Coaching Cues – A deeper look at communication skills.

This post has taken me long enough to write so I hope you find it interesting. The inspiration came from some feedback I recently received from some experienced coaches whom I really respect and work for a certain organisation in the UK.  I’m happy to say that my coaching was very well received.  One of the subjects that arose from it was how I used different cues with different athletes and the way this changed throughout the session as I “sussed out” what each athlete responded best to.

coach cue blog

Coaching is an art, but as Daniel Coyle refers to talent “Greatness isn’t born. It’s Grown”.  Communication in all forms is an area that I’ve focused on a great deal within my own learning and I believe some things now come quite naturally to me through the number of hours I’ve clocked up coaching various populations.  As you get to know you’re athletes better, you should be able to figure out what works with each one and the more time you spend coaching different athletes will improve the speed at which you can do this.  Thus this ties in closely with a couple of previous posts I’ve written on the importance of experience and even the benefits of personal training for aspiring S&C coaches.  Those 10,000 hours apply to coaching as well as sports mastery you know.  That being said, it helps to have an informed thought process in all areas of coaching, so I hope this article will at least get you thinking about the way you cue various exercises.  I aim to especially highlight the importance of knowing your athletes and understanding how we process information.

cues blog

Start with WHY?

It’s always a good habit to start with why, just ask Simon Sinek!  So why do we use cues?

Ok pretty easy, cues should be a clear and concise way of communicating with our athletes (they are an integral part of coaching).  We have to communicate with our athletes and when trying to improve movement skill or mental attention it is usually best to keep this simple and to the point in the form of what we refer to as a “coaching cue”.  In general a coach will:

1) Identify a consistent technical problem;

2) Decide what they believe will be the best way to fix it;

3) Communicate this solution as clear and effectively as possible.

Whether they know it or not, every coach uses various cues in every session.

Moving on from the obvious…. How much thought have you given to HOW you cue?  How do you make this simple communication as effective as possible?  How much do you understand about the way in which humans learn skills and the way in which we process information?

Skill acquisition & motor learning

Before we discuss “coaching cues” in more depth, I believe it is important to have an understanding of skill acquisition.  As you should know by now, I don’t intend this to be a textbook educational resource, rather one that challenges your practical thinking and coaching abilities.  That being said, it is important to have some background knowledge before we proceed.  I’m happy to give some direction but like any personal development (“self help”) book, you need to act on it.  Plenty of textbooks exist on the subject so go read a couple.

I believe in order to understand the best way to coach movement is to start by understanding how we (as humans) learn skills.  Therefore I recommend you invest some time to have a thorough understanding of Different Types of Skills, Skill Acquisition and Motor Learning.  Specifically:

  • Closed vs Open skills
  • Discrete vs Continuous Skills
  • Gross vs Fine Skills
  • Information Processing Theory
  • Schema Theory
  • Stages of Motor Learning: Cognitive Stage, Associative Stage & Autonomous Stage vs The 2-stage Model.

First task then, describe each of the above in a simple and easy to understand manner.  From what you’ve learned about different types of skills, how do you think you’d cue them differently?  Why?

stages of motor learning

Different Learning Styles

Once you understand different types of skills, I guess you need to understand different ways of learning.  I recently learnt, thanks to Simon Nainby, the old fashioned concept of learning styles whereby we are all suited to a specific type of learning may not be so valid.  Instead the most important thing to understand is that by learning through multiple methods we attach more meaning to what we do which enhances our learning experience and thus retention.  We may have preferred styles and different people will respond differently to different stimuli (much like training!!) but in light of what of I’ve recently learnt, it’s probably best to communicate to all your athletes across a variety of platforms.

learning styles

So how can you apply your communication in the most effective way to suit different ways of learning?  Well, there’s more than one way to communicate.  The old concept of individual styles would suggest that:

  • Aural learners are suited to simple description;
  • Verbal learners might like to describe the movement back to you (they often do this automatically);
  • Visual learners may be more suited to demonstrations or video feedback;
  • Logical learners may require a little more rationale;
  • Physical learnerscan be given more chance to practice or you can actually groove them through the movement.

As I alluded to at the start, it’ll take time getting to know your athletes and what they best respond to.  However you certainly shouldn’t assume that anyone will fall entirely into just one category.  Indeed coaching through a variety of methods will be more effective, so you should be adept in using all forms of communication.  For example I know that one of my skiers will nail what I want from them after a good demonstration whereas another needs to have a decent conversation about it as well before he starts.

