Instructions Pressure

Avoid body-focused instructions, especially early in practice

** This article was initially written by Nicole Ong for Outreach 

Having been a coach/educator myself, I can relate to the practitioner’s urge to value-add to students’ and athletes’ learning. We tend to offer prescriptive (“what-to” or “how-to”) instructions for various reasons; perhaps because this is how we were instructed, because it justifies our role as the authority/expert or most probably, because of our belief that doing so expedites and aids learning.

The study

In this study, we showed that these type of “how to” instructions can be detrimental to performance and learning of a Frisbee© disc throwing task, unless they are framed in a way as to direct attention away from the body and on to the movement effect. Directing a learner’s attention to the environmental or external effects of one’s movement (e.g., release the disk as though you are whipping a horse), has been shown to benefit learning, but we also showed that it can inoculate against “choking” under pressure (i.e. performing below typical self-standards during competitive or anxiety-inducing conditions).

We also found that when instructions are framed in an “externally-focused way” it does not matter whether instructions are provided early or late in practice. Conversely, with internal, body-focused instructions (e.g., accelerate first your elbow and then your wrist), learners who received these instructions early in practice (i.e. on Day 1 of 2) were significantly less accurate under stress conditions, compared to learners who received internally-focused instructions later in practice (i.e. on Day 2 of 2).


The implication of this study is that practitioners should avoid providing learners with body or internal-focused instructions and if they are provided, they should be given later in practice only.


Ong, N. T., Bowcock, A., & Hodges, N. J. (2010). Manipulations to the timing and type of instructions to examine motor skill performance under pressure. Frontiers in psychology1.

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