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Coaching & Cueing

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

We’ve all been there: spouting off every imaginable cue we know in hopes of getting our client in the “perfect” position... only to find that the more we say, the seemingly worse the outcome becomes. Every new prompt adds yet another level of mental fatigue. Every demonstration leads to more confusion. Frustrations build on both sides as the client feels as if they are falling short of expectations. 

The best coaches in the world all seem to share the incredible ability to achieve better outcomes with less. Fewer words. Shorter exchanges. Immediate feedback. Extremely concise and actionable directions that seem to quickly smooth things out. 

This ultimately comes down to trial and error in determining which is the best tool for the job in a given circumstance. As many coaches come to know, the same cue for one individual may work wonders, but fall disappointingly short for another. Just like exercise, one cue does not fit all. 

As a young coach, I often recall the uncertain voices in my head: 

“Don’t cue too much... but don’t cue too little either. Should I correct this or see if they figure it out? Am I sure this cue is meaningful and relevant? Am I badgering this person with too much information!?...” 

From my anecdotal experiences, the only way to truly answer these questions is to just do something and then adapt and learn from the outcome. Undoubtedly, you will experience some frustrations and failures along the way. Over time, and with accrual of more data points, you will begin to formulate trends for cueing strategies that work well in particular situations. 

When first getting started on one's coaching journey, it is best to have a handful of specific cues that will work in most situations. From this standpoint, the coach will have a higher initial likelihood of success when working with a broad population. Afterall, you have to master the basics before diving into the minutiae.

Looking to improve hip hinging? 

“Start by pushing your butt back as you fall forward” Nope that didn’t work… "Push your butt back to the wall behind you." Closer… “Okay for this rep, I want you to think of getting karate chopped at the waist.” Yes! Much better. 

Cueing squats?

“Bend your knees and sit your butt back.” Hmmm, he sat too far back. “This time I want you to sit straight down as if sitting to a tiny stool. Yes! That’s it.”

There is no perfect cue for a given exercise. Every individual will respond differently even to the exact same words, phrase, or demonstration. The goal of cueing is to establish context and relatability to that specific individual. If working with a baseball player and trying to improve their hip hinge, perhaps cueing them to “get into the same position as if you were about to field a ball.” You have now provided a very specific context and a familiar position for that individual which may increase odds of a desirable change.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s boil things down into two types of cues: internal and external. 

What are internal cues? 

Internal cueing emphasizes focus on internal structures such as muscular utilization, joint position, and/or sensory feedback for a given movement. 

Examples:

  • “Feel your glute as you lower down.”
  • “Keep your knees over your toes.”
  • "Push off through your big toe as you step.” 

What are instances to utilize internal cues? 

  • Finding and feeling specific muscles (very important in early stages of rehab! Example: muscle strains)
  • Driving sensation/kinesthetic awareness (early stages of motor learning)
  • Loading specific tissues or joint positions (hypertrophy emphasis, early phases of rehab)

What are external cues? 

Prioritizing focus on things outside of the body. External cues rely on the interaction between the individual and his environment. 

Examples:

  • “Hit the ground like your foot is a hammer!”
  • “Spread the floor!”
  • “Push off like a jet engine!”
  • “Reach your butt back to the wall behind you.” 

What are instances to prioritize external cues? 

  • Maximizing performance outcomes (speed, force, power greater with external focus)
  • Minimizing cognitive load (ie don't think too much!)
  • Enhanced speed of decision making

Oftentimes, initial cueing may have a larger predisposition to internal cueing during the early phases of learning and becomes more externally focused as the activities become geared toward performance. 

General Rules of Thumb for When it is "Best" to Cue:

Before the exercise:

  • Offer some context for why this activity is relevant and useful for the individual
  • Provide a visual demonstration of what you are expecting (if you cannot do it yourself, you may want to practice!)
  • Provide no more than 1-2 cues initially based on the primary emphasis of the movement

During:

  • If feedback is needed, make it as concise, immediate, and as brief as possible.
  • If more than 2 cues are required during the exercise due to poor execution, consider modifying activity or offering further demonstration
  • Keep in mind: NOT EVERY REPETITION NEEDS TO BE 'PERFECT'
  • Allow the individual sufficient time to self-regulate and adjust.

After:

  • Highlight successes and touch on areas for improvement in future sets
  • Ask for feedback and provide brief overview of what the emphasis for the next set will be ("this set you did a great job maintaining positions, next set lets work on a bit faster on the way up.")

Keep in mind, the macro goal of cueing and coaching is to ultimately reduce the client's dependence on feedback through enhanced autonomy and execution. Ideally, the more competent the individual becomes, the less reliance and frequency of cueing is required. This is why the best coaches often keep their cueing to a minimum once the athlete is able to perform the specific skill with a high degree of execution.  The beauty here is that the demanding work of initial coaching and cueing leads to reduced dependency and need for feedback in the future. There should be no need to cue something that is already being done exceptionally well!

-Mike Reinhardt, DPT, PT


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