As a coach or physio, we’re always looking for the most simple and effective cue we can give an athlete to elicit the best movement. Invariably, the best coaches and physios I’ve worked with know how to get more out of their athletes with seemingly less coaching. One of the main reasons is their effective use of cueing – the unique demand on the athlete to perform or alter the movement as needed. As Diane Fu (a brilliant Oly coach) says, “A cue is a relationship between a coach and an athlete, specific to that moment for something that is going on – trying to solve a specific problem.” Words mean a lot in coaching, so why not get the most out of them rather than verbally beating the athlete with complicated or unclear cues until everyone is alarmed. How many times have we heard “arms up” or “contract your quads” at mind-numbing repetition. 

So the real question is, what do you or your athletes need to think about during the movement?

As it turns out, the key to effective coaching is to turn the athlete’s focus of attention to the effects of the movement (an external focus) rather than the body’s movement (an internal focus). 


Motor learning research has supported this for years, mostly in the context of rehab after neurologic injury: using an external focus drives quicker and more permanent gains in motor learning and control. However, it’s now being shown that athletes focusing on the results of the movement are producing more force, jumping higher, generating better performance in stressful situations, and increasing fluidity and multi-tasking. Damn, that sounds a lot like building a better athlete. 

On the flipside, focusing on internal cues such as individual muscles (i.e. your biceps during curls for beach season) actually elicits less force production in the muscle and even increases antagonistic muscle activity (the opposite of what we want), drains mental capacity, and reduces fluidity – all of which markedly decrease efficiency and drain performance. 

Here’s why this all matters: we are wired for movement not muscles. So when we have our athletes focus on individual components it overrides the automaticity of our motor patterns – decreasing movement quality and efficiency. So it stands to reason that our cues should reflect the effects of the movement we are coaching and NOT its individual components. Concentrate on the barbell, not your hands. Concentrate on pulling the bar up, not extending your hips and knees. Coach and train like this and the brain will figure out the motor pattern with purpose and efficiency. Bog yourself or your athlete down with focusing on bending the knees or contracting a certain muscle and the movement becomes movement-like which equals NO REP. In order for these skills to transfer – the basis of a variable movement S&C program, they have to be well-learned.

By the way, the best coaches and physios already inherently do this because they have figured out it gets better results, period.

Gabriele Wulf, PhD has some great stuff on this.

Speaking of cues, check out this discussion on the knees in vs knees out “debate” – not really sure how it’s even a debate when clearly, in my opinion, letting knees come in only serves to reinforce faulty movement patterns in higher level skills. Why let the knees collapse in during a squat if we’d never let that occur during running or jumping?

Post your favorite cues in the comments – I love hearing about new and creative ways to coach the movement we’re looking for.


P.S. Special thanks again to Leda McDaniel for her recent guest post on pain and recovery in athletes as it has already become the most popular post on this website – if you haven’t read it yet, c’mon man!
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