Art of Cueing

The Art of Cueing

There is a simple quote from Don Meyer, winningest basketball coach in NCAA history, that is often an overlooked art of coaching no matter what field we’re considering:

[quote]“The more they think, the slower their feet get.”[/quote]

Even in something like jazz piano, I can attest that the best way to screw up your improvisation is by thinking about where your fingers are and how they’re moving!  By no means am I an expert on cueing (or jazz piano for that matter…mediocre at best), but the more we look toward the emerging research on the “art” of cueing, the better chances our athletes have to succeed.

External and Internal Cueing

Art of CueingMuch has been written about the importance of external vs. internal cueing for sport performance.  The research is pretty conclusive that you don’t want athletes thinking too much about their internal mechanics as they’re performing their sport, or for that matter any other fast-paced movement if the goal is optimal results (e.g. Marchant, Greig, Bullough, & Hitchen, 2009; Freudenheim et al., 2010), including running (Schücker, Hagemann, Strauss, & Völker, 2009).  Coach Don Meyer must have been onto something!  But what about slow movements, weight room work, and what is defined as “too much” when it comes to thinking during movements?  (Photo by USACE Europe District).

“Too much” is relative and depends on your goal at the time.  There may be instances where you can trade thinking (and a slower, possibly less powerful movement) for better mechanics.  In the weight room, if a pattern is faulty, there is an advantage to breaking it down and getting the athlete to realize their movement dysfunction.  Here we are going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence.  The next step as they are correcting the movement (conscious competence) is then followed by unconscious competence- or in other words performing the movement correctly without thinking.

Even for slow, near-maximal strength movements, I like to think that unconscious competence is the ultimate goal.  While it can be beneficial and necessary to remind athletes of a few cues here and there, ideally by the time they’re exhibiting max force on a heavy load, they have these movement patterns down and we are only fine tuning things.  This would mean a better carry-over into functional performance as well, because when athletes are practicing, moving, picking heavy things up off the floor (moving into their dorm rooms, etc.), they won’t be thinking about their form, nor would we want them to be.

The Trouble with Language

Unfortunately, when telling a group of 20 some individuals a particular coaching cue, it seems like half of them will take it to mean something different than what you want.  And that’s OK…it’s just inefficient.  You then have to start your alert, fast-paced walk around the weight room, as everyone breaks off, catching a few athletes just in time who are doing the movement incorrectly while others perform it incorrectly until you get to them!

Coaches who can demonstrate well while explaining are golden for the athletes, since athletes may not be the best listeners, but usually have good bodily-kinesthetic intelligence and awareness (thanks to genius psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences).  Additionally, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so is a video worth tens of thousands?  One idea that I would like to implement in the near future is to take video during our important sets.  I recall seeing video of my baseball swing in college and noticing a few things immediately that I had not previously realized.  I know it has been done before in the weight room, but it’s obviously not commonplace yet.  Just having one of our other assistants walk around and film the athletes would be beneficial for anyone who may be struggling with a movement pattern.

Unconscious Competence

As your athletes move toward unconscious competence (e.g. the movement is becoming second nature), external cueing, or minimal thinking, appears to be best, again given your goals.  This is the time to say “jump up and reach the top of the vertec” (you’re getting them to focus on something outside of their body), as opposed to “hinge at your hips with some knee flexion and quickly extend as fast as possible to exert maximal force!”  Unless, of course, your goal is to just drop knowledge bombs on them…

Focusing the attention to something else will always be an external cue, and again the research is becoming pretty clear that this is better for performance than internal cues.  “Put force into the ground” is another common external cue for using the posterior chain while sprinting, and the good thing about weights and medicine ball plyometrics is that you can direct athletes’ attention to those objects as well.

“Put as much force into the bar as possible” as they’re getting ready to pull, or “move the weight from point A to point B as quick as you can.”

“Throw the medicine through the wall- try to break it!”

