Animating the Cue

I recall a pivotal event in 2009 where I attended a conference and the speaker James Fitzgerald, former CrossFit champion discussing the concept of Skill-Acquisition. That was the light bulb moment for me in appreciating movement and human performance as not simply a goal to lift as heavy as possible or run as fast as possible. More importantly, it opened the door to exploring and appreciating the concept of learning a new skill. What did this tell me?

Firstly, leaning a new skill is a way to motivate clients on a journey that is progressive and purposeful. More on this point later.

Secondly, leaning a new skill is task-specific meaning it can come across as menial or as complex as we make it. This feeds into the concept of what Anders Erickson has termed ‘Deliberate practice’. Even if the skill is as simple as picking a kettlebell off the ground it is still a skill and when done deliberately it ensures the safety and best practice and a way to progress to the next phase of a movement if that is the intended purpose.

Lastly, that the objective of learning a new skill is fast-tracked and made purposeful precisely by what I call animating the cue. This concept focuses on a movement task and in particular, focuses on verbal communication as a way of eliciting a favourable outcome i.e. skill acquisition to retention.

Let us now explore the magical concept of Mastery.

To obtain mastery in a skill that we are learning or teaching to a client there are typically 4 stages of progression which are illustrated in the above pyramid diagram. Typically, a blanket approach would be to say a client is ‘incompetent’ or ‘competent’ in a given task. As the client moves up the pyramid they become more competent which equates to a greater level of competence and also confidence.

There is one more element in this confidence-competence loop which is courage.

Taken together, the 3 C’s act as the rocket fuel to continue new levels and layers of mastery of a given skill. Even the greats like the martial artist Bruce Lee and the soccer legend Pele spoke of continuous and neverending learning in their specific activities even though they are regarded as possibly the greatest athletes in their given sports. #Neverstoplearning!


Given the above context, we can now zoom in to a specific method that will enhance and elevate the way you communicate with your clients. It is what I call ‘animating the cue’.

My good friend and expert movement coach Nick Winkelman has done a great deal of research and application on internal verse external-based cueing. In his seminal lectures titled what we say matters’ part 1 and 2, Dr. Winkelman lays the case for a specific method of verbal based cueing to optimise the skill acquisition process a client or athlete experiences.

The other side of the skill-based model is ‘skill retention’. This is the ability of the client or athlete to obtain long term memory transfer.

Skill acquisition on the other hand is a series of short-term transfers to the memory bucket of the client or athlete.

For now, the important concept we are dealing with here is how clients can efficiently acquire and retain a skill or subset of skills via the Movement Task instructional model as shown below:

Now if we purely focus on the ‘Verbal line we see that it is broken down into ‘Internal versus External cueing’. Below is a simple way to understand the difference between these verbal ways of communicating with a client.

Internal cueing focuses on a body part like ‘squeeze the glutes’ as you extend the knees in the squat. In the following video, I show a demonstration of how to coach the squat using external cueing

The below image is a great way to distinguish the body versus the environment and to see how easy it is to use an internal framework for verbally communicating to your client or athlete

External cueing may be broken up into 3 distinct elements:

1. Metaphor and analogy For this think of your favourite story and characters. Being a geek for marvel movies, in the following video, I use Cyclops from Xmen to communicate and stabilise the eyes during the single-leg hinge.

2. Environment This is essentially where you are teaching your client or athlete. Is it indoors or outdoors? Are you referencing the sky or the ceiling; the wall or the trees? It is about being creative and including key features within the environment to verbally instruct the direction or distance of a particular movement as shown below.

3. Implement/tool By referencing the barbell as in the above example the client can focus his attention on the implement and not the hands or arms. This is vital as it provides a focus to keep safe whilst efficiently executing the movement.

Our focus on ‘animating the cue’ is how best we integrate the 3 distinct elements into a meaningful outcome for the client or athlete.

Even though there is a creative license here, external cueing, in particular, the analogy and metaphor part must be context-bound.

Some key considerations for contextualising the cues are:

  • Age/Generation of the client. For example, if you were to formulate an analogy to a young client brought up in the year 2000 using an analogy or story from the 1950s that may not be particularly context-bound.

  • Interests and passions. By understanding the client’s interests and passions we may craft and formulate analogies and stories that relate to them at a deeper level

  • Cultural. The best way I can describe this is from a story of mine when teaching in India. I explained to them the concept of yanking the cord’ as if you are to start a lawnmower. They all looked at me blankly and I quickly joked ‘you do not know what a lawnmower is’!

Now it is your turn to craft your external cues

To begin, choose one of the above movements. The key is to break down the movement #deliberatepractice. At first, it may feel clunky and the temptation to default into the internal framework of cueing may result. Avoid the old way and embrace the new.

At first, you may find this a challenging process especially if 95% of your verbal communication has been based on internal references of the body only. Be focused and deliberate when approaching this activity.

Final thoughts:

The use of external cues as a way of ‘animating the cue’ is one component of skill development that aides in the client or athlete’s ability to acquire a new skill (short term memory transfer) and to retain that new skill (long term memory transfer).

Treat the process of creating and crafting external cues as an important part of your coaching tool kit. For when we get the coaching right we can truly optimise the client's experience

Make your coaching a part of the ongoing interaction and communication between you and your clients/athletes that creates something memorable and lasting.

Reference List

  • Nick Winkelman, Language of coaching – the art and science of coaching movement

  • Gabriele Wulf, ‘Attention and motor skill learning

  • D. Henderson, T.M Chouja, ‘Purpose Driven Movement’



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