Motor Learning and Cueing: Reference Points

In the previous part of this article I discussed how I view learning and how I tend to go about teaching new movements. In this part, I will try to outline my current views on coaching movements that athletes are already familiar with.


What if the athletes are already familiar with the movement pattern and you just want to adjust minor details? Let’s say the athlete is performing a Front Squat and you would like the elbows to point a bit more outwards, which option would you choose here? In this case, just saying point your elbows out is probably the simplest approach, as there is not that much information that needs to be processed. If you start giving a metaphor here of a bird spreading its wings or change the entire exercise or environment for a tiny detail, you are complicating much more than needed and you will probably confuse a lot of athletes. The same goes when you go from a Front Squat to a Back Squat, you don’t need to start over and provide a vague metaphor. If the athlete is proficient in the Front Squat and the general movement pattern has stabilized, you can use the reference point strategy. By starting with the Hands-Free Front Squat and mastering it, you have created a stable reference point for all squatting movements that the athlete can refer to.


Providing reference points is a pretty powerful way to teach in my opinion and it can be done in many ways which might differ per athlete (visual, rhythmic, verbal, sensory). This might also be another strong argument against early specialization. Becoming familiar with an array of different sports also provides you with a huge bank of movements you can use as reference points later in your development (unconsciously for the most part).


Using the warm-up or using supersets to enhance the learning process

Another way to use reference points would be during the warm-up, or even in a super set. For example, let’s say you want to do a change of direction session where you focus on quick, stiff contacts. You might start the warm-up of that session off with pogo hops, where you coach how the athlete attacks the ground. From pogo hops, you can flow into short coupling skater hops, where you emphasize the same action (pretension, foot positioning, attacking the ground). This can in turn lead into your change of direction drills, where you can now cue the athlete to try to chase that same feeling of quick, stiff contacts. You can even put these three exercises in a large set where you alternate from one exercise to the next, each exercise being used as a primer or reference for the next.


On the left you see an old post where you can find examples of drills that provide context and the way I structured those drills in this session. None of those drills do much in isolation, but put together with a clear end goal, each drill can be used as a reference point for the final movement.

Using internal cues

What about internal cueing, that’s always bad right? That depends on your goal. The more complex a movement becomes and the less stable the skill is, the less likely it is you will find success using internal cues. In my opinion, this is simply due to the fact that you would have to provide way too much information to guide the movement where you want it to go if you call out all the muscles that are involved. It’s simply too detailed. However, what if your goal is to stimulate a certain muscle or muscle group? In this case, I would say internal cueing is your way to go. Body builders have been doing this for a long time, with great success too (you are probably familiar with the concept of mind-muscle connection). If you want to target the hamstrings or calf muscles with a specific, simple, somewhat isolated movement, you probably will find success using internal cues (and it makes sense to do so).


You might also find success using internal cues with athletes that have a very high competence level in a certain skill. It’s not uncommon for track and field or powerlifting coaches to use internal cues with elite athletes. For me this makes sense as well, as the movement pattern is so stable that you can and probably need to focus on small details to improve.


What are constraints?

To dive a bit deeper into constraints led approach, what is a constraint? Does it have to be a prop or are words/cues constraints too? ‘Don’t let your elbows drop’, ‘be stiff when you hit the ground’, ‘stay closer to the bar’. Sure, physical constraints can be harder to ignore, but if the athlete is focused and able to do what you are asking them, cues serve as constraints too. My main point with this first part is that the situation (individual, stage of development, group dynamics…) dictates what type of cueing and learning is most appropriate, context is everything. 


To conclude this part of the article, the context of the situation you are in dictates which strategy is going to be more successful. I believe that one of the greatest challenge of teaching is finding ways to compress information into manageable chunks through either constraints or reference points, which can be done in many ways. You shouldn't write off an entire way of teaching just because there are a couple of isolated studies showing a certain result in a certain situation, based on certain outcome measures. Always consider how one piece of evidence fits into the bigger picture. In part 3, I will try to expand on some of the issues and shortcomings of over-reliance on scientific studies.

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