Why do you, coach, always throw the same five words at me all the time!? I don’t even think I’m any better!!!
coaching cues…some creativity necessary.
Ever had a coach throw out a couple words or cues while you’re lifting and they just didn’t seem to make sense, or it gave you a less-than-desired result?
Or, you had a cue that you were really determined to cycle through your mind right before you began the lift…but once you picked up the bar that cue apparently sprouted wings, flew out the window and went for a lunch break?
And you missed the lift. Or your coach just continues to shout the same words over and over again because apparently it wasn’t enough.
But…but…but I just wanted to pull higher in the lift and I wanted to land on my heels and not my toes but WHY DIDN’T MY BODY DO THAT?!?!
What do you do when certain cues don’t resonate with you?
You know what the ideal should be, but you just don’t know how to talk to your body properly to get it there.
Let’s talk about why we have cues first…and then, why some cues just don’t work for us in the moment!
What’s the purpose of a “Cue”?
*as a note, cues can be verbal or tactile…a tactile cue is when a coach touches or moves you (either with hands or with an object) to a certain position so you can feel what the position is like when audible words don’t work. For the purpose of today’s discussion, we’re going to focus on AUDIBLE cues.
By my definition, cues are short, brief words or phrases that a coach can use to quickly guide an athlete towards better movement mechanics. Cues prompt the athlete to make some type of change, or to encourage the athlete to continue applying force or moving in the same way. A coach is always trying to push you towards the ideal.
Why be 96% perfect or work towards 96% perfection when you should be working towards 100% perfection all the time in your lifts?
From my experience being a coach and being coached, I find myself on a constant exploration for the right cues and the right words for the right situations.
With cues, the ultimate goal is to be able to generate a quick phrase or a set of words that resonate with either you or the athlete being coached – The cue resonates if it elicits the correct feeling the person needs to feel in order to take a step closer towards better movement mechanics.
Heres where developing the right cue becomes tricky – what we see does not always equal what we feel. A coach can really only make judgements of an athlete based on what they are visually perceiving: The coach is visually perceiving these things:
- what positions the athlete hits at each millisecond
- what speed they meet those positions during the movement.
Coaches (hopefully) view a person’s movement like frames in an animation – they notice what posture an athlete has throughout each still frame as it plays, and whether the body demonstrates the correct geometric angles or correct placement of body parts in the right areas.
If a coach notices an athlete shortens his or her extension on the 2nd pull of a clean, the head doesn’t reach a certain height requirement “in the frame,” and is not as upright as the athlete should be, the coach’s first instinct is to tell the athlete to extend taller before pulling under.
Well, a clean happens REALLY QUICK – so the cues have to be just as quick so the athlete can hear the word in the moment timely enough to use it while doing the lift. No long sentences here….because the athlete is already done cleaning the bar by the time you finish saying “come up on the toes like you’re 7 feet tall, shrugging your traps and shoulders at the top, keep your chin up and pull the elbows high.”
So, a coach might say “GET TALL” or say “STRAIGHT UP” or “SHRUG HIGH” – which are all short quick, snappy phrases that all lead the athlete to the same position.
But to the athlete…what does “straight up” feel like? What exactly does my coach mean by “shrug”? By “trap” do you mean snare or mouse? or neither?!?
What if I’m having trouble with the 5,176 other things that I also need to think about when cleaning the bar!?!
For a cue to work, the coach and athlete must both mutually understand and agree upon these things:
- how the athlete perceives direction
- what mechanical or mobility limitations the athlete has that prevents him/her from going in certain directions
- what movement habits the athlete has consistently engrained into muscle memory
- that the athlete knows enough about basic anatomy to understand what things like “lats” and “traps” are.
So…what actually makes a cue?
We can probably breakdown most cues into two parts:
[ACTION] + [ANATOMICAL PART] + [POSITIONAL WORD or DIRECTIONAL WORD]
DRIVE + CHEST + UP | KEEP + FEET + SHOULDER WIDTH APART | DRIVE + KNEES + OUT | EXTEND + ON + THE TOES | PUSH + ELBOWS + UP
Action: How the force is applied to the body part cued (twist, screw, push, pull, loosen, drive, extend, tighten)
Anatomical: Cues that address or pose reminders to a specific body part (back, heels, head, traps)
Positional: Cues that address certain placement of where something needs to be positioned in space (wide, low, tall, on, apart)
Directional: Cues that prompt the athlete how and where to move (up, down, back, left, out)
STATIC-BASED vs DYNAMIC BASED CUES:
Static-Based Cues: These are usually given to establish proper set-up position – perhaps how wide the feet are set, how low the hips are, where one should grip the bar, where to place the chin.
