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Join The Cue - Everything You Wanted To Know About Coaching Cues

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

I lose my temper with my teenage son because he takes issue with the way I describe something I want him to do.


This infuriates me as I've spent the last 12+ years describing things for people to do. My descriptions are surely perfect now?


According to Ciaran, this is not the case.


In a desperate bid to improve things, we are going to talk about the ways we can communicate information to our clients and direct their focus to make them move in a certain way.


Hopefully, Ciaran changes his mind.


The communicated information is called a coaching cue.


The aim of the cue is to focus the mind of an athlete on a particular task.


There are 3 categories of cues.

  1. Internal

  2. External

  3. Normal


The normal category is there to confuse us. Normal cuing is moving without the influence of cues. For this reason, we'll be focusing our intention on internal and external coaching cues.


I thought this would be a succinct little article, but as usual, here is an article containing several thousand words.


The reason this article is needed is there is an optimal way to cue. And most coaches don't use it, know it or apply it.


I'll put in a spoiler, the optimal cue for someone is mostly an external cue.


Internal Cues


Internal cues directly reference the body. This directs your focus inwards. An example might be "squeeze your biceps" when doing a bicep curl.


External Cues


External cues direct your focus outside of the body, directing your focus towards an outcome. An example might be "move the dumbbells towards your shoulders" when doing a bicep curl.


Combo Cues


You can combine cues. This is where you will combine an internal and external cue potentially when both categories haven't done the job.


An example might be: During a bicep curl "Move the dumbbells towards your shoulders by squeezing your biceps hard at the top".


Aim Of The Cue



The aim of a coaching cue is to improve performance of a movement by focusing attention on a particular thing to create change.


The goal of a coaching cue has a timeline, this timeline can take seconds or years to explore.


The first goal is direct. I want someone to move in a particular way, now. This is short-term learning.


The final goal is the unconscious performance of a movement without the need for coaching or instruction from an additional source like a coach. This is long-term learning.




The initial coaching cue is offered when it is needed. This is most commonly when someone is learning a movement pattern, is correcting a movement pattern or when the intent of a lift needs to change.


It takes cycling through lots of different cues to find one that works. As a coach gets to know an athlete, this process tends to reduce in time.


Nick Winkelman terms this "trying on the cue." I love this terminology.


Once a coaching cue has landed, the cue is then practiced, distilled and made as short as possible. Often a word or an action is enough to bring the full cue to life in the mind of the lifter.


This is another important process in the life of an effective coaching cue.


Evolution Of The Coaching Cue


A coaching cue can evolve but the intent of the cue doesn't change. Here is how a cue may change over time.


Here we see the coaching cue simplifies over time. The act of pushing hard into the floor remains, but the words required to activate the mindset become minimal.


Distilled cues give the lifter less to think about. This gets them out of their own way and allows the lifter to cue themselves to get in the mindset to perform at the highest level.


This is the main theory behind why external cues work well as they allow the body to move naturally whereas internal cues are thought to get in the way of natural movement, leading to less optimal performance.


This is called the constrained action hypothesis, but remembering this isn't essential.


Every cue can't and shouldn't be distilled down to a single word, it should be distilled to be as short and full of meaning as possible.


Internal, external and combo cues can all be distilled as you deem appropriate.


The aim of distilling a cue over time is movement mastery. Movement mastery is attained when the mindset of the mover is primed.


It is the aim of the cue to provide the priming.


Eventually a lifter doesn't need the coach to provide a cue. They've learnt to apply it to their own movement without outside influence. This is an example of long-term or chronic learning.


As a cue is distilled over time, a natural progression from short-term learning to long-term learning is likely. Distilled cues develop alongside long-term learning.



Types And Language Of Cues


Verbs and adjectives are two of the most important components of a cue.


Your verbs or "doing words" as my Primary teacher used to call them describe the desired action. In one of the examples above I used the word 'push.' This hopefully provides the person in front of you a clear vision of what is expected.


If we combine the verb with a descriptive adjective like 'hard' the person has a clearer version of the cue and is more likely to apply it to the movement they are required to perform. The clearer the cue, the more effective the cue.


Examples of verbs used in internal cues:


  • Squeeze

  • Tense

  • Extend

  • Flex

  • Activate

  • Retract

  • Use


Examples of verbs used in external cues:


  • Slam

  • Push

  • Pull Jump

  • Reach

  • Drive

  • Hit

  • Dominate


Adjectives used in cues


  • Hard

  • Faster

  • Quickly

  • Snappy

  • Explosively

  • Slowly

  • Gradually

  • Powerfully

  • Aggressively


There are a few subcategories of coaching cue. These are usually associated with external cues or combo cues.


