Coaching guarantees a certain level of frustration, usually stemming from an athlete or client’s inability to complete a movement task. Now, are you frustrated with them? No, you are frustrated with yourself because you cannot articulate how to properly execute a movement no matter what you do or say. You try cue after cue and drill after drill to no avail. Let us take the classic example, knee valgus during the squat. You see the client or athlete collapse their knees and the gut reactions are to cue “push your knees out,” followed by “screw your feet into the ground,” which is typically followed by banded squats, band walks, and clamshells.

RELATED: 5 Cues That Can Screw Up Your Lifting

My wife and I are coming up on five years of marriage and training together, and despite my consistent verbal cueing, when the weight gets heavy, her knees valgus. Finally, it occurred to me to record the rep and show her the problem. Funny story, her knees no longer collapse when she squats. She is a visual learner. She has told me that. I have watched her study, and I knew that, but I chose to keep telling her to push her knees out instead of showing her the problem for years. This taught me a valuable lesson about learning styles, cueing, and coaching: ask people how they learn best and then use the information to your advantage! So, let's briefly examine types of cues and learning styles, so hopefully, you do not make the same mistake.

Internal Cueing

Let us start by examining the two common types of cueing, internal and external (if you read the research, these are referred to as internal and external attentional focus). Internal cues focus on the athlete’s body movement or internal structure during the execution of movement patterns (Widenhoefer et al., 2019). These would be things like “fully extend the hip and knees,” or “push your knees out,” or “tighten your core.” This type of coaching can be effective; we have all seen it work. But I would also wager a bet that we have all tried these types of cues and watched it fall flat.

Why? Well, I have a theory. Everyone learns differently in a classroom, and that extends to movement patterns for sport or training. And while some people are kinesthetic or “hands-on” learners, very little of this occurs anymore. Many children have had physical education and recess pulled from their school, and many now opt to spend their leisure time playing video games. This has led to a distinct inability to recognize their body in space. Internal cueing is often difficult to execute because the athlete or client has no idea if they are doing what is asked. This is likely why research has consistently shown that external cueing, or external attentional focus coaching, yields better results (Kershner et al., 2019; Makaruk et al., 2013; Oliver et al., 2019; Zarghami et al., 2013).

External Cueing

So when internal cueing doesn’t get the job done, external cueing is up to bat. External cueing is outcome-based—it focuses on the results of the movement, not the movement itself. This strategy allows the client or athlete to gain immediate feedback based on the success or failure of the outcome (Widenhoefer et al., 2019). Let me give an example. One common strategy utilized in the throwing events is called target practice. An object of some sort (shoe, traffic cone, tire, towel, etc.) is placed in the sector somewhere around 80ish percent of the athlete’s lifetime personal best. The athlete’s goal is to drop the implement on the target. This provides the athlete with an external focus that draws their focus away from the motor pattern and towards an outcome.

The most common external cue in the gym is the band around the knees while squatting trick. If the band falls or goes slack, the person knows their knees are collapsing, thus encouraging them to correct the problem without prompting. Research has shown that compared to internal cueing, external cueing improves performance in a variety of tasks in both trained and untrained athletes (Kershner et al., 2019; Makaruk et al., 2013; Oliver et al., 2019; Widenhoefer et al., 2019; Zarghami et al., 2013).

The prevailing explanation as to why this appears more effective is the constrained action hypothesis. In a nutshell, the theory is that external cueing provides the neuromuscular system an opportunity to self-organize to complete a task, while internal cueing may actually interfere with this process (Wulf et al., 2001). I think we can all agree that even if science can’t fully explain it, there is some truth to this. If I had a dollar for each time I told an athlete “quit overthinking it,” I would be too busy drinking margaritas on a beach to write this.   

What To Do With This

The research tells us the external cueing is often more effective than internal cueing, which is fine and dandy but does create one glaring issue—dependence. Any athlete who competes doesn’t get to utilize many external cues that you may develop for them. I can’t have throwers put cones out in the sector, nor can a powerlifter place a band around their knees during their squat to ensure they drive them outward. Moreover, dependence on external cues for personal training clients means they will always be dependent on a coach. While that may be financially beneficial for the coach, most good coaches would agree that they should eventually be fired if they're properly educating their clients.

