Superiority of External Attentional Focus for Motor Performance and Learning: Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses

Lee Kuen Chua, University of Southern California
Judith Jimenez-Diaz, Universidad de Costa Rica
Rebecca Lewthwaite, Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center
Taewon Kim, Duke University
Gabriele Wulf, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


Considerable literature on the role of attentional focus in motor performance and learning has accumulated for over two decades. We report the results of comprehensive meta-analyses that address the impact of an external focus (EF, on intended movement effects) versus internal focus (IF, on movements of body parts) of attention on the performance and learning of motor skills. Values of effect sizes (ES) from 73 studies with 1,824 participants and 40 studies with 1,274 participants were used for examining the effects of EF versus IF on behavioral outcomes of motor performance and learning (separately for retention and transfer phases) respectively. The EF condition was more effective than the IF condition for performance, Hedges’ g value = 0.264 (95% CI[0.217, 0.310]), retention learning, Hedges’ g value = 0.583 (95% CI [0.425, 0.741]), and transfer learning, Hedges’ g value = 0.584 (95% CI [0.325, 0.842]). Multivariable metaregression analyses on behavioral measures further indicated that neither age group, health status, or skill level, nor their two-way interactions, moderated the ES differences between EF and IF in performance, retention, and transfer models (all p >.100). Asecondary analysis on 12 studies with 216 participants that examined the effects of EF versus IF on electromyographic outcomes of motor performance also indicated that EF was associated with more efficient neuromuscular processing, Hedges’ g value = 0.833 (95% CI [0.453, 1.213]). From nine studies with 272participants, performance measured by behavioral outcomes was found to be more effective when a more distal,rather than proximal, EF was used, Hedges’ g value = 0.224 (95% CI [0.019, 0.429]). Overall, the metaanalytic results are consistent with prior narrative reviews and indicate that an external focus is superior to an internal focus whether considering tests of motor performance or learning, and regardless of age, health condition, and level of skill expertise.