Special Delivery: Choose Your Cues Carefully

trainer and trainee

Studies into coaching effectiveness, and likewise personal training success, continually indicate that everything we say and do has a direct impact on an athlete’s performance. Moreover, how we deliver exercise technique cues can be equally as impactful as the words we use. Our manner of speaking, word choices, temperament, voice inflection, and even eye contact can transform a simple suggestion into a leap forward or a major performance regression.

Clients seek out trainers for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they realize the value of professional guidance in order to achieve their goals. As such, we possess the ability to be enormously influential. This dynamic has tremendous payoff for both parties involved; but in the case of training a teen or a budding collegiate athlete, we may unwittingly be walking a tightrope.

If you were to ask a random group of adults to recall something of significance that occurred in one of their elementary school classrooms, most will be unable to conjure up a memorable moment. However, if we were to inquire about a sports-related memory, we will more than likely be regaled with stories about a game winning hit or a missed free throw that, years later, can still elicit powerful emotions. Sadly, very often it is a memory not about a specific feat of athleticism, or the lack thereof, but rather the words of a trainer delivered after the game. Positive or negative, such moments can have a powerful effect on the way young athletes come to view themselves as they move toward adulthood.

While parents often have the best interests of their offspring at heart, and hiring a qualified trainer falls well within that category, it is easy for trainers to get caught up in the message of subtle pressure emanating from the parents. While professional sports endeavors are largely about entertainment for fans, personal training and athletic coaching are about the processes of education, human development, and the fostering of self-esteem. Parents often lose sight of the difference! Our words therefore become powerful tools of our trade, and must be given as much thought as the exercises themselves.

Jim Thompson, a teacher who previously directed the Public Management Program at Stanford Business School, developed a strategy to assist coaches and trainers in cultivating the best in every athlete. He coined the term “ELM Tree of Mastery” to help coaches and trainers remember that the most valuable feedback for encouraging athletes to develop their potential is neither praise for good performance nor criticism for bad performance. What works best is helping them understand that they control the three key variables of success: the level of Effort put forth, the ability to Learn from experiences, and the manner in which they respond to Mistakes.

trainer and traineeWhen training a client for whom resistance training is a fairly new endeavor, positive and encouraging feedback is always helpful. My personal goal is for every client to walk away from a training session feeling empowered and excited to return to the gym. Empowerment and self-efficacy for an adult is just as important for success in the gym as self-esteem is for a younger athlete, who may be subject to peer pressure as a member of a competitive sports team. However, such feedback does not tell the entire story.

If a client is performing dumbbell bicep curls, and fails to fully extend his arm at the end of each repetition, a trainer can offset this potentially bad habit in a variety of ways. One of the best tried-and-true methods is sometimes referred to as a “sandwich technique”. First, compliment the client on some aspect of the exercise that is being executed correctly. Secondly, for the sandwich filling, point out how much more could be derived from his work effort by simply completing full range of motion with each eccentric portion of the exercise. End the “sandwich” with the last layer, another positive comment such as, “I’ll bet you are really feeling that bicep curl now, right? Great job!” Sure, it might have been easier and faster to just tell the client how to execute the move correctly; however, by starting the conversation on a positive note, the client is much more likely to open his mind, absorb the directions being given, and lastly, really want to do the curl correctly! The end result is the same, but the positive teachable moment will not be forgotten. There is that ELM tree in motion!

Eye contact is another subtle yet powerful tool in a trainer/coach’s bag of tricks. Athletes, whether they are teens or adults, will perform optimally during a training session if they believe you are focusing on them and not on your surroundings. The unspoken message is, ‘Why should I try harder, to improve myself or to please you, if you are playing on your phone instead of watching my form?” By giving our client the undivided attention he deserves, he is more apt to want to improve and will be more open to receiving your feedback.

Thought and memory are controlled by our central nervous system. Some nerves are specialized for sight, smell, touch, temperature, or pain; but the entire nervous system coordinates bodily responses to the internal and external environments. In the case of any physical endeavor, a combination of reactions occurs. Our muscles do not function unless directed to do so by the brain. Consequently, athletes do not perform physical skills in isolation, without the help of mental skills. Trainers and coaches, therefore, must approach sports instruction and guidance from a “holistic” perspective. By integrating the idea of “thinking with the muscles”, trainers can facilitate higher levels of performance.

No coach would dare to dispute the fact that an athlete’s mental state has a great deal to do with his physical performance. Fear, worry, and anxiety can cause a sub-par performance. By taking the time to consider how we might optimally prepare the “whole” person, during practices and right before a competitive event, we can strengthen resolve as we strengthen muscles. For a qualified personal trainer, this comes down to learning how to incorporate his own physical and mental skills and strategies before working with the client or athlete. Determining the proper amount of feedback at the pivotal moment of training, for example, and knowing how much emphasis to place on key cues without overly disrupting the client’s train of thought or deep concentration, can be the difference between a positive attitude and willingness to return to the gym, versus feeling completely deflated, overwhelmed, and ultimately defeated.

Eric Bach, personal trainer and creator of Bach Performance, suggests prompting clients to speak up during a workout. According to Bach, “I ask my clients to name muscles, categorize the movement, and repeat back why we are doing an exercise. My goal is to give them the knowledge and ability to take control of their health, wellness and performance — and understand why things are done.” By engaging the client in aspects of his training other than his physical ability, trainers can tap into an entirely different arena, thereby broadening the client’s vision of why his relationship with you is important, not only to his athleticism but to you as his mentor. Very often clients don’t necessarily care how much you know, but surely want to know how much you care! Give them the full treatment: proper cues, suitable feedback, eye contact, and sincerity in your words and voice. The dynamic of mutual satisfaction will transcend the session and carry both of you through a successful training relationship!


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  1. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/20/the-power-of-positive-coaching/?_r=0
  2. http://www.athletics-training.com/articles/sports-psychology.html
  3. http://dailyburn.com/life/fitness/expert-personal-training-tips/
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-and-sensibility/201311/it-s-not-what-you-say-it-s-how-you-say-it
  5. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/its-not-what-you-say-but-how-you-say-it/
  6. http://www.stack.com/a/best-coaching-cues
  7. http://www.athleteassessments.com/delivering-athlete-feedback/


Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!
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