Optimal Focus – from research to dance practice
Author: Clare Guss-West on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators' Committee
This blog post provides a brief introduction to attentional focus and its potential impact on dance training and performance. Attentional focus study is relatively new to dance, whereas the research is now integrated into elite sports coaching – notably football, skiing, golf and swimming. Companies such as The Royal Ballet, Houston Ballet, and Finnish National Ballet are becoming aware of the benefits of these complementary techniques and we have started to introduce them into the dancers’ professional practice.
Since ‘focus’ is one of the three foundational elements of a successful holistic movement, as teaching artist and holistic practitioner I find the attentional focus research accessible and easy to integrate into an artistic teaching practice.
As I began working with attentional focus researcher Gabriele Wulf, I became aware of the extent to which focus was a significant part of the development of elite athletes and to consider how optimal focus might be fostered in a dance-learning environment, particularly in traditional ballet training.
Focus cue examples of experienced swimmers:
Attentional focus research findings concur with holistic, eastern movement practices Chi Kung, T’ai Chi and Kung Fu to suggest that significant differences in speed of learning and performance results are experienced dependent on the chosen attentional focus.
What human-movement scientists term an ‘external’ focus (EAF), i.e. a focus on the movement effect, is shown to enhance learning and performance compared to an ‘internal’ focus (IAF), i.e. on a body-part or body mechanism (Wulf, 2013).
Performance benefits of EAF are immediately palpable in increased:
- movement effectiveness
- movement efficiency
- enhanced movement quality
- associated, minimized muscular activity
- optimized force production
- cardio-vascular response
- reduced fatigue
Additional benefits particularly pertinent to dance:
- freed-up cognitive reserve
- greater capacity to multi-task
- greater capacity to manage stress
Benefits apply in diverse contexts from initial movement learning to professional performance, right through to rehabilitation, producing immediate and lasting cohesive effects on results.
In a recent study (Guss-West and Wulf, 2016), over 200 focus examples from professional ballet dancers were collated. Focus cues predominantly employed extensive wording and demonstrated an absence of a systematic focus strategy. The classical dancers in the study were applying multifocal cues and at times, incongruent feedback simultaneously, potentially undermining performance.
Focus cue examples of professional dancers:
The nature of the foci in the study appeared to depend on the ‘perceived’ difficulty of the task and the amount of thinking time available.
In the study:
- a balance in arabesque - provoked the most IAF, it seems that given available time dancers are tempted to try to control their body and the result;
- a pirouette en dehors - involved the greatest quantity of incongruous information, combinations of IAF and EAF. Perhaps because of ‘perceived’ difficulty and resulting performance stress, dancers try to deploy all feedbacks available;
- a grand jeté en avant – in contrast, a ballistic action literally ‘too quick to think’, promoted the most concise, EAF cues.
Food for thought:
Ballet dancers and athletes concur that without specific focus instruction, they use a predominance of IAF control cues, 69-72% IAF (Guss-West C, & Wulf G. 2016), (Porter, Wu, & Partridge, 2010),
Perhaps then - dance teachers, trainers, therapists also currently adopt a similar IAF predominance in their feedback and cueing as that found for some sport trainers and therapists 85-95% IAF (Durham, van Vliet, Badger, & Sackley, 2009).
If so - this would represent a huge opportunity for dance teachers and therapists to reinvent their feedback with simple focus adjustments as part of a clear, conscious focus strategy, that enhances performance and supports the dancer in the technical demands of the discipline, freeing cognitive reserve and permitting a return to focus on the fundamental artistic intention.
Clare Guss-West BHum MA
Dance teaching artist - teacher trainer, Dance Advisor (RESEO) - The European Network for Opera, Music & Dance Education and Director, Dance & Creative Wellness Foundation
References and further reading
- Guss-West, C. Wulf, G. “Attentional Focus in Classical Ballet: A Survey of Professional Dancers”. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 20.1 (2016): 23-29.
- Jahnke, R. The Healing Promise of Qi. Contemporary Books, NY., 2002.
- Stoate, I. Wulf, G. “Does the attentional focus adopted by swimmers affect their performance?” International Journal of Sport Science & Coaching, 6, (2011): 99-108.
- Wulf G. Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 15 years. Intl Rev of Sport & Exerc Psyc., 6: (2013): 77-104.
- Wulf, G. An external focus of attention is a condition sine qua non for athletes: a response to Carson, Collins, and Toner (2015). Journal of sports sciences, 34(13), (2016): 1293-1295.
- Wulf G, Lewthwaite R. “Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: the OPTIMAL theory of motor learning.” Psychon Bull Rev. (2016): 1382-1414.