Internal vs. External Focus: Which Makes The Best Slalom Skier

Internal vs. External Focus: Which Makes The Best Slalom Skier

By Matteo Luzzeri

There are many ways to think about our movement on a ski, and one important factor is where our focus of attention is directed. Example: As we approach a buoy, we can think of our hip placement and shoulder position. This qualifies as internal attentional focus. When we focus on external objects, such as handle, buoy or ski, we speak of external attentional focus. The question that this distinction poses is simple: Where should we target our attention?

Dr. Gabriele Wulf, a professor at the University of Nevada who’s done considerable research on this topic, firmly believes that external attentional focus is best. The idea for this distinction, and the advantage of the external attentional focus, came to her as she was trying to master the power jibe in windsurfing. After continued failure of the movement in which she was focusing on foot placement, she decided to change it up and focus on the inclination of the board. This new strategy brought almost immediate success, and she claims that an external focus of attention leads to faster learning of new movements and better performance, even under pressure.

Considering Wulf’s inspiration for attentional focus research, it was unavoidable that a lot of studies involved balance tasks. Experiments with snow-ski simulators, stabilometers and various balance boards clearly show that focusing on the position, direction or weight of the board leads to better balance than focusing on foot pressure.

Other studies looked at the accuracy of movement, which proved that a golfer’s focus on the face of a club resulted in more accurate shots. Similar findings were discovered in basketball free throws, dart throwing, and soccer penalties. External focus has shown to make movements more efficient, where efficiency involves less energy expenditure for the same result. If sprinters are told to focus on shoes “clawing the floor,” as opposed to leg movement, their performance improves faster.

The connections to skiing are very strong. Balance on a ski is a crucial aspect for a successful slalom pass, from pullout to exit gates. A common balance problem most of us have to face is being too far back on the ski. So, rather than focusing on front foot pressure, it would be beneficial to think about the tip of the ski being down. Similarly, if tip rise occurs at the end of the turn, try to focus on sinking the front binding more. Accuracy is another crucial aspect of slalom. An example of this is the turn in for the entrance gates, a movement that requires both physical and locational precision. If the goal is to increase the angle of the ski at the end of the turn, rather than just thinking about lean and pull, one should focus on the line tension, with the understanding that (usually) the more tension, the more angle. Efficiency is another word that’s used considerably in coaching circles. It’s often related to a skier’s “stacked” position behind the boat that allows maximum velocity and stability with decreased physical effort. Skiers will achieve this position in different ways, but once the keys are established, one can move the focus externally. So, if the goal is to increase lean, you could think about bringing the ski more under the line or, alternatively, farther away from the handle.

Focusing attention externally has been proven to work with athletes of all ages and sports. More importantly, it works with experts and amateurs, debunking the old belief that internal focus should precede external when learning new movements. Next time you start to get nervous at a tournament, focus on external objects. The rule is to think as little as possible, but if you start to overthink your body position, change your focus externally to the ski, the rope or the handle.