Motor Learning and Cueing: Explicit, Implicit, External, Internal

There seems to be a growing trend of praising implicit learning over explicit learning and external cueing over internal cueing. I feel that the pendulum is swinging pretty far in this direction and that this is mainly the case due to scientific studies with limited study design combined with the assumption that you can learn everything there is to know about such a complex topic from reading a couple of research reviews. In this article I will try to outline my current thoughts and findings on what, when and why in regard to cueing and motor learning.

If you are not yet familiar with implicit learning, explicit learning, internal cueing and external cueing, read up on those first and come back to this article after.


My current thought about how we should choose how to structure the learning environment is based on my own practical experience, the findings and practice of successful coaches and yes, also on scientific research. For successful learning to occur, it is important not to overcook the conscious, working memory. If we provide too much information about how to perform a movement, it becomes hard or even impossible to execute. Additionally, it is important that there is a clear feedback mechanism to distinguish successful execution from poor execution. Based on the former, it follows that there should be enough room te make mistakes, but that the task should also be somewhat aligned with the level of the individual to allow for successful attempts as well. When learning a completely new movement, I tend to go with one of two strategies:


-       Shape the environment in such a way that I narrow the total choice of possibilities for the athlete to execute a task (what is commonly referred to as constraints led approach).

-       Provide an example, a reference to use as a starting point, or a prior if you will, from where we can further shape and adjust the minor details. This usually means providing the athlete with an image of something they are familiar with, a metaphor or having someone demonstrate the movement for them.


I will show you examples of how I apply both of these later on the article, but first: why do I choose for these strategies with new movements and why does this seem to work? I think that what both of these do very successfully is reduce the amount of information that needs to be processed to more comprehensible chunks. If you have to teach someone who has never squatted before how to do it (properly) and you use internal cues only, you will (in most cases) not be very successful. There are simply too many details to focus on at the same time, while providing a metaphor or forcing the athlete into a certain execution (read: taking away a part of the options that are undesirable) compresses or reduces the amount of information that needs to be processed consciously.


A general example, which of these two series of numbers is easier to remember: 


132223112321 or 123123123123


Both series consist of 12 digits and both only contain a 1, 2 or 3 and yet it is much easier to remember the second series. Why? With the second series, the amount of information can be compressed to remembering the sequence of 123 and repeating that 4 times instead of remembering 12 digits that seem to be somewhat random. This is the same reason why stories are much easier to remember than random collections of words or letters and this might be the same reason why we like to look for patterns where there might be none, although I won’t tire you by going down that rabbit hole in this article.


Teaching the Squatting pattern

Now for the practical side, let’s stay with the squatting movement. When teaching the squatting pattern, I choose for shaping the environment rather than using a metaphor. With youth athletes that come into our program, I tend to start with either the Goblet Squat or Hands-Free Front Squat. But as always: many roads lead to Rome. What these two do pretty successfully is take away certain movement options and reinforce others.

Couple of reasons for choosing those exercises:


-       Front loading usually makes it easier to get depth, especially with novices


-       Front loading reinforces upright posture and a braced trunk


-       Front loading usually feels heavier, so this also suppresses the urge to add more weight too soon

Practically, both of these exercises do a lot of the teaching for me, allowing me and the athlete to focus on less details than if we started with the Barbell Back Squat (important to note that you might choose a different approach if you want to teach the powerlifting, hinge dominant style of squatting). Now we can focus on smaller details such as foot positioning, elbows, knees or whatever else is relevant. If you encounter specific problems, you can adjust these exercises even further or add exercises in the warm-up where you ‘prime’ the athletes for what you want to see. For example, I get a lot of athletes who have been thought not to let their knees go over their toes, leading to excessive hinging and sometimes it takes a while to get this out of the system. Here you might choose to elevate the heels (biases an upright posture), perform the squats facing a wall (constraints how far you can hinge) or anything else you can think of.


In part 2 I will try to outline how my strategy changes when the athlete already has a base of movement competency.


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