SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.20 issue4The relationship between physical fitness and shooting accuracy of professional basketball playersConcurrent fatigue and postactivation potentiation during extended interval training in long-distance runners author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand




Related links


Motriz: Revista de Educação Física

On-line version ISSN 1980-6574

Motriz: rev. educ. fis. vol.20 no.4 Rio Claro Oct./Dec. 2014 

Original Article

Children's learning of tennis skills is facilitated by external focus instructions

Ricardo Hadler

Suzete Chiviacowsky

Gabriele Wulf

José Francisco Gomes Schild

1Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil

2University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA

3Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil


The present study examined the effects of instructions promoting external versus internal foci of attention on the learning of a tennis forehand stroke in 11-year old children. Three groups of participants practiced hitting tennis balls at a target. External focus group participants were instructed to direct their attention to the movement of the racquet, while participants in the internal focus group were asked to direct their attention to the movements of their arm. Participants in a control group did not receive attentional focus instructions. Two days after the practice phase (60 trials), learning was assessed in retention and transfer tests. The results showed that the external focus group demonstrated greater accuracy in hitting a target relative to the two other groups in retention, and relative to the internal focus group in transfer. We conclude that instructions inducing an external focus of attention can enhance children's sport skill learning.

Key words: motor learning; attention; childhood; sports


"Aprendizagem de habilidades do tênis em crianças é facilitada por instruções de foco externo." O presente estudo examinou os efeitos de instruções promovendo foco de atenção externo versus interno na aprendizagem da rebatida de forehand do tênis em crianças de 11 anos de idade. Três grupos de participantes praticaram a tarefa. Os participantes do grupo de foco externo foram instruídos a direcionar a atenção para os movimentos da raquete, enquanto os participantes no grupo de foco interno a direcionar a atenção aos movimentos do braço. Participantes do grupo controle não receberam instruções de foco de atenção. Dois dias após a prática (60 tentativas) a aprendizagem foi avaliada através de testes de retenção e transferência. Os resultados demonstraram que o grupo de foco externo apresentou maior precisão em relação aos dois outros grupos na retenção e em relação ao grupo de foco interno na transferência. Conclui-se que instruções induzindo foco externo de atenção pode melhorar a aprendizagem de habilidades esportivas em crianças.

Palavras-Chave: aprendizagem motora; atenção; infância; esportes


"Aprendizaje de habilidades del tenis en los niños es facilitada por instrucciones con foco externo." El presente estudio examinó los efectos de las instrucciones con foco de atención interno frente a externo en el aprendizaje de "forehand" del tenis en niños. Tres grupos de participantes practicaron la tarea. Los participantes en el grupo de foco externo fueron instruidos para dirigir la atención a los movimientos de la raqueta, mientras que los participantes en el grupo de foco interno a poner la atención a los movimientos del brazo. El grupo control no recibió instrucciones de foco de atención. Dos días después el aprendizaje se evaluó mediante pruebas de retención y transferencia. Los resultados mostraron que el grupo de foco externo presentó mayor precisión en relación con los otros grupos en la retención y al grupo de foco interno en la transferencia. Llegamos a la conclusión de que las instrucciones que inducen foco externo de la atención pueden mejorar el aprendizaje de habilidades deportivas en los niños.

Palabras-clave: aprendizaje motora; atención; infancia; deportes


Not all instructions are created equal. Instructions for motor learning differ in their effectiveness depending on how they direct the performer's attention. Specifically, instructions promoting an external focus on the intended movement effect (e.g., movement of an implement or support surface, intended trajectory of an object, target) have been found to result in enhanced learning relative to instructions referring to body movement (internal focus) (Wulf, 2007). Benefits of instructions or augmented feedback promoting an external focus have been demonstrated for different skills, levels of expertise, and healthy individuals as well as those with motor or cognitive impairments (for a review, see Wulf, 2013).

An external focus facilitates automaticity as evidenced by reduced attentional demands (Kal, van der Kamp, & Houdijk, 2013; Wulf, McNevin, & Shea, 2001), high-frequency movement corrections indicating greater involvement of reflexes (e.g., McNevin, Shea, & Wulf, 2003), increased functional variability (Lohse, Jones, Healy, & Sherwood, 2013), and greater movement fluidity (Kal et al., 2013). As a result, an external focus speeds the learning process relative to an internal focus which tends to interfere with automatic processes (Wulf et al., 2001). Control conditions without specific focus instructions typically have similar effects as internal focus conditions and are less effective than external focus conditions (e.g., Freudenheim, Wulf, Madureira, & Corrêa, 2010; Wulf, Höß, & Prinz, 1998, Experiment 1; Wulf, Landers, Lewthwaite, & Töllner, 2009).

