How Verbal Instructions Can Make You A Better Athlete
Coaches use verbal instruction predominantly to inform an athlete on what needs to be achieved on the next rep or movement and technical changes that need to be addressed to improve performance. A good coach can use these verbal instructions during practice and in competitive situations and create a focus for the athlete, aiming towards a desired outcome. If the instructions are not clear to the athlete, complicated or inaccurate, these instructions are open to interpretation and can result in an undesired outcome like missing a kick, missing a lift or worse, physical injury.
This sport psychology also has its uses in the gym and can help you or your athletes to perform tasks autonomously rather than having to think about every minute detail of the task.
During a task, your attention can be directed in one of three ways;
- When you use an internal focus of attention you are thinking of something within your body, often a muscle or a part of the body.
- When you use an external focus of attention you are thinking of the outcome of the movement rather than the movement its self.
- When your attention is neither internal nor external during the task at hand. You could be thinking about something completely irrelevant.
How often do you hear someone in the gym say; “tense your abs”, “squeeze your glutes” or “feel that in your chest?” These types of cues direct the athlete’s attention internally and can actually inhibit performance. Unless the athlete knows exactly what the coach/personal trainer means and can create these small changes, these internal instructions can become confusing and jeopardize performance of the task.
Imagine that you are in the Olympic Javelin final and your coach says “think about flicking your wrist when you throw”, instead of thinking about the timing, trajectory or flight you would have been distracted from the outcome of the task because you are focused on flicking your wrist. (Forgive me, I’m not a throws coach, this is just an example.)
I’ll give another example that might relate to a few more of our readers; you are performing a back squat in the gym and your coach tells you to engage your quads and push your knees forward as you rise from the squat. I hear this a lot when the athlete’s hips rise early in the ascent. Again this is an internal cue and causes the athlete to think directly about what their body is doing. Instead an external cue might be “imagine there is a piece of string connected to the bar and somebody is pulling you straight up”. This alternative cue directs the athlete’s attention to the task, to stand straight up. To do this, they may have needed to engage their quads and push their knees forward, however the athlete didn’t have to think about those instructions directly.
Internal cues can have their uses and positioning for movements may require an athlete to think about what their limbs are doing or what is actually happening during the movements. But! The majority of the time, these small cues are used to influence the outcome and can be avoided.
So whether you are an athlete or just a regular gym goer’, the next time you are performing a lift or a movement in the gym, just take a second and have a think about where you are going to focus your attention. Try and think about the outcome of the task and what you are trying to achieve rather than what is required to perform the task its self.
If you are a coach, I employ you to think about the cues that you are using during your coaching, are you sending the athletes focus towards them self or towards the outcome? If you are using internal cues, take a step back and think about the outcome these cues are designed to accomplish and create some alternative cues, which direct an external focus of attention.