Subcategories:


  • Distance cues

  • Direction cues

  • Descriptive cues


Distance Cues



Distance cues reference something to do with distance.


Examples:

  • Keep the bar as close to you as possible

  • Reach towards the ceiling

  • Use your lats to keep your upper arm as close to your sides as possible (combo cue)

  • Look to the horizon


Your distance cue might get you to focus on something near you, like with our barbell example above or you might focus on something far away, such as looking at a focal point in the distance while performing farmer's walks.


As Bartholomew and Owens say in their article on the subject, novice lifters tend to get close-distance cues better and experienced athletes tend to perform better using far-distance cues like our farmer's walk example.


The cue can mention something close to you and be a distance cue. Imagining balancing something on your back would be a close-distance cue. Jump as far away from the cone as possible is a long-distance cue as it focuses the mind on something far away.


Direction


Direction cues direct the focus of an athlete in a particular direction.


There are two kinds of directional coaching cues:

  • Towards cues

  • Away cues


Examples of towards cues


  • Jump towards the ceiling

  • Throw the ball through the wall

  • Pull the cable towards you powerfully


Examples of away cues


  • Jump as far away from the floor as possible

  • Throw the ball away from you forcefully

  • Pull the cable away from the pulley as hard as you can


Away cues don't tend to work as well as towards cues unless you add a bit of mild peril.


My podcast guest Nick Winkelman loves the sprinting cue "beat the bite" which is an away cue + vivid peril imagery.


When using a towards cue, you can normally see the thing you are moving towards, whereas if you are moving away from something, you can't see it, making it less tangible, therefore less effective.


Both towards and away cues are superior to internal cues under most circumstances.


Descriptive Cues


These are my favourite type of cues and appear to have the greatest impact on client performance.


Most of my clients are powerlifters so I see how these cues work around maximal force production and maximal strength efforts.


Many other coaches such as Batholomew and Owens referenced elsewhere in the article talk of seeing the most bang for your buck using these cues for athletic endeavors like sprints, jumps, and throws.


Descriptive cues come in a couple of forms.

  • Analogies

  • Action Verbs


Analogies use stark visual imagery to achieve performance improvements. To make these work more effectively, they have to be highly personal.


Star Wars analogies work well for big Star Wars fans.


Rugby players love rugby analogies funnily enough. The more personal and vivid you can make the analogy, the more effective the cues become.


Action verb cues are for me, the ultimate form of a cue. They are the prime example of the distilled cues we discussed above.


Common action verb cues:


  • EXPLODE towards the ceiling

  • PUSH the floor away

  • THROW your hip into the throw


They are powerful, punchy cues clearly demonstrating how the lifter should perform.


Science of the Cue


Studies support neutral or external cues improve sprint times in experienced sprinters.

Studies also support external focus improves sprint performance in beginner sprinters.

There is currently no evidence internal focus improves performance with any level of sprinter.

Coaches therefore should err on the side of using externally focused cues over internal or neutrally focused cues unless the person in front of them is one of the exceptions to the rule. (1)


External cues improve the rapidity of motor learning (2) whereas internal cues have a depressive effect on motor learning.


This rings true anecdotally with my experience as a coach. External cues result in less frustrating sessions for clients of all levels whereas internal cues cloud mindset and performance.

It is my belief cues should be external and the muscles/joints/structures used in the movements should be discussed outside of the session, or at least during a different movement or training phase. (3)

External cues appear to be more effective during balance drills(4) this rings true anecdotally as with exercises like split squats, asking someone to focus on a point away from them improves balance more than any internal cue.


This looks to be true for all ages (5,6)


People tend to prefer using externally focused cues when given the choice between types of cues. (7)


Anecdotally, I would agree. People understand external cues the more than internal cues.


Cues directing focus near the body or internal cues seem to be less effective than far-distance cues for balancing exercises. (8)


This rings true with everyone's favorite exercise, the split squat. Have a client split-squat while looking at their feet and you will likely see them falling over. Ask someone to look at a spot a little further away and balance almost always improves.