Only a few studies have examined attentional focus effects on motor learning in children. In one study, Wulf, Chiviacowsky, Schiller, and Ávila (2010) compared the effectiveness of feedback inducing an external versus internal focus for the learning of a soccer throw-in task in 10-year-old children and found enhanced learning of movement form in the former group. Benefits of external focus instructions were also seen for the learning of a throwing task in 12-year old children with intellectual disabilities (Chiviacowsky, Wulf, & Ávila, 2013). Another study (Emanuel, Jarus, & Bart, 2008) yielded inconclusive findings regarding internal versus external focus instructions for the learning of a dart-throwing task in 8 to 9 year-old children, perhaps as a result of confounding influences of the number of instructions provided to the different groups.

Given the relative dearth of studies examining attentional focus effects in children, and the fact that instructions given in practical settings are typically body-related and therefore induce an internal focus (Porter, Wu, & Partridge, 2010), it seemed important to further examine the influence of different types of instructions on sport skill learning in children. Studies have demonstrated differences in motor learning between children and adults. For instance, children tend to show a slower development of automaticity (Ruitenberg, Abrahamse, & Verwey, 2013) and of movement representations (Gabbard, Caçola, & Bobbio, 2011). In addition, children appear to be more vulnerable to interference from distracters relative to adults (Bjorklund & Harnishfeger, 1990; Davidson, Amso, Anderson, & Diamond, 2006; Ordaz, Davis, & Luna, 2010). Also, children differ from adults in their capacity for top-down control of attention (Karatekin, 2004; Wendelken, Baym, Gazzaley, & Bunge, 2011). Thus, further studies with children seemed desirable. In addition, control groups without attentional focus instructions were lacking in previous studies with children (Chiviacowsky et al., 2013; Emanuel et al., 2008; Wulf et al., 2010). Therefore, in the present study, we examined the influences of external versus internal focus instructions, as well as a control condition, on the learning of the forehand tennis stroke in children. Learning was assessed by retention and transfer tests two days after the practice phase. We hypothesized that external focus instructions would benefit learning compared with internal focus or no focus instructions.



Forty-five children (21 girls and 24 boys), ranging in age from 10 to 12 years (mean age 10.98; SD = 0.72), with no previous experience with tennis specific motor skills, participated in the study. Oral assent was obtained from the participants, and informed consent from their parents/guardians and the schools. The participants were unaware of the purpose of the experiment, and the task was novel to all of them. The study was approved by the university's ethics committee.

Apparatus and task

Participants were asked to perform forehand tennis strokes with the dominant arm. The goal was to hit a target placed on the opposite side of a mini tennis court (6 x 11 m; see Figure 1). The target was placed in the center of the opposite half of court, at a distance of 9 m from the participant. It consisted of a 2.45 x 2.45 m piece of colored cloth. The center of the target area measured 35 x 35 cm. The participant's task was to hit the ball with a tennis racquet over a net (1.07 m in height, measured in the center) and hit the center square. If a ball first bounced in the center of the target, a score of 4 points was recorded. Fewer points (3, 2, 1) were given if the ball hit one of the surrounding zones (35 cm in width) or missed the target area completely (0 points). A children's racquet (25 in.) and low-compression balls (50%) designed to bounce lower and move more slowly than official tennis balls were used in this study.

Figure 1. Schematic of the tennis court and target. 


Participants performed the task individually. They were randomly assigned to the external focus, internal focus, or control groups, with the same numbers of boys (8) and girls (7) in each group. The experimenter explained and demonstrated the forehand stroke twice to each participant before the beginning of the practice phase. Specifically, participants were instructed to use the dominant hand to hold the racquet, using the "continental" grip. It is also known as "hammer grip" because it is naturally obtained when holding the racquet as if it were a hammer. The base knuckle of the index finger is placed on bevel number 2 of the tennis racquet grip, and the heel pad of the hand is placed between bevels number 1 and 2 (e.g., Tagliafico, Ameri, Michaud, Derchi, Sormani, & Martinoli, 2009). Participants were also asked to stand behind the middle of their baseline, with the racquet in their dominant hand and the ball in the other hand. Participants were instructed to release the ball themselves and strike it after one bounce, and attempt to hit the target. After these general instructions, participants in the internal focus group were asked to focus their attention in the movement of their arm, whereas participants in the external focus group were asked to focus on the movement of the racquet. Participants in the control group did not receive any attentional focus instructions. External or internal focus reminders were provided after every 10th trial during the practice phase, instructing participants to keep focusing on the arm movement (internal focus group) or on the racquet movement (external focus group) during the trials. All participants performed 60 practice trials. Retention and transfer (from the right side of the court; see Figure 1) tests were conducted two days after the practice session and consisted of 10 trials each. No instructions or reminders were given during the tests.

