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The Art of Coaching—Making Corrections: Cues, Clues and Adjustments

11/23/2008 - 17:34

November/December 2008 / By Dave Nielsen. Coaching is both a science and an art. It requires the ability to assess and assist in the acquisition of skills paramount to success. Science provides insight and direction in regard to mechanics, physiology, psychology and learning. Art involves the effective application of this wealth of knowledge to individual athletes and/or the team. Communication is the bridge between coach and athlete. Not surprisingly, the art of communication is a key distinguishing characteristic that great coaches share.

I’m fascinated when I observe my colleagues implementing a variety of effective coaching techniques. Coaches make technical corrections, provide support, deliver psychological motivation and direct tactical strategies. Knowledge, skill and the ability to help the athletes make corrections are required to help mold athletes for success. A little “tweaking” may be all that’s required in taking an athlete from a nonqualifier to a medalist. In this regard, I’ve been intrigued by the use of cues, clues and adjustments as coaching tools coaches that can alter an athlete’s behavior, action or position. The following are my definitions, observations and suggestions in this aspect of coaching.

A cue is a direct instruction for a certain action, i.e., a specific directive. A cue is a focused directive aimed at a specific response or sequence within the immediate grasp of the athlete and can be simple or complex. A cue can manifest itself in a physical action, a sensory reaction, an auditory stimulus or a visual directive.

Here are some examples:

Physical: The coach wants the athlete to extend the right arm up very high overhead, so cues the athlete to “make your right shoulder touch your ear.”

Sensory: The coach wants the athlete to generate a more powerful, elastic response when doing a long swing from a pole or bar. The instruction might be to “feel the pressure in your chest before swinging your feet and hips upward.”

Auditory: An athlete is running hurdles and, even though he has no problem getting from hurdle to hurdle, is slow and plodding. The coach might use an auditory cue of “BOOM—ta—taah—taa—BOOM” (hurdle step, three steps between, hurdle step, and so on), so the athlete can replicate a better hurdling rhythm.

Visual: A dancer struggles to do a series of turns in a straight line across the stage. As a result, she is coached to spot a common reference point on each turn.

On the other hand, a clue—in a broad sense—is a metaphor or simile used to convey what is to be done using another recognizable descriptor. The clue can be physical or mental, though it’s usually a combination of the two. Drills are usually designed to imitate physical movement patterns of a particular activity or event and, therefore, can be considered a clue or a piece of the activity puzzle. A sprinter may spend a whole training session doing drills with a focus (cue) of keeping the foot cocked (dorsal flexed) to better activate the muscles of the calf, hamstrings and hip. The drills themselves aren’t sprinting, but physical modeling clues to enhance sprint performance. The athlete may be very good at doing drills, but must still make the connection to actual sprinting. Hopefully, the drill simply becomes an automatic motor response.

One paramount principle in the training process is to focus on a single cue at a time. Multiple cues in training are seldom effective because the athlete over-saturates and confusion sets in. The value of a good cue is its ability to create a focus on a single aspect of a movement sequence. Because of the sequential nature of movement, the beginning of the movement is critical and should garner the priority as the cuing target. Further, because of the focused nature, a good cue can be used effectively in competition.

In another example, a pole vault coach may try to get an athlete to capture the feeling of turning upside down while keeping pressure on her hands. The athlete may be cued to drop her shoulders. If the cue is unclear, the athlete will likely fail. However, imagine the athlete has a gymnastics background. The clue might be that the action of dropping the shoulders is similar to doing a “clear back hip circle to handstand” on the high bar or uneven bars. In this example, the athlete has performed a like skill (physical) and is now clued to make a connection (mental), bridging the gap for application when pole vaulting.

An example of a purely mental clue is a football coach telling his fumbling receiver to imagine that his hands and the ball are magnetic. He is to allow that magnetic attraction and go with it every time the ball is near. As the clue is internalized, the function of the clue may change from a teaching device to a warmup tool. At this stage, a clue can assist in the athlete’s preparation, physically and/or mentally, immediately prior to the onset of a primary training activity or competition.

