We recently proposed the OPTIMAL (Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning) theory of motor learning (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016). The theory explains well-established effects of motivational and attentional factors on performance and learning. It has important practical implications for teaching, coaching, and physical rehabilitation.

We review three lines of recent research at an intersection of motor learning and sport psychology as they relate to motor skill acquisition: enhanced expectancies, autonomy support, and external attentional focus. Findings within these lines of research have been integrated into a new theory, the OPTIMAL (Optimizing Performance through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning) theory (i.e., OPTIMAL theory, Wulf and Lewthwaite, 2016), and have been applied in motor skill acquisition and performance. Implications range from more effective skill development in children and novice performers to athletes and performers in many fields, including clinical rehabilitation.

While each of these factors individually has been shown to enhance learning, three studies showed that combining two factors—enhanced expectancies and autonomy support (Wulf, Chiviacowsky, & Cardozo, 2014), enhanced expectancies and an external focus (Pascua, Wulf, & Lewthwaite, 2015), or autonomy support and an external focus (Wulf, Chiviacowsky & Drews, 2015)—resulted in additional benefits relative to the presence of only one of these factors, or none. Our most recent study (Wulf, Lewthwaite, Cardozo, & Chiviacowsky, 2017) demonstrated that having all three factors present during practice facilitated learning to an even greater extent than did two factors. Instructors can take advantage of these effects by ensuring that success is experienced, giving learners choices to support their need for autonomy and finding appropriate external foci.

Two experiments in this paper provided evidence that the beneficial effect of choice – incidental or task-related – are primarily motivational in nature. In Experiment 1, a choice incidental to the task (i.e., throwing a lasso) resulted in superior learning relative to a control condition. This learning advantage is arguably not accounted for through enhanced information processing or valuable provision of task-related information due to the execution of a task-relevant choice. In Experiment 2, this effect was replicated. Moreover, we found that a task-relevant choice yielded very similar benefits as the task-irrelevant choice. Thus, both experiments provided converging evidence that small choices are sufficient to enhance learning.

Maximum forces typically decrease across repetitions. This was also seen in a control condition in this study by Iwatsuki and colleagues. In contrast, when performers were given a small choice, maximum forces were maintained across repetitions. We interpret this finding as evidence that performer autonomy promotes movement efficiency. The results are in line with the view that autonomy facilitates goal-action coupling, as proposed in the OPTIMAL theory (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016).

Maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max) is regarded as the best measure of cardiovascular fitness. Yet, as the results of this study show, aerobic capacity is also a function of the performer’s self-efficacy expectations. These findings provide further evidence for social-cognitive-affective influences on (maximum) motor performance.

Children learning a sequence of ballet positions had higher self-efficacy, showed greater positive affect, and reported having more positive thoughts during practice when they were able to choose video demonstrations relative to a control group. Moreover, they demonstrated enhanced skill learning. The findings highlight the motivational underpinnings of learning benefits seen when learners are given choices.

 A large number of studies have shown benefits of an external focus of attention in terms of both movement effectiveness (e.g., accuracy, consistency, balance) and efficiency (e.g., muscular activity, force production, cardiovascular responses). The benefits are seen for all skill levels, types of skills, movement (dis)abilities, etc. This paper reviews the findings of 15 years of research in this area.

Concentrating on body movements (internal focus of attention) generally results in non-optimal performance and learning, whereas an external focus enhances automaticity and leads to better movement outcomes. This paper reports two studies in which focusing on the golf club increased the accuracy of golf shots, compared with focusing on arm movement, in novice and expert golfers.

Golfers know the importance of having the right swing thought. This article shows how a small difference in the swing thoughts novice golfers were asked to adopt produced large differences in terms of the rate of improvement (e.g., driving distance) and retention of the skill.

A simple external focus cue – a tape marker on the chest – is sufficient to improve movement form and jump height, as this study demonstrates. Thus, even the performance form-based skills, without the use of implements, benefits when attention is directed appropriately.

Giving learners choices — even small or incidental choices that are, or are not, related to the task — speeds the learning process. In this study the learning of balance exercises was enhanced when participants could choose the order of exercises.

In addition to facilitating performance and learning, people who are given choices are willing exercise longer, as this study demonstrates. Being able to choose the exercise order, as opposed to having to perform the exercises in a specific order, resulted in exercisers’ wanting to do more sets and repetitions.

Asking persons who have Parkinson’s disease to direct their attention externally leads to immediate improvements in their postural stability. Thus, even people with compromised motor systems (e.g., Parkinson’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis) benefits from appropriate attentional focus instructions.

Receiving positive feedback increases performers’ self-efficacy. But can it improve the running efficiency of experienced runners? The answer to this question is “yes.” Our study shows that athletes’ oxygen consumption decreased, while they continued to run at a certain speed, when they were given positive feedback about their efficiency.

Making a target look bigger by using visual illusion enhances performers’ confidence in their ability to hit the target. Interestingly, that confidence facilitates the learning of the task.

Setting criteria that purportedly indicate good performance, but that can be reached relatively easily, can raise learners’ confidence and in turn lead to more effective learning. In this study, golf putting  accuracy on a retention test was enhanced when learners felt more successful during practice.

Pointing out the “learnability” of a task impacts motor coordination favorably — leading to greater automaticity in movement control and faster skill learning.

We conducted a survey among professional ballet dancers to determine their typical attentional focus while performing certain movements. The majority reported adopting internal foci, or combinations of internal and external foci, most of the time. Thus, there is room for improvement for performance and teaching. We provide examples of how external foci can be promoted in ballet practice.