Obviously internal cues- focusing the attention in the body- have their place, and do have an important role when an athlete is in a learning phase (which is very often in my training programs for spring sport since I’ll start every athlete from square one in the fall).  However even with internal cueing, because of the different interpretations that each athlete may hear, I try to stick to the one main cue that each individual needs the most at that time.  If they approach the bar and have a bit of lumbar flexion I’ll get them into a neutral spine and work on one thing during that set.  Additionally, while we may think we’re all great coaches, nothing beats an “artificial coach” at explaining things without language.  In this example, raising the plates off the ground (so it’s easy for them to straighten their back), or putting them near a wall where they have to reach their hips back and touch the wall with their butt before starting the pull.  Eventually, if I have to remind them, I want to just say “neutral spine” to this athlete without saying anything else and have them recall what that means.  Then down the road I want to say “put as much force into the bar as possible and move it up as fast as you can!”


When I first started coaching athletes on my own as a graduate assistant, I was spitting out cues left and right- “hips back, chin packed, foot flat on the ground/back on heels, back straight…”  I now think about how confusing that must have been for the athletes!  Just like any other skill in life, they need to figure it out on their own, with our help where we can offer it.  Also, if you work with athletes, don’t forget about the importance of being a great demonstrator.  If you have to, check yourself out in the mirror (not bodybuilder style though!) to make sure you look how you want to come across.  And if you’re not a great demonstrator on an exercise (hey, many great/knowledgeable coaches aren’t), find an athlete on your squad who is, and explain as they demonstrate.

About the Author

travis owenTravis Owen, MS, CSCS, is entering his second year as an assistant softball coach at Northern State University in South Dakota.  Travis was an intern through the University of Louisville’s Sport Performance department, followed by a graduate assistant coaching position in NSU’s strength and conditioning department.

In Travis’ first year training solely the NSU women’s fast pitch squad, two players had reached a maximum deadlift of 295 lbs. with the team average jumping from 203 lbs. to 239 lbs.  Additionally, the team’s vertical jump had increased from an average of 17.5″ to 19.5″ in just a few months with one athlete hitting 26″.  The increased strength, speed, and power had shown on the field, with Northern State breaking several school records including wins, stolen bases, hits, doubles and RBI, and experiencing zero major injuries in the process.  As a former two-sport collegiate athlete, Travis understands the motivations of athletes and embraces their effort toward healthy and winning habits.  This year, Travis looks to increase his individualized nutrition coaching while continuing to help Northern State Softball improve both on and off the field.

Travis has a website at


  • Marchant, D.C., Greig, M., Bullough, J., & Hitchen, D. (2009). Instructions to adopt an external focus enhance muscular endurance [Electronic version]. Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport, 82(3), 466-473.
  • Schücker, L., Hagemann, N., Strauss, B., & Völker, K. (2009). The effect of attentional focus on running economy [Electronic version]. Journal of Sports Sciences, 12, 1241-1248.
  • Freudenheim, A., Wulf, G., Madureira, F., Pasetto, S., & Correa, U. (2010). An external focus of attention results in greater swimming speed [Electronic version]. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 5, 533-542.


13 replies
  1. Dr Seth
    Dr Seth says:

    Great article and discussion!! I’m currently completing a fellowship through Wash U in St Louis and am learning to fine tune ALL movements, not just high level athletes. Neuromuscular re-Ed is a huge component of rehab as movement is the least common denominator. I literally have a hard time being in the same room with anyone who is standing by idly while their client is showing poor form and improper movement patterns. Cues are the key to the highway!!