Clues, by their nature, are hazy and subject to interpretation in execution. They are presented to develop or adjust motor patterns or to map an internal feeling for what is to occur. As a result, clues frequently need time to be “digested” and, like a fine wine, age with time. Although a great clue may pop up at any time, the best place for clues is away from competition.

Beyond cues and clues, an adjustment is a simple alteration of position or tactic. For example, a gymnastics coach may change the order of competition, the color of the uniform, or the difficulty of the routine. An athlete may be participating in an event that requires running up and jumping from a particular mark. If the athlete repeatedly misses the mark by taking off short, then it is likely that she will be told to start the run up further forward than previously.

Although adjustments involve little thought, they may carry with them psychological consequences that could have a negative impact on an athlete’s performance. For example, the pole vaulter’s coach may instruct him to change to a stiffer pole, but the athlete may be reluctant because of a bad experience on the pole. The result may be a failed attempt. In this situation, a simple adjustment could create a psychological quagmire! All aspects considered, adjustments are the simplest of tools for the athletes to receive and, therefore, the tool for the coach to consider first.

Each tool is best suited for a certain task. A tool may commonly be used successfully in combination or in a nonstandard fashion. Cues, clues and adjustments are, therefore, best suited for certain jobs. Training is the primary place to use both cues and clues to address technical changes. In this setting, specific movement goals are addressed so the athlete can go from a focused effort to an automatic response. At competition time, the athlete is most likely to perform at a peak level when not encumbered by concepts or directives that require thought-generating movement. Hopefully, by that time, the performance is automatic. If the athlete needs help during competition, the “adjustments drawer” of the toolbox is the best choice, as this tool requires little prolonged thought.

I observe practical applications of cues, clues and adjustments all the time in the pole vault. The uses of these tools range from incredibly insightful and effective to off-the-wall and even to potentially perilous. That said, some uses, though insightful, are ineffective, while some the off-the-wall uses are incredibly effective. Additionally, a cue that works great for one athlete may not work for another. As a practical example, I started using the cue, “hit your top hand in,” which told the pole vaulter to use the top hand to make the pole hit the back of the box hard in the pole plant process. This cue took on a life of its own, parented by various persons, among them Dr. Peter McGinnis. He reported that elite vaulters tend to keep a more firm top arm and that the cue of running over the toe of the takeoff foot had worked well. This “hit your top hand in” cue seemed to reinforce that by nature. The cue focuses on the top arm instead of the bottom arm and reinforces the notion of keeping the hands moving through the jump.

The result from my athletes has been that about half of them pick up the cue and find it effective at a practice. Twenty-five percent found it useful at a later time but not when initially introduced. For the rest of those given the cue, it didn’t make sense. In this situation, it’s best to forget about it—for a while at least. It’s unlikely that one cue will be a panacea. In regard to this cue specifically, for some it was effective in a given situation, but it had a short shelf life of usefulness, whereas others still use it as a focal base in difficult situations, such as changing poles, turning upside down, etc. Therefore, the practical application of these tools is a skill to be honed by both coaches and athletes.

All people use tools. The screwdriver, hammer, pliers, and duct tape may be instrumental in fixing many things. However, few would disagree that sometimes another tool is needed to fix a problem. The questions to be asked involve the size of the inventory, the choice of the best tool for the job, and the knowledge of its proper use. The table [in print publication] below is presented as an example of a systematic “tool” inventory system for the pole vault. This may serve as a template for a coach and athlete to fill in with tools relative to their philosophies and background. Regardless, striving to become the best requires a collective effort, with each individual, whether coach or athlete, contributing his or her tools to the toolbox. As a result, the toolbox will hold a limitless wealth of knowledge accessible to those who choose to use its contents.

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