People need to gain kinesthetic awareness of their bodies if they can make long-term, sustained progress. What I have found to work best is first to provide the external cue, allowing the client to focus on the outcome of the movement. You, as the coach, must then reinforce good motor patterns by drawing their attention to good vs. bad repetitions. So if you place a band around a client’s knees during the squat, after each good rep, ask, “did you feel your knees push out?” or “do you feel the tension and tightness that generates?” Over time this allows them to connect the external cue and internal cue, so they learn to draw their attention inward to their body movements. Eventually, they will be able to feel and correct their own poor movement, and, with time, they will develop motor patterns that do not require any cueing.

Learning Styles   

Now that we understand the different types of cueing available, attention needs to be directed to the relationship between cueing and learning styles. According to the VARK Scale for athletes, there are four primary learning styles: visual (learn by seeing and spatial relationships), auditory (learn through the verbiage, lectures, etc.), read/write learners (learn through statistics and writing), and kinesthetic (learn by doing, mostly through a sense of touch/feel). I think everyone is familiar with these concepts, and everyone who is an educator knows certain tips and tricks to use in their classroom to appeal to all of these types. Yet as coaches, we spend very little time considering the athlete or client's learning style, so let’s do that now.

Identifying Learning Styles

The first step in this process is to identify a person’s learning style. You have essentially two options here. 1. You do something like the VARK Scale for each person you coach. It is completely doable, not overly time-consuming, and will provide you a solid idea of how that particular person learns best. But I tend to opt for option two. 2. Ask the person how they learn best. With a little probing, almost everyone can identify some things that help them learn. Not only is this probably a bit more efficient, but it also will help the client see what you are trying to do as a coach. People thrive on interaction, not on inventory scales and paperwork.

Visual Learners

Visual learners learn best through sight and spatial relationships. They benefit from viewing recordings of themselves and comparing and contrasting good and bad repetitions. With cell phone technology, it has become increasingly easy for coaches to record training sessions or repetitions to analyze with the client or athlete. Together you can pick out the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can even download one of the applications that enable you to draw joint angles to provide visual learners an opportunity to see the spatial relationships of their joints.

To incorporate cueing, video a repetition when an external cue was given and compare it to a repetition using an internal cue. Help the client figure out if they are the same or different and where the differences occurred. This process educates the client on the movement, allowing you as a coach to build on a foundation of understanding. There is one word of caution with this learning style: people can successfully execute motor tasks differently. What works for a six-foot-nine basketball player will likely look much different from a five-foot-three fitness competitor, so make sure any comparison video you are using is a close biomechanical match to your client or athlete.

Auditory Learners   

Give them instructions and watch them excel. That’s how it works with auditory learners, right? Oh, if only it were that simple. Auditory learners are like sponges. They soak up pretty much everything that is said, which is cool. But it does make it hard for them to decipher good versus bad information (and I hate to tell you this, but you give bad coaching advice sometimes, too). These are clients and athletes that love to ask the how and why follow-up questions. They require an open dialogue to understand the overarching concept of the movement, and this is usually a fun conversation for a coach.

Here is the problem. They remember the entire conversation, which means that their brain ends up clouded when it comes time to perform. This is where your value as a coach comes in. After the conversation is over, make sure you help them boil it down to one or two bullet points. This means they got the conversation they need to understand the movement, and now they have actionable items.

Whatever these actionable items are, you need to turn them into internal or external cues, whichever works best for the client. For example, if you are teaching proper bracing technique, you may have an entire conversation explaining the benefits of bracing during the squat and the consequences of not properly executing it. Then you explain the cue “break your belt with your belly” to push out as hard as possible against the belt in all directions to create that brace. At the end of the conversation, be sure to reiterate the cue and then have them perform. If the person is an auditory learner, they will “get it.”