Tips for coaching through a variety of learning styles:

  • Keep verbal instructions simple and specific.
  • Encourage athletes to describe the movement in their own words.  This is a sign of verbal learning.  Also take note of specific words they use, as this will be the best way to relate to them in the future.
  • In today’s technology fuelled world I find most athletes respond well to video feedback.  It’s essential to have a good visual representation of what the movement should look like as well as what their movement currently looks like, so it’s advised that you always consider the visual element.
  • Logical learning might not be for everyone but definitely take the time to explain your rationale to athletes who ask “why?”.  Feeding this thirst for knowledge will help them learn.  It will also meet their psychological needs and create buy-in to your programme.
  • Practice is a great way to get better at anything.  You may see some athletes going through the motions between sets of their own accord.  As we should always look to encourage a “growth mindset” (the more you work at something the better you get), I believe this should always be encouraged.

When coaching a new movement pattern for example, do you have a planned coaching strategy that covers all these styles?  Here’s roughly how I do it:

  1. Start with a (close-to) perfect demonstration to give a visual representation of the movement.
  2. Verbally highlight 1 (maximum 2) key points to focus on.
  3. Allow physical practice of the movement.
  4. Give appropriate individualised feedback based on technical faults and preferred learning styles:
    • Use deeper explanation of exercise & rationale with athletes who will engage with it.
    • Ask athletes to describe the movement back/how it felt and correct accordingly.
    • Use video feedback where useful. A great tool that can be used quickly and effectively, however this is more difficult with large groups and should thus be used selectively.
    • Take a “hands-on” approach to groove the correct movement as an athlete practices.
    • Stick with clear simple cues throughout.
  5. Repeat steps 3 & 4 until the movement is mastered.

Once you’ve identified which athletes respond best to certain types of communication and their preferred choice of vocabulary, write it down!  Simple notes like this will make your coaching more effective and can be highly valuable.  This is data worth collecting!

How to cue – internal vs external

The area of internal vs external attentional focus has received a fair amount of attention in recent years, largely due to considerable works by Dr Gabrielle Wulf; thus many coaches will hopefully have a decent understanding of the importance of this subject.  Basically an internal focus is one that concentrates on specific body parts and their movement, an external focus is one that concentrates on the effect that the movement will have on the environment.  An example of cues in relation to the hang power clean would be:

Internal: bring your hands to your chin.

External: keep the bar close.

Another example in relation to acceleration running would be:

Internal: extend at the hip.

External: push the ground away.

The overwhelming conclusions from a growing but already large body of evidence, is that external coaching cues are far more effective towards better performance outcomes than internal cues.  In a recent study by Bredin et al., (2013), significantly better performances were attained in 7 measures of physical fitness when participants were given external cues in comparison to both internal cues and no cues.  In some exercises (grip strength, push-ups, and vertical jump) no cues even proved significantly better than internal cues.  Furthermore, two particular studies from Wulf et al. found that a higher frequency of external cues provided greater performance outcomes in learning motor tasks.  In fact they also found that a higher frequency of internal cues actually inhibited performance in the same tasks.  This could be a really useful inclination towards how often you provide feedback and based on this particular evidence it would suggest that regular cues with an external focus between reps & sets would be highly effective.

External-cues-jump-performance

I recently heard Frans Bosch say that 85% of coaching cues are based on the brain controlling movement i.e. internal.  I’m not sure where he got this figure from but let’s roll with it.  We know that external cues are more effective and its fair to assume that they may not be used as frequently as they could be by some coaches in comparison to lesser effective internal cues.  Perhaps this is because they aren’t aware of the importance of attentional focus or because it’s harder to think of external cues all the time?  Maybe it’s just easier to say what you see: hips need to go back -> “hips back”, trunk should be braced -> “brace your trunk” and so on.  This is why we need to take a slightly deeper thought process into our coaching at first to develop more effective habits that will eventually come naturally.

If you asked Dr Gabrielle Wulf whether external cues are always best, she’d probably say yes (at least she did in a response on Sam Leahy’s blog).  As with almost anything though, I’d say there’s a time and a place for internal cues.  One situation where they may be more relevant within coaching would be when working with Bodybuilders or perhaps for hypertrophic gains in various athletes as an internal focus leads to higher motor unit activation (Emmanuel et al., 2008; Marchant et al., 2009).  Turns out that there’s some science to support the advice Arnie’s been preaching for years, “focus on the muscle contraction”!

arnie pump

Secondly, in my experience some (few) athletes do have a good enough awareness to relate well to internal cues and I’m happy to use them with said athletes.  I generally find these athletes are ones with a longer training history and a vested interest in physical training; they’ve often studied sports science or a related subject and might consider coaching once their professional career has come to end.

