, both groups improved, but the IFG never caught up to the EFG. The EFG recorded good scores more frequently, and lower scores less frequently, than the IFG.
Remember a few months ago when I suggested that you you think of the chipping stroke as brushing the ground with the sole of the club? Little did I know that was external focus.
What does this mean for you? Everything. It means you’ll learn faster when you practice like this–working on what the club is supposed to do, not what you’re supposed to do. It means when you play, if there is a swing thought in your head (which I don’t recommend all that much), it needs to be about what the club is doing and not about you.