  2. Bret Contreras
    Bret Contreras says:

    Hi Travis, I liked your article…it’s definitely more balanced than others I’ve seen. However, I don’t share the same view that we should view cueing as a continuum with the ultimate goal being to phase-out of internal cueing. Top Oly lifters and powerlifters still need good coaches to provide internal cues. Nearly every top coach/biomechanist I know of (McGill, Cressey, etc.) provide plenty of internal cues to clients, even after the learning-phase. I bet that 80% of the cues I utter to my clients are internal. Sure I’ve seen the overwhelming research in support of external cueing, but to my knowledge it always relates to performance. Throw out internal cues and what do you get – a Crossfit highlights video. The way I see it, internal cueing has always and will always play a huge role in coaching. During testing, external cueing reigns supreme. But when improving technique, focusing on activation or hypertrophy, etc., internal cueing is better IMO (and I expect future research to support my contention). Sure, as athletes progress, they’ll need less internal cueing simply because they master form. But I don’t think anyone gets to a point where they’re beyond needing any internal cueing. As I said before, even the best Olympians need reminders about their form. Nice to see you throw in Garner’s work (I’m a former teacher), and video playback is imperative for optimum form correction. Again, nice job! – Bret

    • Travis Owen
      Travis Owen says:


      Thanks for dropping in, and for the comments! I’ve enjoyed reading your articles/opinions for quite some time.

      Let me just clarify- I agree with you that we should still include internal cues, however my goal is to just taper them down eventually (not necessarily “phase-out”) because the athlete has hopefully learned correctly. Some may never leave the learning-phase, depending on our/their goals, in which we should focus more on internal cues all the time. However in terms of maximal effort (which can involve a lot of speed in the Olympic lifts), I would want them to be pretty close to unconscious competence by this point. Sure they may need a reminder here or there, or we may need to watch a few sets because we’re simply “fine tuning things” as I mentioned above, but the main goal for max effort (which I consider performance) is to strive for unconscious competence, perfect form. Is perfection possible? Probably not, but it can be damn good by this point!

      You mention top power lifters and Olympic lifters, but because performance is so important here, I would be curious to see what type of cues do actually work best. I know Olympians get internal cue reminders, but I’m sure there are coaches who use more external cues and coaches who use more internal cues. Speed is definitely important here, and the more you think…

      Anyway, great discussion, and thanks again for sharing your opinion & input!

      • Bret Contreras
        Bret Contreras says:

        Great line of discussion. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m curious about this too. I haven’t spent much time in an Olympic lifting setting or a setting such as Westside, but from what I’ve learned from Louie and Dave Tate, they’re HUGE on internal cues during training. Probably not during a competition of course, but during training it’s certainly the case. I’d imagine that Oly lifting would involve a higher proportion of external cueing. And they’d certainly taper over time but never vanish. I’ve trained some powerlifters and I’m always uttering internal cues in training. But at a competition I’d be shouting out solely external cues. Again, great conversation!

        • Travis Owen, CSCS, MS
          Travis Owen, CSCS, MS says:

          Ah, all good points. I definitely like to step outside the box and think of the reason that we train athletes. It is not about numbers (or “weight room performance”), but rather about moving well, so much so to the point of being able to add higher load, where movement is not compromised. The latter can kind of be seen as unconscious competence, but that doesn’t mean eliminating internal cues by any means. There is definitely a fine line that exists between performance in the weight room, and what one’s goals are. Cueing/Communication is key!

          Thanks again Bret for checking out the article and sparking more conversation. And Mike, thanks again for the opportunity!

  3. Mike Reinold
    Mike Reinold says:

    Also, dont forget the power shooting a video on your iphone or ipad and playing back, or batter yet sending to an Apple TV to view on the big screen. Priceless!

  4. Erson Religioso III
    Erson Religioso III says:

    Great Post Travis! I find much of the different methods of cueing is not only applicable to athletes but any individual we are teaching movement to. I use verbal, tactile, audio, and video demonstration to my patients. For the video, I just shoot them doing it correctly, upload it to youtube, and share with with them privately.

    • Travis Owen
      Travis Owen says:

      Thanks Erson. Yes, we are in an age where there are so many resources that can be used to teach…it’s all about finding what’s best for the individual & the coach.

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