Becoming a better coach: Quality instruction through demonstration, cueing and analogies

So you are a competent athlete who has attended their SFG certification, passed all the tests, survived the weekend and come home an informed and motivated (if not very sore) SFG. So, now what? How do you take all you’ve learned, practiced, and performed personally, and break it down into a language your students can not only understand but put into action on a daily basis to get great results?

Better coaching through analogies

Ultimately, you can be the smartest coach in the world, but if you can’t accurately articulate your knowledge in a language others can understand, then your skills as a coach are rendered useless. Analogical teaching/cueing is a form of externally focused instruction that has been researched, implemented and proven to be the most successful way to improve information and skill retention in students across multiple sports, leading to improved performance and greater, longer lasting results.

Types of instruction

Dr Gabriele Wulf, in her book Attention and Motor Skill Learning (2007), describes how we can prime the motor system in two ways: visual instruction or verbal instruction. As coaches, the order in which we offer instruction matters as much as the content. Below we will discuss a sequence of coaching skills to help you teach students more effectively and efficiently.

Expert visual instruction

When coaching a student through a foundational kettlebell lift like the two hand kettlebell swing for example, visually we want make sure we show him or her exactly what we want them to do. Showing the student the one and only way you want them to perform the lift is a sure fire way to have them solidify that image in their brain during practice. Through the concept of mirror neurons, also known as mirroring, watching an expert perform the movement allows the student the opportunity to copy that movement exactly. Demonstrating the lift yourself frequently throughout your instruction is going to be the first pillar in the foundation of your coaching success. All too often coaches tell the student what NOT to do, leaving the student with literally 1000’s of other options to choose from in the hope that one of them is correct. Remove the word “don’t” from your vocabulary when it comes to coaching a movement.

Peer to peer visual learning

Eventually, as students become more proficient in a given skill, encouraging them to watch and learn from each other allows them to identify gaps in their own techniques. Seeing both the perfect technique from the coach, and imperfect technique from peers allows the student to identify and close the gaps within their own performance. This encourages autonomy and problem-solving in their training and greater retention of the skill. If you run group training programs, this is a great technique to use with novice and intermediate students through an “I Go You Go” (IGYG) format as their skills improve.

Verbal cues: Internal vs External

Now we get into the part of the instruction that really elevates your success as a coach when you get it right. Verbal cueing is most effective when it is concise, external, and analogical. Students have a limited amount of attentional capacity, so we must be concise and avoid over-coaching the movement. Overcoaching uses up the finite attention a student has, allowing them to focus less on performing the actual lift. Be prepared to identify your best cue for the situation and then let the situation play out to check if it works. We don’t want to change everything all at once. If you can see 5 errors in a 2 handed swing, work to identify the one main cause of the issue and not the four other symptoms. Then address that main issue with a cue that gives you the biggest bang for your buck and see if it helps the execution.

An example of this could be seeing an uncontrolled squat pattern in the two-handed swing and giving the cue to “try to leave your footprints in the ground”. If you observe that this improved contact with the floor helps the vertical drive of the legs and subsequently the coordination of the whole lift, then your cue has worked. Coach 1 – Squatty swing 0.

External cueing

External cues draw attention to the environment outside of the body and focus on the outcome of the movement. For example, in the two-handed swing, it is very effective to cue with, “push the earth away” when teaching the student to stand up fast in the upswing. Externally focused cues have been proven to improve transfer and retention of information, whereas internally focused ones diminish it. It is important to remember that every time you give a cue, you’re using up some of the attention of the student. If you focus the attention externally, it takes up less mental space. If it takes up less mental space, it allows more attention to be focused on performing the movement. This leads to better performance of the lift and subsequently better results.