One of my favourite internal cues is “brace your trunk”.  It’s a necessary action in a wide variety of exercises.  However I’ll often combine this cue with a punch (or at least slap) to the abdominals.  It’s what I refer to as my “hand-on” approach to coaching.  I’m not aware of any research that has combined an internal & external focus of attention, probably because it seems counter-intuitive and hard to qualify.  Personally I like to think that by combining these cues my athletes will learn to associate “brace your trunk” with being hit in the midsection and it’s less of a mouthful than “imagine you’re about to be hit in the stomach”.  Thus it should give the desired effect and I certainly find that it works well.

Lastly, there’ll be times when you simply can’t think of an external cue for every situation.  This is fine.  Whilst it’s a great habit to use external cues when you can, the main goal is to communicate the objective change as simply and effectively as possible.  If “toes up” is simpler and more effective than an obscure metaphor such as “imagine running up a steep hill” then so be it!

In general, for performance outcomes such as jumping, throwing and sprinting, it’s normally best advised to use external cues.

The main task:

Below I have written a list of 20 common movements and faults that you’re bound to coach at some point.  Write down as quickly as possible what you would normally say for each one.  Once you’ve done this, ascertain whether that was an internal or external cue.  Then go through again deciding what you think would make the most effective external cue in each situation.  Finally put them into practice the next time you’re working with your athletes/clients and make changes or additions where necessary.  This will be an ever-evolving process and it will definitely help to start by writing them down.  You can add to the list by including common faults you see and exercises you use frequently.

Running:

  • Drive the knee forward when accelerating.
  • Active forefoot strike from above.
  • Lower centre of mass when changing direction.
  • Upper body first when changing direction.

Olympic Lifts:

  • Posture in start position.
  • Full extension in 2nd pull.
  • Shrug.
  • Weight distribution/balance in the catch.

Squat:

  • Break at the hips.
  • Weight distribution throughout.
  • Drive outwards (avoid knee valgus).
  • Maintain a neutral spine.

Plyometrics:

  • Minimise Ground Contact Time.
  • Jump higher.

Other exercises:

  • Brace the trunk.
  • Hinge at the hip.
  • Squeeze the glutes at the top of the deadlift.
  • Power transfer from lower to upper body in a single arm MB throw.
  • Maintain a neutral spine when pressing over head.
  • More power on a bench throw (explosive bench press).

Keep It Simple & Specific – Poco a poco

As an aspiring S&C coach you should already have an appreciation that when learning complex motor patterns, you need to focus on one thing at a time.  As they say over here “poco a poco” (it’s a frustrating culture at times but the phrase applies well in certain situations).  Indeed the more you focus on controlling one limb/movement, the less control you’ll tend to have over others.  In relation to teaching various complex motor skills such as speed & agility, Frans Bosch refers to this as the classic hierarchical model of central control.  Whereby the brain would have to control all neuromuscular units if this were true.  Difficult enough for simple movements in simple environments but becomes increasingly more so with more complex tasks.  Therefore Bosch would argue his case towards a Dynamic Systems Approach, which is a decentralized model involving the interaction between elements and based on a set of simple rules (attractors such as “striking from above”).  You can then reinforce these rules through simple cues.  To read more about Frans Bosch’s Dynamic Systems Approach, jump straight to chapter 9 in High Performance Training For Sports (though I highly recommend attending a seminar if you ever get the chance).

This is why external cues are more effective towards improved performance outcomes than internal cues.  In scientific terms, it’s referred to as the “constrained action hypothesis” (Wulf 2007), which states:

“Consciously focusing on the movements of a motor action disrupts automatic motor control processes that regulate coordinated movements. When athletes actively focus and consciously control their movements, they interrupt automatic nonconscious motor behavior processes that normally control movements in an efficient manner. In contrast, directing attention externally to the movement effects allows the motor control system to naturally regulate and organize motor actions. As a result, movements are unconscious, fast, and reflexive.” (Wu et al. 2011).

However learning new motor skills is different to cueing for better performance in well-established tasks.  Take A skips for example.  Have you ever taught an A skip to someone for the first time?  Can you remember the first time you learnt?  It’s a complex movement skill.  Regardless of what’s actually said, you’d think the most important part about an A skip is in coordinating the legs, so athletes tend to focus on this.  In my experience it is very common for their arms to consequently stay rigid and fixed by their side.  Often with fists clenched and white knuckles as an extra sign of their concentration.  Other than “do an A-Skip” or “copy me”, I’m yet to find an external cue for the whole movement.  Personally when I coach a lot of movements like this I’ll start with a good demonstration, deliberately not say anything and let my athletes figure it out as they go (I’ll talk more about explorative learning in a minute).  Once I’ve decided what’s most important to change first, I’ll start with the most relevant cue.  It’s important to understand that with complex movements like this, you must piece them together step by step.  There is research on multiple versus single cues (Landin, 1994) but it’s logical to assume that multiple different cues will likely lead to confusion.  So it’s important to keep your cueing consistent to the one most important change.