Read/Write Learners

Most coaches encourage clients to keep training journals. If you are working with a read/write learner, this moves from a really good suggestion to an absolute necessity. For your read/write learners, make sure they accurately record any cues, internal or external, that were utilized during a training session. That is the writing part. Here is the trick that takes it to the next level: they have to read it. Maybe you find a cue that helps clean up a client’s deadlift.

Before starting the next session, it is on you to ask the client, “Hey, what was that cue we used last session?” If they do not know, make them go read it. Eventually, they will start reading the journal before each session, and this action alone will help them draw a straight line from training session to training session. It will help them connect the dots and better understand that training is a process that is to be continued, not a binary task that needs to be replicated each day. Progressive overload makes people bigger and stronger. Progressive cueing makes them more technically proficient...also making them stronger.  

Kinesthetic Learners 

Lastly are the kinesthetic learners who learn by doing through touch and feel. These learners are focused on how a movement feels and can utilize internal and external cues because they are in touch with their bodies. Kinesthetic learners respond well to tactical feedback or being put into positions. For example, giving a client a few nudges when performing a plank is a type of tactical feedback that encourages a kinesthetic learner to create tension in the area of the body that was nudged.

Here is the key: a kinesthetic learner needs to learn how to connect what they feel to what they hear. This goes back to the internal versus external cueing conversation. If someone relies on touch and feel to perform, it is your job as the coach to help them connect those dots and provide verbal cues that accompany any tactical or external cues. There is one other word of caution. Kinesthetic learners focus on feel, which means if they have been doing something wrong for years, that feels right to them. If their heels have always elevated during a squat, the battle will be uphill when you work on correcting it because keeping them down feels wrong. This is where it is likely necessary to incorporate some form of visual learning for the kinesthetic learner, so they learn that just because it “feels” right, it may not be.


People learn differently in school, life, and training. The good news is that we all have the capacity to learn new skill sets; we just need someone to coach us along. As a coach, engage the athlete or client to help them figure out how they learn best and then use it. Try internal and external cues, try auditory and visual feedback, and give some tactical or kinesthetic feedback. There are many tools in your toolbox, so learn what works best for the person and use it to help them improve. 


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  2. Dunn, J. L. (2009). Using learning preferences to improve coaching and athletic performance. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance80(3), 30-37.
  3. Kershner, A. L., Fry, A. C., & Cabarkapa, D. (2019). Effect of internal vs. external focus of attention instructions on countermovement jump variables in NCAA Division I student-athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research33(6), 1467-1473.
  4. Makaruk, H., Porter, J. M., & Makaruk, B. (2013). Acute effects of attentional focus on shot put performance in elite athletes. Kinesiology45(1.), 55-62.
  5. Oliver, J., Barillas, S., Rhodri, L., Moore, I., & Pedley, J. (2019). External cueing influences drop jump performance in trained young soccer players.
  6. Widenhoefer, T. L., Miller, T. M., Weigand, M. S., Watkins, E. A., & Almonroeder, T. G. (2019). Training rugby athletes with an external attentional focus promotes more automatic adaptions in landing forces. Sports biomechanics18(2), 163-173.
  7. Wulf, G., McNevin, N., & Shea, C. H. (2001). The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attentional focus. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A54(4), 1143-1154.
  8. Zarghami, M., Saemi, E., & Fathi, I. (2012). External focus of attention enhances discus throwing performance. Kinesiology44(1.), 47-51.

Kelton Mehls completed his undergraduate degree in biology at Robert Morris University, master's of exercise science at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, and Ph.D. in Health and Human Performance at Middle Tennessee State University. Currently, he serves as an assistant professor of exercise science at Walsh University. Teaching a wide variety of courses, he strives to not only teach the nuts and bolts of training and exercise physiology but to provide his students with hands-on, applicable classroom experience. A former college thrower himself, he volunteers his time working with the track and field team at Walsh and currently trains himself to compete in the Highland Games.