Effects of attentional focus on dynamic whole-body movements as a function of skill level
Howard, Charlend K.
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Focusing attention on an external cue (EF), as opposed to an internal focus of attention (IF), has been shown to improve reaction time (RT) for track and field athletes during a sprint start (Kovacs et al., 2018). The track sprint start is a rapid, discrete, whole body movement whereby athletes need to rely on a motor program that has all parameters specified before movement initiation. The purpose of this study was to address the question of whether improvements in a sprint start under an EF condition are dependent on the participants' skill level. Twelve collegiate track sprinters (age 20.8 ±1.7), and twelve collegiate non-sprint athletes (age 20.1±1.2) completed three testing sessions under EF, IF, and no focus instruction (NF) conditions. RT was recorded from the rear starting block. Muscle activation time (EMG) was recorded from the vastus lateralis muscles, and was used to determine pre-motor RT and motor RT. Mean RT was significantly shorter (p<0.001) for sprinters (227.7 ms) compared with non-sprinters (273.8 ms). Mean RT for sprinters was significantly shorter (p < 0.0001) under the EF (212.11 ms) compared with the IF (234.21 ms) and NF conditions (236.87 ms). Similarly, mean premotor RT under the EF condition (157.75 ms) was significantly shorter (p < 0.001) compared with the IF (181.90 ms) and NF (173.60 ms) conditions. No differences in RT and pre-motor RT across conditions were found for non-sprint athletes (p>0.05). Motor RT did not differ across the various focus of attention conditions (p>0.05) or across experimental groups (p>0.05). These results suggest that the beneficial effects of EF on dynamic whole-body movements are manifested at higher skill levels, and that adopting different types of attentional focus interferes with the efficiency of the movement planning processes. Improvement in RT likely originates at the level of central processes during movement preparation (pre-motor RT), and not at the level of peripheral processes associated with excitation-contraction coupling of the muscle fibers (motor RT).