Dynamic-Based Cues: These are usually given to the athlete while in motion or while a lift is happening to help guide the athlete to the proper position as visually analyzed by the coach.
Basically, cues tell the athlete to move or position a certain body part in a certain way. Take out all the excess words in a sentence such as “the, with, your, a, of, those” and you turn a long sentence such as “Keep the heels down and push the ground away with your feet” to something as simple as “HEELS DOWN, SCREW THE FEET.”
Cues don’t have to include all of these parts to work. If an athlete has already been working with a cue for quite some time, such as keeping the heels down in a squat, then they may not need the lengthy instruction, but rather something quick and snappy to just remind them to focus on that one thing:
This assumes that both the athlete and coach have established mutual agreement that the athlete needs to work on this particular thing, and that this cue is bring the athlete closer towards ideal movement mechanics. Otherwise, “heels” to another athlete in the wrong situation might cause him/her to shift the weight too far backwards if that’s not what that particular athlete needs.
Now that we’ve established the purpose of cues and how cues are “made”…let’s take a look at a couple cases first and then come back to why cues don’t resonate…
Exhibit A: The athlete who “leans back” too much while extending through the 2nd pull on a snatch.
Ideal: The athlete’s extension is straight upwards, perpendicular (90 degrees) to the ground.
Problem: When reaching extension in the snatch, the athlete tends to propel his/her upper body backwards rather than straight up while pulling under to catch a snatch. The angle the athlete’s chest/back leans is about 80 degrees to the ground (this may or not be realistic but I’m giving numbers for the purpose of this visual explanation)
Cues the coach gives: “straight up,” “get taller”
Result: the athlete still leans back, but now at about 85 degrees instead. A little more upright, but not perfectly 90 degrees.
So is the cue working, even though the result still isn’t the ideal? IS the cue actually resonating with the athlete? Are these still the best cues to use?
Well, the athlete SEEMS to be more upright than before, right? What can we do to get the athlete to be even straighter along that Y-Axis? Should the coach tell the athlete to jump “forward” instead of “up” so that the athlete somehow ends up at 90 degrees even though the jump “feels” forward, because the athlete has a tendency to lean back?
Exhibit B: Keeping those darn heels on the ground in the bottom of a squat!
Ideal: The athlete maintains entire surface area of the foot on the ground in the bottom of a squat, not allowing the heels to come off of the floor.
Problem: When catching the bar in the bottom of a snatch or doing a front squat, the athlete’s weight distribution shifts towards the inner arches of the foot and the ball of foot, and the outer edge of the heel pops a few millimeters off of the ground.
Cues the coach gives: “knees out,” “heels,” “screw the feet in”
Result: the athlete still lifts the heels in the bottom, or has shifted the body weight back so far that he/she is stuck in the bottom of the squat and can’t drive up anymore and bails.
In this case…the cue didn’t even work, or ended up making the situation worse!
Why Cues Don’t Resonate With You.
Now we’re at the bulk of this article. What are the main reasons that cues just don’t work and you end up missing a lift…or still don’t hit those ideal positions to satisfy the coach?!
- The cue is trying really reaaaaly hard try to change your long established habit of moving
- You, the athlete, are limited in mobility to be able to be in that ideal position of the cue
- The cue interferes with your timing of a movement
- You just don’t know how to feel out that body part to make it look like the way it should to the coach. Feeling does not equal visual output.
- The cue might be the right cue, but just not in the right stage of your training in the moment.
- The cue shifts the focus away from something else more important in your movement that needs addressing
The cue is trying really reaaaaly hard try to change your long established habit of moving
Let’s face it, you’ve been moving a certain way for many minutes, hours, and days of your life. Who says a miracle is going to happen and all of a sudden, when you think of a body part and a direction, your body automatically wants to do it? You’ve gotta coax your body how to progress in that way and establish new habits of moving. Which leads us to the next point…
You, the athlete, are limited in mobility to be able to obtain that ideal position
Because you’ve established so many habits, your body has learned to move only in ways that it absolutely needs to and has thus restructured its cells, muscle length, and bone density to match the environment your body is accustomed to being in. Maybe you can’t drive your elbows up because you spend more hours of the day with your shoulders positioned forward while sitting instead of being in constantly moving positions that provoke a more open chest and looser thoracic area. Maybe that long car ride you did the other day on a road trip tightened your hips more than normal so that you can’t keep your knees out in the bottom of a squat.