When learning complex movements it may be necessary to use internal cues.  Whilst I understand that with an internal focus, other areas of the skill are likely to break down.  In my opinion there are some situations where this doesn’t actually matter, providing the athlete is making the change that you are looking for.  Once they’ve engrained this change you can then revert back to the entire skill and work on the next area of improvement.  You can think of learning new complex motor skills just like writing an article, best to get something down first.  Then refine it one part at a time, whilst regularly referring back to the main thread/skill and eventually put it all together. I’m better at coaching movement than I am writing metaphors!!

It’s important to understand that an athlete will only be able to make one change at a time so be selective, specific and consistent with your cues.

When to cue

Cues can be given before, during or after a movement.  They can be given as soon as you notice a technical error or you can wait until you know that error is consistent.

Providing concurrent cues are generally ill-advised as they can distract the athlete and this removes an opportunity for implicit learning (Nater, 2005).  However there are times when it may be beneficial.  Nick Winkleman (Director of Training & Education for Exos) has suggested that due to the rhythmical nature of some continuous skills such as sprinting, repetitive external cues such as “push, push, push” may be warranted to match the desired step frequency during the acceleration phase.  This can be considered similar to how gymnasts match the rhythm of their routine to a selected piece of music.

In the gym, we are more likely to be coaching discrete skills.  Terminal cues (either side of the movement) that give the athlete an external focus with no interuption whilst the movement is being completed are more suited to these types of skills.

Before you jump in straight away with your correctional cue though, you may want to wait a second.  In a recent article by Ryan Banta on Just Fly Sports (for a more detailed look into sprint cues check out the full article link at the bottom of the page), in relation to sprint coaching he highlighted how he won’t correct a fault as soon as he sees it.  This fault could be a one-off, an accident and there may be no need to jump in straight away.  Attempting to correct such accidental faults could lead to a cascade of other issues.  Therefore you should wait until you notice a consistent error before correcting it.  I like this approach.  Waiting a while also gives the athlete an opportunity to self-correct and time to figure out the movement for themselves (we like problem solvers!!).

Concurrent cues may be applicable for continuous skills, however it is generally advised to use terminal cues so as not to distract the athlete and you should wait until an error is consistent before you attempt to correct it.

How often to cue

As I mentioned earlier, Wulf et al., have found that 100% external cueing was more effective in a soccer passing accuracy test than when only 33% of the tasks were externally cued.  In the same trials they also found that when 100% of the tasks were internally cued, this was in fact less effective than when just 33% of the tasks were internally cued.  However, in relation to general feedback, Winstein & Schmidt (1990) found that when giving knowledge of results during the learning of a novel movement pattern, it was more effective to provide feedback 50% of the time versus 100% of the time.

It’s clear then that how often you cue, should depend on what you’re cuing.

For me though, there’s more to coaching than just what’s more effective towards the task at hand.  Whilst looking at the bigger picture of athlete development, there are times to consider saying less.

When not to cue

Whilst some good research may suggest that 100% external cueing is more successful than when only 33% of repetitions are cued, what would your athletes do when you’re not there?  In relation to providing feedback (knowledge of results and knowledge of performance) Salmoni et al (1984) suggested that you need to be careful not to create athletes who are “feedback dependent”.  I think this is also applicable to coaching cues and we should be careful not to create athletes who are dependent on our presence.  Developing the use of implicit feedback is very important.  Also, the concept of creating problem solvers within our athletes is very popular at the moment and you may know that I am particularly fond of this approach.  With this in mind sometimes it can be better to say nothing at all!

I am a big fan of explorative learning.  As I mentioned in a previous discussion on warm ups, I frequently like to challenge my athletes’ coordination skills.  I believe by doing so, they will gain a greater understanding of their own body, thus learn new skills quicker and become easier to coach.  During this time I’ll give minimal cues and try to just make sure that what the athlete is feeling is in line with what they’re doing.

Last season I had to return to England for 10 days and received a message from one of my athletes to say “we need you in the gym for the motivation”.  As flattered as I was, my immediate thought was that motivation should come from within.  I don’t want my athletes to be dependent on my presence (in fact I want the opposite) and I try to take an autonomous approach to coaching.  I look to give my athletes a sense of responsibility and independence.  There is a time and place for everything, when learning more complex tasks such as weightlifting I feel it’s important to give more regular feedback.  However when working with jumping tasks and MB throws etc. I’ll generally keep feedback to a minimum and let my athletes figure out what works best for themselves.

