The art of coaching

Author’s note: This is a topic that has fascinated me for years. The impact a person’s words can have on another’s actions is, I think, more powerful than we as coaches and teachers fully realize. 

The summer I was 29, I found myself feeling a bit lost, scared about my professional future, and toying with the idea of leaving the fitness and teaching profession all together. The country was in the midst of a dark recession, clients had moved away from the area, leaving my schedule lighter than I liked, and I had no idea how to generate more business, let alone if my less than sufficient skill set was worthy of people’s money. Something was missing in my ability to help people, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. The industry wasn’t as loud as it is now, and few people were writing or posting about the perfect system/technique/exercise for every ailment under the sun. I needed guidance, a place to turn my energy and enhance my abilities to help people move and feel better if I wanted fitness to be my career.

So when a friend asked me if I would be interested in going to Point Reyes Station for a few days to study with a really well known power couple in the Ashtanga yoga world, I said yes, despite the fact it would cost money I really didn’t have and I would have to cancel clients from my already light schedule. I figured a few days away might give me perspective.

Little did I know that workshop would change my professional life, in a profound way. 

After a Mysore class in the morning, the afternoon session kicked off with a yoga block and a tiny woman with a long, dark braid and a big voice. She didn’t ask us our names or take the time to do any introductions; instead she had us pick up our yoga blocks. And then she started giving us directions. 

“Press your index finger into the block. Now reeeach the pinkie side of the arm away from the floor. Lengthen through the back of your neck, but keep pressing the index finger into the block.” This went on for what felt like an eternity, but was in actuality probably only three or four minutes. 

We were prepping for down dog. She was using the block to get us to feel the connection between our arms and our shoulders.

We set the block down, and I found myself confused. How did she know that pressing the hands into the block would give feedback into the shoulders? And how did she know which parts of the hands would connect to different parts of the shoulders?

These questions stayed with me during the down dog practice, which was an unprecedented glimpse into how down dog can make muscles shake in ways I never really thought possible, and it wasn’t because of my “tight” calves.

I wondered what anatomy books she had read, where she was getting her information, and what she had studied. I wanted that knowledge. I wanted to know how to get people to experience that type of work. 

At the time, I was all about getting people to “activate.” I wanted people to activate their abs, their glutes, their lats… Even though people often didn’t know where these areas were, that was my go-to cue, “activate.”

I also had a very segmental view of how the body worked, due to anatomy training that, up until that point, focused on attachment and insertion points as the mechanism for movement.

I figured if this tiny woman with the long dark braid and the big voice could get me to feel more work than I had ever felt in my life through my shoulder girdle without once saying the word “activate,” she knew something that I didn’t.

When I returned from the retreat, I began noticing cues people used on Youtube and in classes. I still heard the word “activate” a lot, but I also began to hear other ways of describing things. “Spread the floor with your feet” or “hold a pencil with your armpit” became more interesting to me than “engage your glutes” or “use you lats.”

How cueing works:

Cueing tends to fall into two categories. Internal cues are ones where you ask a specific muscle or body part to do a movement. “Squeeze, activate, and engage” are all words that typically indicate internal cueing. 

External cueing, on the other hand, is cueing that is focused outside the body. “Reach, lift, and aim for” are all examples of words indicating a cue that is externally focused.

There is a concept in the motor control world referred to as self organization (Borsch). This means the body is able to organize itself in an optimal way to perform a task if it’s given the opportunity. For example, if you ask someone to catch a ball, you don’t need to say, “use your right upper arm line to extend your right arm to the right, use your left gluteus medius to stabilize you and your right internal oblique to catch the ball.” The body inherently knows what needs to be done in order to catch the ball. When we instruct people on how to do a task, we are interrupting the ability to self organize.

But (and there is always a but), all of this assumes two things: a) the person has the necessary degrees of freedom and proprioception available to achieve the task and b) the person is “motor smart.” What I mean by motor smart is the person has enough understanding of how his body works to find an efficient path towards performing the movement. And this assumption, that all clients and students are motor smart is, in my opinion, where many coaches and teachers are not helping their clients and students reach their fullest potential.

Most of the research on external versus internal cueing has been done on athletes. An oft cited paper by Porter and company (2), for instance, found undergraduate students who were coached in the long jump jumped further when they were given external coaching cues (“I want you to focus your attention on jumping as far past the start line as possible”) versus internal cues, (“I want you to focus your attention on extending your knees as rapidly as possible”). Research by Kontouris and Lalos (2007) found a significant improvement in spiking performance when external cues telling them where to aim the ball were given verbally. The subjects were young men in their second year of university.

But what happens when the person hasn’t jumped in 30 years? Or if the person doesn’t have the ability to extend his hips enough to propel his body forward? Are these cues going to be as effective?

Probably not, or, if they do work, chances are pretty good this individual won’t be earning the award for best form any time soon.

So how can we take this knowledge about external cues about apply it to general population clients? Do we throw out internal cues entirely?

It depends. And here’s why. My clients tend to fall into two categories: the ones who haven’t given a thought to how their body moves in, well, maybe ever, and those that know exactly which muscle “isn’t firing/activating/working.” As a result, the words I use to get someone to do something depends on the person. 