Data analysis

Accuracy scores were averaged across blocks of 10 trials for the practice phase and were analyzed in a 3 (groups) x 6 (blocks) analysis of variance (ANOVA) with repeated measures on the last factor. For the retention and transfer tests, scores were averaged across all 10 trials and analyzed in univariate ANOVAs. An alpha level of .05 was used as the threshold for significance, and Tukey's post-hoc test was used for follow-up analyses.



All groups increased their accuracy scores across the practice phase (see Figure 2, left). The main effect of block, F (5, 210) = 2.59, p < .05, η p ² = .06, was significant. The main effect of group, F(2, 42) < 1, and the interaction of block and group, F (10, 210) = 1.11, p > .05, were not significant.

Figure 2. Accuracy scores of the external focus, internal focus, and control groups during practice, retention, and transfer. Note: Error bars represent standard errors. 


The external focus group outperformed both the internal focus and control groups on the retention test (Figure 2, middle). The main effect of group was significant, F (2, 42) = 5.43, p < .01, η p ² = .20. Post-hoc tests confirmed that the external focus group differed from both the internal focus and control groups (p< .05), whereas the internal focus and control groups' performances did not differ.


The external focus group also demonstrated the highest accuracy scores on the transfer test with a greater target distance. The main effect of group was significant, F (2, 42) = 5.62, p < .001, η p 2 = .21. Post-hoc tests indicated that the external focus group differed from the internal focus group (p < .001), but it did not differ significantly from the control group (p > .05). Also, the internal focus and control groups did not differ from each other.


Children learning a tennis forehand stroke benefited more from external focus instructions that directed their attention to the movement of the racquet as compared with internal focus instructions that directed attention to their arm motion, or no specific focus instructions (control group). The learning advantages seen with external relative to internal focus instructions are consistent with previous studies with typical children (Wulf et al., 2010), or children with intellectual disabilities (Chiviacowsky et al., 2013), as well as studies with adult learners (see Wulf, 2013). While control groups have been lacking in studies with children, in studies with adults control conditions almost always resulted in similar performance or learning as internal focus conditions-both of which were inferior to external focus conditions (e.g., Freudenheim et al., 2010; Wulf et al., 1998, Experiment 1; Wulf et al., 2009). This was the case for the retention test of the present study as well. However, on the transfer test the control group did not differ significantly from the external focus group. We suspect that the novel situation on the transfer test (i.e., novel angle and target distance) turned the target into a more prominent external focus cue. That is, because control group participants had not been given explicit focus instructions, the need to "recalibrate" their movements due to the greater target distance might have promoted more of an external focus on the target. Apparently, this was not the case to the same extent in the internal focus group, which had been given explicit focus instructions during the practice phase. Participants may have remembered those instructions, but it is more likely that the instructions had a more permanent detrimental effect on learning (Wulf, Weigelt, Poulter, & McNevin, 2003).

As in previous studies, instructions that differed only in one or two words (e.g., "the racquet" versus "your arm") produced significant differences in learning. It has been suggested that the mere mention of body parts may promote a focus on the self that leads to self-regulatory processes, which cause "micro-choking" episodes and degrade performance (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2010). A reference to body parts (e.g., arm) in internal focus instructions seems to be sufficient to induce a self-focus, with the consequence that movement coordination is less than optimal. As studies have demonstrated, a focus on body movements leads to inefficient co-contractions and superfluous recruitment of motor units (e.g., Lohse & Sherwood, 2012). The result is a decrease in accuracy. Even in control conditions, participants might spontaneously focus on their own movements (e.g., Pascua, Wulf, & Lewthwaite, 2014), resulting in similarly detrimental effects on learning as specific internal focus instructions. The present findings suggest that children, similar to adults, seem to have a tendency to become self-focused. (In future studies with children, it might be useful to ask participants in control conditions what they focused on.) By directing performers' attention away from the coordination of their body movements and to the intended goal or outcome of their actions, instructions to focus externally can perhaps be seen as serving a dual purpose.

In conclusion, the present results demonstrate how the wording of instructions can impact on sport skill learning in children. Directing attention externally through instructions or feedback enhances learning not only in adults, but also in children. In future studies it may be fruitful to examine variables that may mediate learning with different attentional foci, such as learners' self-efficacy or positive affect. This might provide more insight into the mechanisms underlying the benefits of an external attentional focus.