Sometimes coaching is about what you don’t say, as well as what you do.  You need to find that balance.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil2

Summary

This has been one of my longest articles and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of a few of the topics within.  In hindsight it may have been better for you if I split it into 2 or 3 parts?  There’s certainly room for future posts on specific areas such as demonstrations, implicit vs explicit feedback and I can feel a great discussion of “hands-on” vs “hands-off” coaching developing in my head.  That being said I hope I have helped you understand a few things that should influence the way you cue your athletes.  Just in case you’ve forgotten already, I’ve highlighted the key messages below:

Key Take-Homes:

  • Understand theories of motor learning & information processing that will enable you to make better informed decisions when coaching and communicating with athletes.
  • Communication is much like training, all athletes will respond differently to different stimuli.
  • Know your athletes & make a note of what each one responds best to.
  • Again, just like training methods, have a wide variety of tools in your box that you can adapt to suit each individual.
  • Understand that an athlete will only be able to make one change at a time so be selective, specific and consistent with your cues.
  • Regular external cueing is a good general approach.  However there are appropriate times to use internal cues and be careful not to “over-cue”.
  • As always experience is key in learning what works best for you and your athletes.

Thanks for reading and as always, I’m open to feedback.

benjamin franklin

Further resources and reading:

  • Bredin, S. S., Dickson, D. B., & Warburton, D. E. (2013). Effects of varying attentional focus on health-related physical fitness performance. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism38(2), 161-168.
  • Landin, D. (1994). The role of verbal cues in skill learning. Quest46(3), 299-313.
  • Nater, S. You haven’t taught until they have learned: John Wooden’s teaching principles and practices. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology, 2005.
  • Proteau L, Marteniuk RG, Girouard Y, Dugas C. On the type of information used to control and learn an aiming movement after moderate and extensive training. Human Movement Science. 1987;6:181–199.
  • Proteau L, Marteniuk RG, Lévesque L. A sensorimotor basis for motor learning: Evidence indicating specificity of practice. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 1992;44A:557–575.
  • Salmoni AW, Schmidt RA, Walter CB. Knowledge of results and motor learning: A review and critical reappraisal. Psychological Bulletin. 1984;95:355–386
  • Schmidt, R. A. (1975). A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning. Psychological review82(4), 225.
  • Winstein CJ, Schmidt RA. Reduced frequency of knowledge of results enhances motor skill learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 1990;16:677–691.
  • Wu, W. F., Porter, J. M., & Brown, L. E. (2012). Effect of attentional focus strategies on peak force and performance in the standing long jump. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research26(5), 1226-1231.
  • Wulf, G. Attentional focus effects in balance acrobats. Manuscript submitted for publication, 2006.
    Wulf, G. Attention and motor skill learning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.
  • Wulf, G., and J.S. Dufek. Increased jump height with an external focus due to enhanced lower extremity joint kinetics. J Mot Behav. 41:401-409, 2009.
  • Wulf, G., J.S. Dufek, L. Lozano, and C. Pettigrew. Increased jump height and reduced EMG activity with an external focus. Hum Mov Sci. 29:440-448, 2010.
  • Wulf, G., M. Hoss, and W. Prinz. Instructions for Motor Learning: Differential Effects of Internal Versus External Focus of Attention. J Mot Behav. 30:169-179, 1998.
  • Wulf, G., B. Lauterbach, and T. Toole. The learning advantages of an external focus of attention in golf. Res Q Exerc Sport. 70:120-126, 1999.
  • Wulf, G., N. McConnel, M. Gartner, and A. Schwarz. Enhancing the learning of sport skills through external-focus feedback. J Mot Behav. 34:171-182, 2002.
  • Wulf, G., N. McNevin, and C.H. Shea. The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attentional focus. Q J Exp Psychol A. 54:1143-1154, 2001.
  • Wulf, G., C. Shea, and J.H. Park. Attention and motor performance: preferences for and advantages of an external focus. Res Q Exerc Sport. 72:335-344, 2001
  • Wulf, G., and J. Su. An external focus of attention enhances golf shot accuracy in beginners and experts. Res Q Exerc Sport. 78:384-389, 2007.

Websites:

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2 Comments

Filed under Development, Strength & Conditioning

2 responses to “Coaching Cues – A deeper look at communication skills.

  1. Sy Wiggall

    Hey Matt, great article, some gems in there to assist us all… much appreciated

  2. Banta

    Thank you including my information in your article. 🙂

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