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Coaching Cues: You use them constantly, but how much thought do you give them?

Coaching cues, to put it very succinctly, are bits of information used to teach an athlete how to perform a task or skill. A seemingly simple concept that can either make coaching effective when done well, or absolutely implode all progress when done poorly. So, how do we ensure the best possible outcome and can that technique be used across all facets of coaching?

Below, we will break down the type of coaching cues that exist and some examples of how they may be used.

It isn’t what you do, but how you do it.

John Wooden

Internal Cues – These cues direct an athlete to focus on a particular body part associated with the desired skill we are looking to improve.

Examples: Bend from your hips; Extend fast through your ankles, knees and hips; Drive knee high and pull toes towards the knee; Drive big toe into the ground

Regardless of the exact cue used, internal cues always relate to an exact body part.  While seemingly easy and direct, the problem that has been found with using internal cues, is that the athlete has a hard time self-organizing their movements.  In other words, they think too much about the action required to perform the skill, which can slow reaction time and disrupt the flow of the overall movement desired.  

This is not to say that there are no instances of needing to use internal cues, just to be aware of the limitations that they may present.  Using these in a more controlled setting, with limited decision making required, such as addressing a desired position in a skip or hold, or teaching a new strength movement would be an apt place to employ internal cueing for example.

External Cues – These cues direct an athlete to focus on the movement or outcome associated with the movement.

Examples: Push the ground away; Explode toward the ceiling; Stay low; Spring off the ground

External cues are believed to allow the athlete to subconsciously self-organize their body during movement. In other words, to think more about the desired outcome, rather than focus on all the specific parts of the body required to make it happen.

There are also three sub-categories of external cues: distance, direction and description.

Distance Using distance in your external cue can be done with relation to either how far or how close the focus is supposed to be. Imagine kicking a soccer ball. Do you tell the athlete to kick through the ball or to kick it towards the top corner of the net?  Both can be correct, but how you manipulate the use of distance in your cues can have a major impact on the desired outcome.  In the research, it has been found that more novice athletes learn better with close distance cues and more advanced athletes perform better with far distance cues.

Direction Directional cues refer to either away from or towards an object.  You could instruct an athlete to jump towards a cone or jump away from the starting position.  While the research is not as extensive, or conclusive on the benefits of one of these directional cues versus the other, the lean is more towards an object.  The goal/task oriented nature of jumping towards an object seems to potentially produce better results, but again, nothing definitive.

Description Descriptive cues use either action verbs (launch, explode, attack, drive) or analogies (launch like a rocket ship, break the bar in half, blow out all of your birthday candles) to allow the athlete to quickly grasp the task at hand with simplicity.  The task of the coach is to find what descriptive cue works best for your athlete and to realize that not all analogies are equal as they can be highly individualized based on a whole host of factors.

Normal Cues – These cues are basically the athlete’s own normal focus when there is an absence of immediate instruction.

In other words, the athlete is thinking of their own cue or relying on a cue from a previous coach, which may have been an internal or external cue.  Essentially a crap shoot.

Conclusion

It is vital to remember that even though coaching is sometimes referred to as an art, it is inherently science based and the research shows that an evidence based practice can enhance a coach’s performance with their athletes.  The art element of coaching comes in to play when deciding what type of cue to use and why, as well as how to maximize the impact of the cues you are using.  

The majority of studies associated with coaching cues have shown that external cueing, which is the attention to the outcome of a task, rather than focus on a particular body part, appears to be the most effective form of teaching.  Not only that, external cueing has been shown to benefit immediate performance (short-term learning), as well as retention of a skill when repeated at a later time (long-term learning). 

Hopefully with this information you can immediately start to implement a strategy to get the most out of your coaching sessions and provide your athletes with a lasting and positive learning experience.  

If you’d like to dive even further into this topic I highly suggest you follow Nick Winkleman and check out his book, “The Language of Coaching”, as well as Brett Bartholomew and his book, “Conscious Coaching”.  Two of the best in the field that have devoted a lot of time to research and provide the best practices when it comes to coaching, cueing and relating to your athletes.

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