External cues reduce EMG activity at all speeds, but external cues don't necessarily improve performance at all movement speeds. (9)


In motivated, experienced athletes, externally focused cues enhance performance whereas internal cues appear to HINDER it. (10)


This suggests people should stop telling people to squeeze their glutes mid-squat or deadlift for example.

Expert athletes performing an agility drill they are familiar with can be cued in any way and not suffer poorer performance. (11) but novice athletes without sprint or agility training performed better using externally focused cues (12)


Novice golfers putt more accurately when externally focusing on something further away from the body vs internal or proximal (near) the body. (13,14)


Novice rowers benefit more from external focus vs internal focus. (15)


Here we see external cue feedback improves the accuracy of basketball practice shots vs internal cue feedback (16)


This corresponds with what we see in the gym i.e. internal cues muddy the picture and move away from optimal movement whereas the external cue focuses movement on an outcome with positive effects seen.


When it comes to power tests such as standing long jump, externally focused cues improve performance vs internal cues (17,18,19,20,21)


Distance-related external cues improve the performance of high-level athletes in the standing long jump vs internal cues (22, 23) for me, this shows how easy it is to manipulate performance tests.


A coach can use internal cues during test one and use effective externally focused cues to elicit greater performance during test 2, making it less clear whether it was the training that improved jump performance or the cues.


External focus improves running economy (24) probably due to the constrained action hypothesis which is that external focus allows normal motor patterns whereas internal cues interrupt these patterns and disrupt the usual automatic performance of a task.


Here we see the difference between learning and performance explained. A lifter can perform a movement well in front of a coach without learning and vice versa (25)


External cues appear to help children learn complex motor patterns more effectively (26)


The Takeaway

This is completely the wrong GIF I intended to use. But it is too cute to delete.


Coaches impact performance with their communication. External cues should be used in the gym, anatomical and internal language should be used either after an exercise has been performed or outside of the gym if there is an educational component to the coaching.


Put another way, internal cues are a distraction, external cues are focusing. Performance and education therefore, should be separated. This can difficult when you have a limited amount of time with someone.


There is a place for internal cues as they work for some people however reviewing the above evidence, most people will perform better and retain more learning when externally-focused cues are used.

When these cues can be used with reference to something distant from the body, the externally-focused cues seem to be more effective.


There doesn't appear to be any studies seeing whether muscle-building is affected by internal vs external cues but it is my suggestion externally-focused cues will not be detrimental to muscle growth, will improve performance of the lifts used and will lead to greater retention of motor learning.


This should make training more enjoyable. If a particular muscle group needs more 'targeting' a combo cue using internal and internally focused language may offer the best of both worlds.


It is my conclusion coaches should cue depending on the individual but it's prudent to begin with external analogy-based cues as they work for the most people at all ages and ability levels.


Further Reading/Listening


References


  1. Benz, A., Winkelman, N., Porter, J. and Nimphius, S., 2016. Coaching Instructions and Cues for Enhancing Sprint Performance. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292151409_Coaching_Instructions_and_Cues_for_Enhancing_Sprint_Performance> [Accessed 9 September 2022].

  2. Wulf, G., Höß, M. and Prinz, W., 1998. Instructions for Motor Learning: Differential Effects of Internal Versus External Focus of Attention. [online] Pubmed.gov. Available at: <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20037032/> [Accessed 9 September 2022].

  3. Benz, A., Winkelman, N., Porter, J. and Nimphius, S., 2016. Coaching Instructions and Cues for Enhancing Sprint Performance. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292151409_Coaching_Instructions_and_Cues_for_Enhancing_Sprint_Performance> [Accessed 9 September 2022].

  4. Wulf, G., McNevin, N. and Shea, C., 2001. The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attentional focus. [online] Pubmed.gov. Available at: <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11765737/> [Accessed 9 September 2022].

  5. Chiviacowsky, S., Wulf, G. and Wally, R., 2010. An external focus of attention enhances balance learning in older adults. [online] Pubmed.gov. Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20850325> [Accessed 9 September 2022].

  6. Flores, F. and Chiviacowsky, S., 2015. Benefits of external focus instructions on the learning of a balance task in children of different ages | IJSP Online. [online] Ijsp-online.com. Available at: <http://www.ijsp-online.com/abstract/view/46/311> [Accessed 9 September 2022].

  7. Wulf, G., Shea, C. and Park, J., 2001. Attention and Motor Performance: Preferences for and Advantages of an External Focus. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02701367.2001.10608970> [Accessed 9 September 2022].

