This Is What You Need To Know About External Coaching Cues

From Swings To Sport: The Power Of External Coaching Cues

I was at a set of playground swings with my 3-year-old daughter. I pushed her for a while to the demands of “Higher Daddy! Higher!”

I had recently been trying to teach her how to keep herself going once I stopped pushing.

These less-than-successful efforts had consisted of telling her to kick her legs up and out on the forward swing and to tuck them in on the backward swing.

She had always struggled with these instructions, particularly with getting the timing of the movement right. This would quickly lead her to become frustrated and discouraged.

Fortunately, a few days before, I had seen another dad in my situation stand in front of a swing and hold his hands up as a target for his son to kick.

I gave my daughter one final push and then stood back to watch where her feet reached on the forward swing.

As she swung back, I stepped in and held a hand up. “Try to touch my hand with your feet”.

She swung her feet up towards my hands and touched her toes to my palm. “And again!” I said.

She did it again . . . and again. She was now generating her own momentum. Soon it became a game to see how hard we could slap the bottom of her feet to my hands. This, of course, resulted in more momentum. The instruction – or cue – soon changed from “Touch my hand” to “Slap my my hand”. As I moved my hand slightly higher, she had to try harder, exaggerating her swing even more.

She was suddenly achieving things we had worked on many times before without much success.

Amelia on swing

All it took was a change in my teaching approach; specifically how I cued the movement.

I changed from using internal cues to using a simple external cue.

The Power of External Cues

Internal cues focus attention on an individual’s own body movement or muscle action. (i.e. “Kick your legs up; tuck them in”).

External cues focus attention away from the body or are targeted beyond the body on an external object. (i.e.”Touch my hand with your feet”).

Research indicates that external cues are better than internal cues for learning and performance. Knowing this and being able to apply this knowledge can be a game-changer in coaching.

From Swings To Sport

Externally cueing my daughter’s movements provided a number of advantages that worked to provide the result that eventuated. The experience demonstrated a few important principles and lessons that can be applied to coaching young athletes in a range of sports skills.

1. One Good External Cue = Less Cues Required

The effectiveness of the external cue (“Touch my hands with your feet”) negated the need to cue my daughter about what to do on the during the backward swing. She did it anyway. One really good cue is better than several less effective ones. This means that there is less for the child to attend to and process.

A good external cue can result in more succinct, less verbose, instruction.

Coaching Takeaway

Work towards using a single cue in preference to series of cues. Say more with less.

2. External Cues Are Simpler Cues

“Touch my hands with your feet” is easier for a child to process than “Kick your feet up on the forward swing and tuck them in on the backward swing”. Six words compared to sixteen words.

I previously indicated that my daughter had struggled to attain the timing of the movement when I was using internal cueing. There was just too much to process. In fact, it is thought that internal cues can interfere with the natural timing of a movement.

Originally I was asking her to “do this when this happens and do that when that happens”. I ended up simply telling her to “Do this” which proved far more effective.

Coaching Takeaway

Choose simple cues that can be quickly processed.

3. The Effectiveness Of A Specific External Reference Point

The narrow, focused target of my hand provided a specific point of reference towards which my daughter could concentrate and direct her movements. I suspect that – say –  “Kick towards the trees” would have proved less effective than “Touch my hand”, due to a wider and less defined target.

I expect that the cue was also strengthened by using a tactile, tangible point of contact. The intent of the cue was clear and my daughter was provided with immediate specific feedback about her success.

Coaching Takeaway

Where possible, provide focused, specific targets at which a young athlete can direct their attention and movement. Choose specific in preference to general. If relevant to the particular sport and movement, consider whether a physical object can be provided for the athlete to touch, strike, slap or provide force against.

4. The Language of the Cue

A good coaching cue will capture the speed and power of the intended movement. “Slap my hand” improved the result from “Touch my hand” with the former better communicating the effort of the action required.

Coaching Takeaway

Choose language that reflects the speed, direction and shape of the movement required.

Recommended Action

Be mindful and purposeful with your use of language when coaching a skill. Strive to use external coaching cues that:

  1. Reduce – the number of cues, words, etc
  2. Simplify – the language, concepts, etc
  3. Specify – the focus of attention, direction of force, etc
  4. Capture – the speed, direction and shape of the movement

I would love to hear some of your favourite external coaching cues. Let me know by leaving a comment/reply or by using the contact details below.

Further reading

How to Use Coaching Cues Most Effectively

If this post helped you please take a moment to help others by sharing it on social media. If you want to learn more I encourage you to leave questions and comments or contact me directly.

Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes, and founder of the blog Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin, or via email. Check out Coaching Young Athletes on YouTube, the Coaching Young Athletes podcast, and the Coaching Young Athletes E-Book Series.

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