Hot Topic: What We Say Matters, Part I
  • Hot Topic: What We Say Matters, Part I
    An introduction to aspects of coaching science that impact the effectiveness of strength and conditioning professionals. In Part I, learn how instruction primes the motor system by providing contextual understanding of the movement skill.
  • This is Part I of "What We Say Matters." Click here to continue reading Winkelman's two-part series!

    Coach addressing two athletes

    IntroductionIf 10 identical twins were trained by 10 different coaches following the same training plan (methods) and all variables were controlled, would we see the same results? The simple answer would be “yes” and the assumption would be that training methods are the primary factor driving the trainee’s success. The difficult answer would be “no” and the assumption would be that training methods are limited by the person coaching them. 

    Answering "yes" would support the current emphasis across strength and conditioning literature on training methods and mechanisms, but answering "no" would expose a deficit in the literature pertaining to the applied coaching sciences directed at the strength and conditioning professional. 

    While this paper does not seek to provide a final answer to the posed question, it does seek to address a deficit within the strength and conditioning literature, and present a foundation for understanding the science of coaching.

    The purpose of this paper is to provide an introduction to aspects of coaching science that will directly impact the effectiveness of strength and conditioning professionals. While coaching is multifaceted, the ability to teach is a “red thread” across great coaches. 

    John Wooden once said that “you haven’t taught until they have learned” (6), and through this quote we see that learning is a function of effective teaching. The science of coaching literature provides over 30 years of research pertaining to teaching practices and the optimal use of instruction and feedback.

    The following sections will discuss the underlying mechanisms and recommended application across effective instruction and feedback. Within the paper the author presents the following arguments (Part I) instruction primes the motor system by providing contextual understanding of the movement skill and (Part II) feedback refines the motor system by guiding the athlete towards a movement pattern in a manner that promotes implicit (self-correcting) processes.

    Science of InstructionInstructing athletes on how to perform on-field movement skills (e.g., sprinting) and primary strength movements (e.g., Olympic-style lifts) in the weight room are fundamental coaching responsibilities. Instruction can be considered information given prior to a skill in an effort to guide the athlete towards an efficient movement pattern. 

    The goal of instruction is to prime the motor system by providing contextual understanding of the movement skill being learned. It should be noted that contextual understanding refers to the athlete’s ability to understand how to perform and self-correct a movement skill without feedback from a coach. 

    Instruction can be broken into two primary components that include visual and verbal instruction (see Figure 1). Visual instruction or movement demonstration is further broken down into an athlete observing a novice or expert demonstration prior to performing the movement themselves. 

    Verbal instruction can be broken into internal versus external cues, which focus the athlete on different elements of the movement being learned. The following section will examine the effectiveness of visual and verbal instruction and their component parts.

    Figure 1. Instruction Model

    Visual Instruction (Demonstration)Coaches will make an effort to master movement skills for the purpose of expert demonstration or have an athlete demonstrate the movement if the coach is unable to. Research has shown there is a benefit from observing both novice and expert demonstration (1). Shoenfelder-Zhodi (9) showed that observing an expert model compared to verbal instruction resulted in earlier acquisition of a ski simulator task. 

    While observing expert demonstration improves learning, there is a vast amount of evidence supporting the observation of novice models for improved learning (2, 4, 5). 

    Observing a novice model may call attention to errors, promoting problem-solving and the discovery of appropriate movement patterns through implicit learning (1, 3). From a practical standpoint it can be recommended that a combination of expert and novice observation will allow for an enriched learning environment. 

    Expert models can be used in the initial instruction and novice models are used by calling athlete’s attention to one another during practice. The use of “waterfall starts” and “partner coaching” will allow for a balance of expert and novice observation. Below is an example of using waterfall starts and partner coaching:

    Waterfall Starts (Harness Acceleration Sprints): 10 athletes in harnesses stand across a line with a partner athlete holding the harness leash allowing them to hold a 45º acceleration angle. Athletes are instructed to sprint (accelerate) over a 15-yard distance building intensity. The waterfall start dictates that the far athlete goes first and once they have passed 5 yards the next athlete will go with the pattern continuing until all 10 athletes have sprinted. This will allow athletes to observe a range of movement abilities and provides the coach with a more controlled environment to direct feedback (see next section).

    Partner Coaching (Weightlifting): Athletes are partnered in groups of two to three per platform and instructed to watch one another during the training session. Athletes will naturally identify errors in their fellow athlete’s technique and start coaching one another. This drives group cohesiveness and partner coaching which scales the coach’s capabilities. 

