- OPTIMAL MOTOR LEARNING requires conditions that enhance learners’ expectations for future performance, provide learners with autonomy, and promote an external focus of attention.
A few years ago, we proposed the OPTIMAL (Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning) theory of motor learning (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016). The theory explains well-established effects of motivational (enhanced expectancies, autonomy support) and attentional (external focus) factors on performance and learning. It has important practical implications for teaching, coaching, and physical rehabilitation.
- Standardized clinical and laboratory assessments of physical capacity and motor performance that do not incorporate OPTIMAL conditions may underestimate true maximal capabilities.
A study by Chua, Wulf, and Lewthwaite (2020) examined the impact of a brief optimizing instruction — incorporating enhanced expectancies, autonomy support, and and external focus — relative to conventional “neutral” instructions on the performance of the BESS test. The results showed enhanced postural stability (16%) under OPTIMAL conditions. The study demonstrates the significance of the provision of OPTIMAL instructions in determining maximal performance outcome in a clinical-applied balance test.
- Giving performers autonomy allows them to move more efficiently.
In individuals who are given (small) choices — and who therefore have a sense of autonomy — the motor system operates at a higher level of efficiency. In a study by Iwatsuki, Navalta, and Wulf (2019), people needed less oxygen while running for 20 minutes at a given speed, and in another study by Iwatsuki, Shih, Abdollahipour, and Wulf (2021), people produced the same force with less muscle activation relative to those who didn’t have choices. Autonomy is a variable that is essential for goal-action coupling, or the fluidity with which the intended movement goal is translated into action (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016).
- Enhanced expectancies for performance, learner autonomy, and an external focus of attention — key factors in the OPTIMAL theory — contribute in an additive fashion to skill learning.
While each of these factors individually has been shown to enhance learning, three studies showed that combining two factors—enhanced expectancies and autonomy support (Wulf, Chiviacowsky, & Cardozo, 2014), enhanced expectancies and an external focus (Pascua, Wulf, & Lewthwaite, 2015), or autonomy support and an external focus (Wulf, Chiviacowsky & Drews, 2015)—resulted in additional benefits relative to the presence of only one of these factors, or none. Our most recent study (Wulf, Lewthwaite, Cardozo, & Chiviacowsky, 2018) demonstrated that having all three factors present during practice facilitated learning to an even greater extent than did two factors. Instructors can take advantage of these effects by ensuring that success is experienced, giving learners choices to support their need for autonomy and finding appropriate external foci.
- Performance conditions that include enhanced expectancies, autonomy support, and an external focus of attention have immediate benefits for performance.
Chua, Wulf, and Lewthwaite (2018) implemented these factors on consecutive blocks of maximal vertical jumps in an “optimized” group. They found incremental increases in jump height with each addition of another factor, relative to baseline performance, whereas jump height did not change in a control group. The findings demonstrate the importance of these variables for motor performance.
Two experiments in this paper by Wulf, Iwatsuki, Machin, Kellogg, Copeland, and Lewthwaite (2018) provided evidence that the beneficial effect of choice – incidental or task-related – are primarily motivational in nature. In Experiment 1, a choice incidental to the task (i.e., throwing a lasso) resulted in superior learning relative to a control condition. This learning advantage is arguably not accounted for through enhanced information processing or valuable provision of task-related information due to the execution of a task-relevant choice. In Experiment 2, this effect was replicated. Moreover, we found that a task-relevant choice yielded very similar benefits as the task-irrelevant choice. Thus, both experiments provided converging evidence that small choices are sufficient to enhance learning.
Maximum forces typically decrease across repetitions. This was also seen in a control condition in this study by Iwatsuki and colleagues. In contrast, when performers were given a small choice, maximum forces were maintained across repetitions. We interpret this finding as evidence that performer autonomy promotes movement efficiency. The results are in line with the view that autonomy facilitates goal-action coupling, as proposed in the OPTIMAL theory (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016).
Maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max) is regarded as the best measure of cardiovascular fitness. Yet, as the results of this study by Montes and colleagues show, aerobic capacity is also a function of the performer’s self-efficacy expectations. These findings provide further evidence for social-cognitive-affective influences on (maximum) motor performance.
Children learning a sequence of ballet positions had higher self-efficacy, showed greater positive affect, and reported having more positive thoughts during practice when they were able to choose video demonstrations relative to a control group. Moreover, they demonstrated enhanced skill learning. The findings highlight the motivational underpinnings of learning benefits seen when learners are given choices.
- When an individual adopts an external attentional focus on the movement effect, rather than an internal focus on body movements, motor performance and learning improve.
A large number of studies have shown benefits of an external focus of attention in terms of both movement effectiveness (e.g., accuracy, consistency, balance) and efficiency (e.g., muscular activity, force production, cardiovascular responses). The benefits are seen for all skill levels, types of skills, movement (dis)abilities, etc. This paper reviews the findings of 15 years of research in this area.
Concentrating on body movements (internal focus of attention) generally results in non-optimal performance and learning, whereas an external focus enhances automaticity and leads to better movement outcomes. This paper reports two studies in which focusing on the golf club increased the accuracy of golf shots, compared with focusing on arm movement, in novice and expert golfers.
Golfers know the importance of having the right swing thought. This article shows how a small difference in the swing thoughts novice golfers were asked to adopt produced large differences in terms of the rate of improvement (e.g., driving distance) and retention of the skill.
A simple external focus cue – a tape marker on the chest – is sufficient to improve movement form and jump height, as this study demonstrates. Thus, even the performance form-based skills, without the use of implements, benefits when attention is directed appropriately.
Giving learners choices — even small or incidental choices that are, or are not, related to the task — speeds the learning process. In this study the learning of balance exercises was enhanced when participants could choose the order of exercises.
In addition to facilitating performance and learning, people who are given choices are willing exercise longer, as this study demonstrates. Being able to choose the exercise order, as opposed to having to perform the exercises in a specific order, resulted in exercisers’ wanting to do more sets and repetitions.
- Physical therapists can improve the balance of people with Parkinson’s disease by giving the right instructions.
Asking persons who have Parkinson’s disease to direct their attention externally leads to immediate improvements in their postural stability. Thus, even people with compromised motor systems (e.g., Parkinson’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis) benefits from appropriate attentional focus instructions.
Receiving positive feedback increases performers’ self-efficacy. But can it improve the running efficiency of experienced runners? The answer to this question is “yes.” Our study shows that athletes’ oxygen consumption decreased, while they continued to run at a certain speed, when they were given positive feedback about their efficiency.
Making a target look bigger by using visual illusion enhances performers’ confidence in their ability to hit the target. Interestingly, that confidence facilitates the learning of the task.
Setting criteria that purportedly indicate good performance, but that can be reached relatively easily, can raise learners’ confidence and in turn lead to more effective learning. In this study, golf putting accuracy on a retention test was enhanced when learners felt more successful during practice.
Pointing out the “learnability” of a task impacts motor coordination favorably — leading to greater automaticity in movement control and faster skill learning.
We conducted a survey among professional ballet dancers to determine their typical attentional focus while performing certain movements. The majority reported adopting internal foci, or combinations of internal and external foci, most of the time. Thus, there is room for improvement for performance and teaching. We provide examples of how external foci can be promoted in ballet practice.