For instance, if I have the client that is less motor aware on his hands and knees, I might ask him to either reach him arms long, move his breast bone towards the ceiling, or push the floor away from him in an effort to get hime to protract his schedule. If what happens instead is his scapulae retract, this tells me he’s isn’t very aware of how his shoulder blade connects to the hands. I could reduce the complexity by having him come to his elbows instead and ask him to push his elbows into the floor. If his shoulders go up by his ears, I might then flip him over on his back and have him take his hands towards the ceiling, holding a dowel. “Move the dowel straight up towards the ceiling, to the point on the ceiling right above your chest,” I could cue. 

After some thinking on the client’s part, this usually works. Up until this point, I have used only external cues to get the client to perform the action shoulder blade protraction. After he does a few, I ask “what do you feel letting you do the motion? Where do you feel the work?” 

Suddenly, I am asking the client to focus on the internal experience of what’s happening. While this isn’t exactly an internal cue, it is directing the attention inward. He might answer, “I feel my arms moving,” or “I feel my abs.” If he doesn’t mention his shoulder blades at all, I might direct his attention by asking him, “what are your shoulder blades doing?”

Why? What does it matter if he understands how he reaches his arm or what that feels like?

Because it improves his body map, and might even increase brain plasticity (Demiraka,, 2016). It also introduces a mindful element and focuses the client’s attention, without turning it into a full-on meditation session.

In addition, it gives him a sense of what the movement feels like. When he returns to a hands and knees position and I ask him, “remember what it felt like to reach the dowel towards the ceiling? Can you reach the floor away from you in the same way?” there is a memory of what that means, and because he has verbalized it, chances are higher he will remember it.

The second type of client I see is the one that is hyper-aware. She wants to know what she’s “supposed” to feel for every exercise and believes strongly in things being “engaged” and “activated.” 

I approach this client similarly, except I don’t ask her what she is feeling or experiencing until after the exercise is over. I don’t want her judging her movements, and all of my cues are external. I use lots of props, and give her the opportunity to access different areas by reaching in different planes, or pressing different parts of her feet (or knees, or elbows, or hands) into the ground. I direct the attention outward, and encourage a more playful experience. Rather than focusing on doing a movement in a “right” or a “wrong” way, I give her options and allow her to begin to self-organize, finding the path that is most efficient for her.

General guidelines for external cues:

  • Use words that are directional. Up, down, right, left, towards, aim… These are all words that (most) people have a clear concept of meaning.
  • Use tactile reference points. If the client is holding a block, the cue “press the index finger into the block,” means a lot more than if the hands are floating in the air. The same is true for the ground. “Spread the mat apart,” or “use the hands to pull the mat towards your feet,” gives the client a reference point he can touch and feel.
  • Whenever possible, have a client actually aim for something during balance and movement tasks. Reaching the hand towards different towels on the floor while in quadruped, for instance, will work on shoulder mobility and strength in a more interesting way than just stepping the hand forward.
  • Regress when necessary. If the client doesn’t have the awareness or degrees of freedom necessary to accomplish a specific task in an efficient way, take it down a notch or two. If he’s standing, place him on his knees. If he’s on his hands and knees, try elbows and knees. The more contact a person has with the ground, the more feedback he can get regarding where he is located in space. This makes it easier to press into places. The short video here demonstrates a technique I frequently use with the yoga block between the forearms to teach scapular awareness.
  • Watch for unnecessary tension and/or unnecessary movement. Observe, and instead of trying to correct the issue by over-cueing, develop awareness through awareness drills. If you find yourself wanting to cue 5 different things, remember fewer cues is generally better; find the appropriate exercise to bring awareness by using the fewest words possible.
  • Give the person a chance to figure things out after your original cue. Nothing looks smooth or pretty the first time someone tries it. Before using extra words, give the person 5 or 6 reps to find a sense of rhythm to the movement.
  • Words matter; simple is usually better.

This was the gift the tiny woman with the long, dark braid gave me that day, so many years ago. She opened my eyes to a way of coaching and cueing that was externally focused. All good, experienced coaches do this, from powerlifting coaches to yoga teachers. They figure out the least amount of words they can use to get the person to accomplish a movement efficiently. Those words direct the person outwards which, ironically, makes them more internally aware. So be conscious of your words and when a person interprets your words in a way that is curious, ask yourself if you could have been more clear? If the answer is yes, figure out how.

Borch, F., (2016). Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach. 2010 Publishers: Rotterdam.
Porter, J.M., Ostrowski, E.J., Nolan, R.P., & Wu, W.F.W., (2010). Standing long jump performance is enhanced when using an external focus of attention. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 
Demirakca, T., Cardinale, V., Dehn, S., Matthias, R., & Ende, G., (2016). The exercising brain: changes in functional connectivity induced by an integrated multimodal cognitive and whole-body coordination training. Neural Plasticity, doi:  10.1155/2016/8240894
Kontouris, P., & Laos, Y., (2007). The effectiveness of external cues on learning spiking in volleyball.  International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport, 7(2), 117-125.