Bjorklund, D.F., & Harnishfeger, K.K. (1990). The resources construct in cognitive development: Diverse sources of evidence and a theory of inefficient inhibition. Developmental Review, 10, 48-71. [ Links ]

Chiviacowsky, S., Wulf, G., & Ávila, L. (2013). An external focus of attention enhances motor learning in children with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 57, 627-634. [ Links ]

Davidson, M.C., Amso, D., Anderson, L.C., & Diamond, A. (2006). Development of cognitive control and executive functions from 4 to 13 years: Evidence from manipulations of memory, inhibition, and task switching. Neuropsychologia, 44, 2037-2078. [ Links ]

Gabbard, C., Caçola, P., & Bobbio, T. (2011). Examining age-related movement representations for sequential (fine-motor) finger movements. Brain and Cognition, 77, 459-463. [ Links ]

Emanuel, M., Jarus, T., & Bart, O. (2008). Effect of focus of attention and age on motor acquisition, retention, and transfer: A randomized trial. Physical Therapy, 88, 251-260. [ Links ]

Freudenheim, A.M., Wulf, G., Madureira, F., & Corrêa, U.C. (2010). An external focus of attention results in greater swimming speed. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 5, 533-542. [ Links ]

Kal, E.C., van der Kamp, J., & Houdijk, H. (2013). External attentional focus enhances movement automatization: A comprehensive test of the constrained action hypothesis. Human Movement Science, 32, 527-539. [ Links ]

Karatekin, C. (2004). Development of attentional allocation in the dual task paradigm. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 52, 7-21. [ Links ]

Lohse, K.R., Jones, M., Healy, A.F., & Sherwood, D.E. (2013). The role of attention in motor control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 930-948. [ Links ]

Lohse, K.R., & Sherwood, D.E. (2012). Thinking about muscles: The neuromuscular effects of attentional focus on accuracy and fatigue. Acta Psychologica, 140, 236-245. [ Links ]

McNevin, N.H., Shea, C.H., & Wulf, G. (2003). Increasing the distance of an external focus of attention enhances learning. Psychological Research, 67, 22-29. [ Links ]

Ordaz, S., Davis, S., & Luna, B. (2010). Effects of response preparation on developmental improvements in inhibitory control. Acta Psychologica, 134, 253-263. [ Links ]

Pascua, L.A.M., Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2014). Additive benefits of external focus and enhanced performance expectancy for motor learning. Journal of Sports Sciences, doi: 10.1080/02640414.2014.922693 [ Links ]

Porter, J.M., Wu, W.F.W., & Partridge, J.A. (2010). Focus of attention and verbal instructions: Strategies of elite track and field coaches and athletes. Sport Science Review, 19, 199-211. [ Links ]

Ruitenberg, M.F., Abrahamse, E.L., & Verwey, W.B. (2013). Sequential motor skill in preadolescent children: The development of automaticity. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115, 607-623. [ Links ]

Tagliafico, A.S., Ameri, P., Michaud, J., Derchi, L.E., Sormani, M.P., & Martinoli, C. (2009). Wrist injuries in nonprofessional tennis players: relationships with different grips. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 37, 760-767. [ Links ]

Wendelken, C., Baym, C.L., Gazzaley, A., & Bunge, S.A. (2011). Neural indices of improved attentional modulation over middle childhood. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 1, 175-186. [ Links ]

Wulf, G. (2007). Attention and motor skill learning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. [ Links ]

Wulf, G. (2013). Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6, 77-104. [ Links ]

Wulf, G., Chiviacowsky, S., Schiller, E., & Ávila, L.T. (2010). Frequent external-focus feedback enhances learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 1 (Article 190). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00190 [ Links ]

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. [ Links ]

Wulf, G., Landers, M., Lewthwaite, R. & Töllner, T. (2009). External focus instructions reduce postural instability in individuals with Parkinson disease. Physical Therapy, 89, 162-168. [ Links ]

Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2010). Effortless motor learning? An external focus of attention enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency. In B. Bruya (Ed.), Effortless attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action (pp. 75-101). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [ Links ]

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. [ Links ]

Wulf, G., Weigelt, M., Poulter, D.R., & McNevin, N.H. (2003). Attentional focus on supra-postural tasks affects balance learning. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 56, 1191-1211. [ Links ]

Received: February 12, 2014; Accepted: September 29, 2014

Corresponding author Suzete Chiviacowsky, Ph.D. Escola Superior de Educação Física Universidade Federal de Pelotas Rua Luís de Camões, 625, Pelotas, RS, 96055-630, Brazil FAX: 55(53)32732752 E-mail:

Creative Commons License This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License, which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.