The Nature of Coaching Cues


If a lifter I’m coaching lets
his knees slide forward at the bottom of a squat, I have to correct
this critical error. I am the coach, and my job is correct movement
instruction. My job is not
to figure out a reason why this inherently inefficient movement
pattern is really just fine if that’s the way the lifter wants to do
it, and thereby excuse his inefficiency and my coaching inadequacy.
My job is to understand the exercise and its mechanics, to teach it
correctly, to evaluate its performance, and to provide correction to
the lifter when it is wrong.

This
correction is accomplished with short easily-comprehended “signals”
that are called Cues.
Cues are essentially reminders
of pieces of the teaching instructions that have already been given
but are not being performed correctly. They can be verbal, visual, or
tactile, depending on the circumstances. A visual cue might be the
coach standing in front of the lifter with hands pointing out as a
signal for the lifter’s knees. A tactile cue might be a tap on the
sacrum below the lifter’s belt as a reminder to drive hips up. But
most common and effective cueing is verbal.

Cues
are given during the set – actually during the rep
– allowing the movement to be corrected in real time. Cues are
designed to evoke an immediate response: a reaction,
not an analysis. Cues
are not explanations.

They deal with ideas that have already been discussed, not new
material that has not already been explained and understood. If a rep
is 5 seconds long, any cue that can possibly affect the performance
of that rep must trigger an immediate
reaction within the part of the movement that is not being expressed
correctly.

Therefore
a cue cannot be a metaphor, or a slang expression, or really anything
except a command
such as you would give to your dog. “Proud chest” is not a cue,
but a metaphor for the pose of a nautical hero in the prow of his
ship at the Zenith of his career after an historic battle at sea. It
does not mean anything that does not require interpretation. “Chest
up” is a cue, as is “Knees out,” “Hips back,” “Bend
over,” “Nipples to the floor,” “Hips first,” and anything
that can be immediately translated into an action. Anything more
complicated requires re-racking the bar and explaining the concept
again,
as does any cue that is not responded to after the second attempt.

Cues
must be intrusive to be perceived by a lifter under a heavy bar,
since a heavy bar has already commanded the lifter’s attention. A
verbal cue must be short, loud (the heavier the weight, the louder
the cue), and immediately understandable, so as to break through to
the part of the brain that must be involved in reorganizing a
movement pattern. A long, quiet, peaceful, tranquil, polite,
respectful cue will not be perceived by a lifter under a heavy
weight.

They
must also be given at the appropriate time to affect the error being
displayed, since there is an inherent delay in receiving and
perceiving any sensory input. A cue for the knees at the bottom of
the squat must be given before the bar starts down, and a hips-up cue
must be given before the bottom is reached. For most trainees, two
cues per rep is too much information – restrict yourself to one
correction at a time for maximum effect, and fix the second problem
during the next set.

A
cue for a power clean must be given before the start of the pull,
since the entire clean takes little more than one second to complete,
and no cue can be perceived and acted upon that quickly. A power
snatch is obviously the same, as is any Olympic lift. Less obvious is
the press, which must be cued before the rep starts because you can’t
change anything about a press after it starts up from the shoulders.

These
lifts are either made or missed immediately after they start, because
bar path errors happen at that time and bar path errors are the
limiting factor in cleans, snatches, and presses, due to their
sensitivity to mechanical inefficiency. The bar path both determines
and is a reflection of the lifter’s interaction with the bar, and if
the bar path is wrong enough the lifter cannot generate enough force
to compensate for the inefficiency if the load is close enough to a
limit rep. Cueing the quick lifts requires an advanced understanding
of the mechanics of the movement patterns, an ability to analyze both
body and bar path quickly, and the ability to prioritize the best
correction for what might be a complex error.

The
deadlift is a little different since it may take 6 seconds to lock
out a limit rep, but if it comes off the floor from the wrong
position it cannot be completed. You can cue the shrug at the top,
but a deadlift pulled off the floor too far forward of the mid-foot
will not get much past the knees, and a deadlift that stops above the
knees is a missed deadlift.

So
the timing of the cue is critical, which means that coaching these
lifts requires an awareness of how cues are perceived and reacted to,
as well as familiarity with the lifter’s ability to process input
about the lifts. A coach that persistently cues a pull at the knees
or cues a press after the bar is overhead does not understand this
important aspect of communication.

And
in a stunning bit of professional honesty, cues are often lies –
baldfaced lies designed to evoke a response that the
often-woefully-inadequate truth cannot produce. If “Knees out!”
as a cue does not work after a couple of attempts, have the lifter
rack the bar, and then tell him, “See that wall on the left of the
platform, and see that bench on the right of the platform? I want you
to hit the wall with the outside of your knee, and I want you to
knock the bench over with the outside of your other knee.”

“But
I can’t do that.”

Do
it anyway.

Take your stance and do it right now.”

The
exaggeration of the movement pattern produced by this instruction
will get the knees out more than they have been before, and perhaps
more than they need to be. But that’s fine right now, because the
overcorrection will average out once the load is added. Then the
lifter takes the bar out of the rack and the cue
becomes “Left wall!” and “Hit the bench!” and the knees will
track correctly along the feet according to the model of the squat.
Lies, but we’re not under oath – we’re here to produce correct
movement, and if it takes an overcorrection
to produce the correction, that’s just fine.

So
here’s an important thing to consider: if you have not personally
performed the lifts, and personally experienced the problems you’re
trying to correct in the lifter you’re coaching, and personally
corrected them yourself under the bar with a heavy weight on your
back or in your hands, this is all theoretical bullshit to you. You
cannot coach your way through problems you have not solved. This is
not to say that you cannot coach a 750 squat unless you’ve squatted
750 – rather it is to say that unless you’ve corrected your own
squatting at what to you was a heavy weight, you don’t know that what
you’re telling your lifter actually applies to the rep you are trying
to correct.

Subsequent
to acquiring sufficient personal experience under the bar, learning
the basic science of the lifts, understanding and memorizing the
steps used to teach the lifts, and learning to visually evaluate the
lifter’s compliance with the model of the movement pattern, learning
to cue the corrections is the most important function of the coach.
But it is based on the requisite understanding of what the lifter is
experiencing under the bar, which ultimately determines the best way
to provide corrections for the errors people make. 


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