In this case, the coach can only do so much to tell you where to go…because you just can’t go there. The coach might as well prescribe you mobility drills at this point.
The cue interferes with your timing of a movement
Lately, my husband has been telling me the same cues over and over to help with my extension on the clean, “TOES!”
But the problem is, when I focus more on extending through my toes, I happen to lose the speed of driving my heels to the ground! The cue has redirected my focus towards engaging a certain body part – but because I’m putting in more thought and mental energy towards that body part…it’s taking time for me to drill that feeling into muscle memory so it’s second nature and so that it happens quick. I spend a millisecond longer on my toes, making me slower to land on the heels in a stable position.
If a new cue provokes you to focus on a different feeling for a body part than what you’ve had before…well it will take time to develop that motor skill. So when you’re in a movement that happens super quick (where the position that your body is in every millisecond counts), you end up messing up the positioning in those milliseconds just enough to throw off your whole lift.
You just don’t know how to feel out that body part to make it look like the way it should to the coach. Feeling does not equal visual output.
How do you get someone to feel what “lats” are when they’re completely new and have minimal lat strength or experience engaging the “lats”? Chances are, you as the athlete (if you’re not familiar with how to actually engage this body part) may have to do other supplemental moves that build up your ability to feel that body part in motion – to develop the ability to tighten a muscle, or flex/extend a joint angle when cued. Developing feeling and awareness in the body will take time and different ways of stimulation until you actually “get it.”
The cue might be the right cue, but just not in the right stage of your training in the moment.
Has a coach ever given you a cue waaaaay long ago that never seemed to resonate, but suddenly after several weeks or months of training, they give you that same cue again, you have an “A HA!” moment and it finally clicks? That’s because your body needed some time to adapt to a certain timing or way of moving (either with other cues or other moves) before this particular cue was the perfect one for you in the moment.
The cue shifts the focus away from something else more important in your movement that needs addressing
This ties back into the issue with “timing,” where putting more thought effort towards one body part takes away from addressing how another body part should be properly moving. The coordination isn’t there and the muscles haven’t practiced firing quick enough where they should be so that you spend less time “thinking” and your body just “does.”
So what’s the takeaway from this all?
- If a cue doesn’t resonate with you right away…give it some time. Don’t resist or fight against it, but work little by little towards it as best as you can. Change, when it comes to correcting habits of movement, takes time to adapt.
- A cue that may not work with you today may work with you weeks from now, once you iron out any timing issues or patterns in the way you move between now and then.
- Work with your coach to develop a different shared vocabulary – maybe the cue is pushing you to point Z when you need actually to hit point B first, so the coach needs to be able to give you words that push you in the steps you need to hit first to get you where you’ll eventually end up in the long run.
- Your coach should know what your mobility limitations are based on how you move and react to certain cues – and thus, give you ways to help become more mobile so you can progress to better movement mechanics.
- If you ever get a chance to video or view the way YOU move….DO IT! What you see is not always what you feel, and sometimes seeing how you yourself move can help you to elicit the correct sensation you need when coach from an outside perspective can’t feel what you feel based on what they see.
- Lastly, TRUST THAT YOU ARE MAKING PROGRESS. Even though the coach keeps repeating these to you…they are only trying to get these feelings engrained in your system so they become second nature and you won’t have to actively think of these words anymore. You probably ARE and HAVE improved when you do focus and act upon these words…it may not feel like a *significant* improvement, but little by little these improvements will add up to a larger improvement in the long run,
Is it better to focus on just one cue, or 5 cues all at once?
Well, that depends, because your ability to move in one way can link to the way other parts of your body move, especially in complex movements that involve a lot of coordination and lots of direction. A single cue can be hard to isolate on its own because the way you move your body to fit that one cue might affect the way it moves in other areas.
Your body moves as a symphony, not as separate sections of an orchestra. Yes, perhaps each section of the orchestra may need to practice on their own sometimes, but they must come together under the same coordination of the conductor or their speeds won’t appropriately line up.
Trust in the cues, give them time to resonate – and perhaps one day when the time is right and your body is ready to progress, they will click.