Internal cueing

On the other hand, internal cues draw attention to muscles and body parts, and focuses a students attention around the process of the movement. For example, when trying to get a student to stand up fast in the two-handed kettlebell swing we often hear the command to “squeeze your glutes”. Internal cues have been proven to be less effective than external ones, as they draw attention away from the execution of the movement and instead towards the intricate process of how it is performed. This often presents as paralysis by analysis. Where the attempt to understand all the layers of intricacy in the movement at once, prevents the student from performing any movement at all. If only for this reason we should stick to creating and giving accurate external cues through metaphors and analogies.

In research by Dr. Gabriele Wulf, two groups were tested on their vertical jump heights. One group were given internally focused cues and the other external. The internally focused group not only had lower jumps, but tests showed that they had increased EMG readings, meaning that they actually had greater muscular effort output, despite getting worse results. The externally focused group, however, had lower EMG readings, but had statistically significantly higher jump scores, due to less muscular co-contraction, increased movement efficiency, and better coordination.

When coaching our students in kettlebell training, a common example is often seen when observing a beginner student during the upward “float” phase at the top of the swing. The increased effort and muscular contraction during a phase that is supposed to be somewhat relaxed, is like using a sledgehammer to hang a picture nail. It’s the wrong amount of power and effort and it shows in the uncoordinated performance of the task. A very effective cue to aid this issue is to ask the student to imagine “loading a slingshot”. Once the slingshot is loaded and then released, the rock “floats” towards its target. It can no longer be affected by the slingshot. The same is true with the swing. Once the hips have been loaded backwards, the legs drive down forcing the bell forwards past the hips, the bell should no longer be able to be affected by the student. This analogy should help them understand the power and float phases of the movement better.

Let’s get coaching

Combining the two forces of visual and verbal instruction has therefore been proven to be more successful and effective than using either individually, especially when teaching a novice or novel task. Visual instruction creates a scenario in the student’s mind, and verbal follow-up drives the outcome of that scenario. This combined method takes up less attentional demand, allowing the student to focus on the movement at hand, leaving the cue given to drive the outcome of the movement.

The analogies and cues in the image series below are routinely implemented to coach both athlete and general population students and groups through common sticking points of the kettlebell swing with great success.

5 analogies to improve the performance of the two-handed kettlebell swing:

  1. Feet:

Cue – “Try to leave your footprints in the ground during all phases of the swing”.

Why – This helps create a strong base of support from which to generate directionally specific force in all phases of the swing.

  1. Knees:

Cue – “From standing, try and jump and touch the ceiling”.

Why – The downward loading action of the jump is identical to the hike of swing. Now the student must produce maximum downward force to jump as high as they can, identical to the drive phase of the swing. Once the feet have left the ground, the movement can no longer be affected, identical to the float phase of the swing.

  1. Hips:

Cue – “Keep the bell high in the triangle”

Why – Drawing an imaginary triangle between the right knee, left knee, and hips, helps the student keep the kettlebell in a hinge pattern with the correct lever length, leading to a more hip dominant swing and keeps the student from squatting the movement.

  1. Abs:

Cue – “Vice your spine between your front side and your backside, clamping your body in the middle”.

Why – Imagining a clamp/vice causes the student to think about bracing the abs hard and extending the hips powerfully to bring the body to a vertical standing position.

  1. Shoulders:

Cue – “I want you to try and be 7 feet tall at the top of the swing”

Why – This helps the synchronized lockout of the knees and hips in the upswing of the movement, avoiding rounding of the back and poor downward power transfer.

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Jay Weedall
SFG II, SFL
Jay is an SFG II, SFL, CSCS, USAW Level 1 instructor, and an avid bicycle tourist. He owns and operates his facility, Ethos Fitness + Performance in Boston, MA.

Jay believes that good movement and building strength is more than just lifting in the gym. It is in our daily character, the way we treat others, the relationships we build and the work that we do. This is his "Ethos."

He and his team specialize in developing a strong community around training with kettlebells, bodyweight, and barbells, cultivating happy faces, strong bodies and minds, and long-lasting results through smart and enjoyable training programs. You can learn more at EthosFit.com.
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