Simple Coaching: Using Kinesthetic Cues
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci
In my experience working with thousands of coaches all around the world I’ve found that the great ones seem to be able to do more with less.
Less words. Less equipment. Less exercises.
Simplicity wins when it comes to execution. This is especially true when it comes to coaching and educating. When plans are easy to understand and contain few variables there is less opportunity for error. Making things elementary and focusing on mundane details, although boring is a recipe for success on the field or in the classroom.
Nick Winkelman has done an amazing job shedding light on the value of simple external cueing. He’s shown us very clearly that “what we say matters”.
I would also argue that “how we set up matters.” By that I mean how we set-up our athletes environment for exercise. I am a huge fan of using kinesthetic cues that will create conditons where the athlete must complete a task in a specific manner.
Kinesthetic cueing creates “Self-Limiting” exercise, meaning it demands mindfulness and engagement with the task at hand. You can either do it or you can’t but there is no going through the motions.
To further explain I’ll let Gray Cook interject for a moment:
“Self-limiting exercise demands mindfulness and an awareness of movement, alignment, balance and control. In self-limiting exercise, a person cannot just pop on the headphones and walk or run on the treadmill, fingering the playlist or watching the news on a well-placed monitor. Self-limiting exercise demands engagement.
The clearest example of self-limiting exercise is barefoot running. While running barefoot, the first runners connected with the sensory information in the soles of their feet.”
How sick are you of telling your athlete to get lower on squats or push-ups?
How many times has an athlete failed to understand the posturing you describe when they are deadlifting or rowing?
Coaches are wasting their breath asking for things that their athletes do not understand. Why not save yourself the frustration and your athlete the confusion by setting them up for success?
Far too often I feel like coach to athlete interactions go like this….
The use of simple tools and some clever thinking can be the difference between a confused athlete and a masterful one. Rather than attempting to explain a posture to an athlete that has no context we should strive to provide kinesthetic cues that will provide tactile feedback to the athlete.
The following techniques are exceedingly simple and are not original what so ever. However, I find may coaches will not use cues like this either out of laziness or haste. What’s ironic is when you use cues like this you actually end up having to work less and personally when I coach I like to do as little work as possible.
Stick On The Back: Spinal Alignment
At our gym it is policy to use a dowel rod when coaching any movement where we wish to see static spinal alignment. While sometimes it may be desirable to train out of “neutral” positioning often our job as coaches is to cue athletes into this position. While in prone, quadruped or when hinging the PVC pipe can be a very effective too to maintain alignment between the head, thoracic spine and sacrum.
Using Depth Markers: Squat, Single Leg Deadlift and Push-Up
“Cheat reps” are an epidemic in gyms worldwide. I’m pretty sure not a second goes by where some guy isn’t cutting his squats above parallel or doing ½ push-ups in hopes of squeezing out a few extra reps. Personally, as a coach I am sick of demanding more depth so I use tools to do it for me. Set a target and demand they reach it..every..single…rep.
Balancing Cones and Rollers: Controlling The Hips During Crawling
I once saw Jim Ferris write on Facebook that “The Bear crawl is the new box jump” in reference to how commonly we see the drill bastardized on YouTube. He’s right and I want to put an end to that. Bear Crawls are about control, specifically at the spine and pelvis. When initially teaching the drill, requiring the athlete to balance an object on their back will reel them in without you having to say a single word. In this example I use a mini cone with a tennis ball on top but I have also used water bottles, rollers and airex pads.
Limiting Range Of Motion: Rollouts and Bodysaws
While teaching anti-extension stability drills to beginners the biggest thing they lack is eccentric control. Often that is the reason we program the exercise in the first place. I’ve found that with anti-extension drills like rollouts and bodysaws the athlete will often fault by moving beyond the range in which they have control. These athletes usually have poor proprioception and simply cannot put the breaks on. This can be easily fixed by blocking their forward progress with an object like a bench or wall. Doing this also makes their excursion quantifiable so that it is easy to signify progress by moving them further away form the object.
Blocking The Knee: Controlling Anterior Knee Movement
Let’s end the debate before it even starts. It’s ok for the knee to progress forward of the ankle during lunging and squatting. In fact, I would argue that it’s desirable. Positive shin angles happen every single time we take a step. However, uncontrolled anterior shear at the knee is definitely not desirable. It’s common for athletes with weak hips to depend on an overly knee dominant strategy when lunging and squatting causing them to dump way out over their forefoot. Rather than continuing to ask them to “sit back” I simply block their forward progress using a bench. This is a technique I learned as an intern at MBSC and is definitely a Mike Boyle favorite.
Squeezing The Tennis Ball: Cueing Hip Flexion
I believe this drill is also an MBSC original. When cueing single leg hip lift it’s beneficial demand reciprocal hip activity, cueing the athlete to actively flex the opposing hip. Doing this, reduces the likelihood of lumbar extension and allows for an opportunity for psoas activation, something most people need dearly. Rather than cueing the athlete to blindly drive the knee up, require them to squeeze a ball in their hip crease.
Wicket Drill: Coaching Front Side Sprint Mechanics
The “wicket drill” is classic track drill used to improve frontside sprint mechanics. At top speed many athletes will overstride, causing them to brake. Introducing the hurdles requires the athlete to drive the knee higher and in doing so gets them to strike the ground beneath their center of mass rather than in front of it. The athlete will sprint over small hurdles that are placed roughly 1.5- to 2 meters apart depending on the size, speed and skill level of the athlete. Rather than continually yelling “knees up” up at an athlete the more effective approach would be to incorporate a self limiting drill like wicket sprints.
All of these these cues fix small, mindless mistakes. A little more depth on a push-up, a slightly better spinal position on a deadlift or a higher knee drive on a sprint. Again, none of these cues are earth shattering but the summation of all these simple, seemingly trivial details will have have a monumental impact on your athlete. In every situation, create conditions that demand engagement from the athlete and require you as the coach to do less.
“Great coaches aim to make themselves obsolete.”
Thanks for reading.
Kevin Carr is a strength and conditioning coach at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning in Boston, Massachusetts as well as a co-founder of Movement As Medicine and Certified Functional Strength Coach.
Kevin has amassed a wealth of experience in the field of sports performance and massage therapy. He has worked with everyone from US Olympians and professionals looking for a competitive edge to Average Joes looking to shed some pounds and get healthier.
Whether working as a coach or therapist, Kevin’s goal is to help you move better so that you can excel at the activities that make you happy. Kevin can be contacted at Kevin@Movement-As-Medicine.com