Optimising Children’s Motor Learning Environment Through Motivational and Attentional Interventions: The OPTIMAL Approach

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Introduction: According to the OPTIMAL theory an External Focus of attention, Enhanced Expectancies for success, and Autonomy Support are key attentional and motivational factors for effective motor performance and learning. Therefore, application of OPTIMAL theory could benefit children’s motor performance and learning in physical education (PE). However, this thesis presents a systematic review highlighted a paucity of OPTIMAL research within child populations, including a lack of studies combining OPTIMAL factors, especially in ecologically valid motor learning settings like PE, and an overemphasis on object manipulation skills (e.g., throwing). Design and aims: To address these research gaps, four empirical studies were conducted to address to distinct aims: 1) explore the use of OPTIMAL instructional approaches in PE and 2) examine the effects of combined OPTIMAL factors on children’s motor performance, learning and intrinsic motivation in ecologically valid PE settings through instructional and task-design manipulations. Results: PE teachers commonly employed OPTIMAL instructional approaches to facilitate motor performance and learning. Additionally, combining OPTIMAL factors improved children’s motor performance, learning and intrinsic motivation, however some combinations of OPTIMAL factors did not augment motor performance despite increased intrinsic motivation. Discussion: OPTIMAL theory appears useful to support children’s motor performance, learning and intrinsic motivation in PE. However, the findings did not always support OPTIMAL theory predictions. Specifically, the studies failed to consistently support predictions that intrinsic motivation mediates optimal performance and learning, but it may indirectly support effective goal-action coupling. The findings suggest OPTIMAL theory could benefit from further clarification about the role of enhanced expectancies and autonomy support – thought to increase intrinsic motivation – in optimising motor performance and learning. Nevertheless, from a practical perspective, application of OPTIMAL theory improved children’s motor performance, learning and intrinsic motivation in ecologically valid PE settings and has beneficial applied implications. Conclusion: Simple changes in instructional language and task set-up can facilitate children’s optimal performance and learning in PE.
Date of Award3 Jan 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDAVID MARCHANT (Director of Studies), EVELYN CARNEGIE (Supervisor) & PAUL ELLISON (Supervisor)


  • OPTIMAL theory
  • External Focus
  • Enhanced expectancies
  • Autonomy support
  • Motor perfromance
  • motor learning
  • Physical education

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