  8. McNevin, N., Shea, C. and Wulf, G., 2003. Increasing the distance of an external focus of attention enhances learning. [online] Available at: <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00426-002-0093-6> [Accessed 10 September 2022].

  9. Greig, M. and Marchant, D., 2014. Speed dependant influence of attentional focusing instructions on force production and muscular activity during isokinetic elbow flexions. [online] Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167945713001073?via%3Dihub> [Accessed 10 September 2022].

  10. Halperin, I., Williams, K., Martin, D. and Chapman, D., 2016. The Effects of Attentional Focusing Instructions on Force Production During the Isometric Midthigh Pull. [online] Available at: <https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2016/04000/The_Effects_of_Attentional_Focusing_Instructions.4.aspx> [Accessed 10 September 2022].

  11. Bartholomew, B., 2012. ATTENTIONAL FOCUS DOES NOT IMPACT AGILITY PEFORMANCE AMONGST DIVISION I WOMEN COLLEGIATE TENNIS PLAYERS. [online] OpenSIUC. Available at: <https://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/gs_rp/259/> [Accessed 10 September 2022].

  12. Porter, J., Nolan, R., Ostrowski, E. and Wulf, G., 2010. Directing Attention Externally Enhances Agility Performance: A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis of the Efficacy of Using Verbal Instructions to Focus Attention. [online] Frontiers In Psychology. Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153821/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153821/> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

  13. Kearney, P., 2014. A distal focus of attention leads to superior performance on a golf putting task. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1612197X.2014.993682?journalCode=rijs20> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

  14. Bell, J. and Hardy, J., 2009. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247515604_Effects_of_Attentional_Focus_on_Skilled_Performance_in_Golf> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

  15. Parr, R. and Button, C., 2009. End-point focus of attention: Learning the 'Catch' in Rowing. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288580062_End-point_focus_of_attention_Learning_the_'Catch'_in_Rowing> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

  16. Wulf, G., Mcconnel, N., Gärtner, M. and Schwarz, A., 2002. Enhancing the Learning of Sport Skills Through External-Focus Feedback. [online] Available at: <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12057890/> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

  17. Porter, J., Ostrowski, E., Nolan, R. and Wu, W., 2010. Standing Long-Jump Performance is Enhanced when Using an External Focus of Attention. [online] Available at: <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20543731/> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

  18. Wu, W., Porter, J. and Brown, L., 2012. Effect of Attentional Focus Strategies on Peak Force and Performance in the Standing Long Jump. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22082793> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

  19. Wulf, G. and Dufek, J., 2009. Increased Jump Height with an External Focus Due to Enhanced Lower Extremity Joint Kinetics. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19846388> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

  20. Wulf, G., Zachry, T. and Granados, C., 2007. Increases in Jump-and-Reach Height through an External Focus of Attention. [online] Sage Journals. Available at: <http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1260/174795407782233182> [Accessed 12 September 2022].

  21. Selin, I., Do, M. and Thon, B., 2013. Attentional focus effects on sprint start performance as a function of skill level. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02640414.2013.797097?journalCode=rjsp20> [Accessed 12 September 2022].

  22. Porter, J., Anton, P., Wikoff, N. and Ostrowski, J., 2013. Instructing Skilled Athletes to Focus Their Attention Externally at Greater Distances Enhances Jumping Performance. [online] PubMed. Available at: <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23222082/> [Accessed 12 September 2022].

  23. Porter JM, Nolan RP, Ostrowski EJ, Wulf G. Directing attention externally enhances agility performance: a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the efficacy of using verbal instructions to focus attention. Front Psychol. 2010 Nov 29;1:216. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00216. PMID: 21833271; PMCID: PMC3153821.

  24. Schucker, L. and Parrington, L., 2018. Thinking about your running movement makes you less efficient: attentional focus effects on running economy and kinematics. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at: <https://shapeamerica.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02640414.2018.1522697?journalCode=rjsp20#.Yx7xdj3MK70> [Accessed 12 September 2022].

  25. Soderstrom NC, Bjork RA. Learning versus performance: an integrative review. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015 Mar;10(2):176-99. doi: 10.1177/1745691615569000. PMID: 25910388.

  26. Hadler, R., Chiviacowsky, S., Wulf, G. and Schild, J., 2014. Children's learning of tennis skills is facilitated by external focus instructions. [online] Available at: <http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1980-65742014000400418> [Accessed 12 September 2022].


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