    Verbal InstructionVerbal instruction can focus an athlete internally on body movements or externally on the result of the movement (11, 12, 14, 16, 17). For example, telling an athlete to “rapidly extend your legs” during an acceleration sprint would constitute an internal cue and “drive the ground away” would be an example of an external cue. The concept of internal versus external cuing or attentional focus was first seen through the work of Wulf et al. (14). 
    This critical study involved two experiments of similar demand. Experiment 1 looked at the effect of internal versus external focus when using a ski-simulator. The internal focus group was “instructed to exert force on the outer foot” and the external focus group was “instructed to exert force on the outer wheels,” while the control group received no instruction. 
    This subtle difference in focus resulted in statistically greater improvement during practice and retention for the external compared to the internal focused group. It should be noted that retention refers to testing in the absence of instruction and feedback after a given time period has elapsed (e.g., 24-48hrs). 

    Experiment 2 looked at internal versus external focus as it relates to a balance task. The internal focus group was asked to keep their feet at the same height while the external focus group was asked to keep the red lines in front of their feet at the same height. The results were similar to Experiment 1 with the external focus group having significantly less errors during the retention test.

    Since this study there has been extensive research validating the efficacy of external focus across vertical jumping (12, 13), long jump (8), agility (7), soccer and tennis (16), and golf (15, 19). Further work has shown that external focus is not only important for the novice learner, but has also shown efficacy in expert acrobats (10) and golfers (19).

    Table 1 provides examples of internal versus external focus cues for different movements and note that analogies can be considered external cues.
      Internal Cue External Cue
    Sprinting: Acceleration
    • Extend your hip (knee)
    • Activate your quad (glute)
    • Stomach tight 
    • Drive the ground away
    • Explode off the ground
    • Brace up 
    Change of Direction
    • Hips down
    • Feet wide
    • Drive through big toe 
    • Roof over head
    • Train tracks or wide base
    • Push the ground away 
    • Explode through hips
    • Snap through ankles
    • Drive hips through head 
    • Touch the sky
    • Snap the ground away
    • Drive belt buckle up 
    Olympic Lifting: Snatch
    • Drive feet through ground
    • Drive chest to ceiling
    • Snap hips through the bar
    • Drive feet through ground
    • Drive chest to ceiling
    • Snap hips through the bar
    • Push the ground away
    • Drive/jump vertical
    • Snap bar to ceiling
    • Snap and drop under bar
    Table 1. Examples of Internal vs. External Focus Cues for Various Movement Skills  

    While it has been well-established that an external focus of attention is superior to an internal focus there is less known about the underlying mechanisms. The constrained action hypothesis (CAH) has been suggested as a theoretical explanation for the benefits of adopting an external focus of attention (11, 17, 18). 

    Wulf et al. (17) defined the hypothesis, stating that focusing on body movements (i.e. internal) increases consciousness and “constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control process that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement,” and therefore by focusing on the movement outcome (i.e., external) allows the “motor system to more naturally self-organize, unconstrained by the interference caused by conscious control attempts.” 

    To test this hypothesis, research was done to evaluate if an external focus of attention actually increases automatic processing during a task. Wulf et al. (17) looked at reaction time during a balance task and found that an external focus decreased balance error and reaction time compared to an internal focus during a retention test. 

    This further supports the notion that adopting an external focus can improve learning and performance as a function of automatic processes. In sum, an external focus compared to internal focus reduces consciousness and therefore the amount of attention needed to perform a given task. This frees up attentional resources that can be used to further the efficiency and automaticity of a movement skill.

    Applied Implications

    From an applied standpoint, the use of visual and verbal instruction can be recommended. Visual instruction creates an image in the athlete’s mind and the verbal instruction drives the outcome of what the image represents. Instruction will continue to be important as new and more complex skills are taught, but can be minimized as previously learned skills are repeated. 

    The amount of information should be kept at a minimum within an external focus and prioritized towards critical elements of the movement skill being taught. 

    Part II of this article will discuss the underlying mechanisms and application of feedback. Final conclusions are also presented in Part II, discussing the application of instruction and feedback across the learning continuum.

    Continue with Part II of "What We Say Matters" ...


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    About the Author:

    Nick Winkelman

    Nick Winkelman is the Director of Training Systems and Education for Athletes’ Performance. He oversees their NFL Combine development program in addition to directing the education department. He has a MSc through Edith Cowan University and is currently completing his doctorate through Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions with an emphasis in coaching science.


  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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