The Dangers of Misinterpreting Coaching Cues


The Dangers of Misinterpreting Coaching Cues

Tom Morrison


I’m really excited about writing this one as it really brings home to me what “coaching” actually is. No matter how many books you read, no matter how many courses you do, you have to learn “how to people”.


One of the coolest phrases I was told once about coaching cues is  “everything you say is wrong, but some things are useful“… Seems very negative, but it does make you stop and think about what you say to people all of the time and how YOUR understanding of something might be different to someone else’s understanding.


As a coach, you’ll usually have years more experience than someone you’re teaching, probably during that time you’ve played about with different techniques and developed the way you talk about movements which makes sense to you… but maybe nobody else. It’s also possible to overlook over minor details that to you seem like common sense; “Why wouldn’t you put your hand there?? Are you stupid!?”. No single person picks up skills in the same way as another. We’re all sexy snowflakes on our own journey and all that — feel like I really want the wee face with sunglasses emoji here but I’m unsure if it’s possible to do that in blogs, Jenni, let me know via an editors note here: [yes you can Tom ?]


I want to throw some ideas out about certain problematic cues I’ve come across, but as always I want you to remember this is a principle you can learn from and apply to everything, this isn’t just an attack on these specific cues.


“Lift the toes!”


This one was STUPIDLY popular when I first started coaching, every online video for squatting had this cue. The idea was that if someone was lifting their heels in their squat – for whatever reason – tell them to lift their toes and then they won’t be able to!


Here is the problem though, what if that person now thinks they have to lift their toes every time they squat? They’re actually sitting back too far and will not get the correct muscle activation to to keep their knees in a good position, and rather than creating torque at the hips for strength they will just be grinding at the joint. Effectively this “fix” has just created an even worse dysfunctional movement pattern which appears to be “ok”.  Unless  this person is being privately coached or in a small group with an eagle-eyed coach, this won’t be picked up on.


Ok, so I can’t say lift the toes, what can I say!?


Well, first off an issue like rocking onto the toes can be caused by various different reasons. Before offering a “fix all” cue, make sure have a good warm up planned that will assess everyone’s range of motion, then you will have a much better idea of their flexibility limitations.


My personal preferred cue during the squat is “Grab the ground with your toes” – completely the opposite to the standard advice, but I find this creates better muscle engagement for a stronger squat. Now, I’m not telling you to start using this cue instead, more important than repeating things you read on the internet is to actually ask your client: “Do you feel the difference in your hips when you  [insert cue you tried here] ?”. Does it feel better? Worse? Stronger? Weaker?


Ultimately you want to get people to naturally use their hips and core in the right way, knowing what feels right and wrong themselves. This breeds the potential for not only safer training but STRONGER people with better lifts. Keep in mind, what works for one person will certainly not work for everyone, so it is up to you as a coach to be ruthless until you find something that helps each individual work it out for themselves, which is always better. Sometimes, asking someone a question is enough to make them realise for themselves what needs to change.


“Keep your chest up!”


Keep your chest up! Makes your back straight! Right!?




Here’s the thing – many people have TERRIBLE mobility in their spine, I was one of them. Often what happens is that a clump of vertebrae get locked up, then one single vertebrae moves like crazy to compensate – it’s almost too mobile – then there’s another clump of locked up vertebrae on the other side. Generally this overly mobile point is where you’ll see pain or injury coming from. If someone has bad mobility in their spine and you tell them to keep their chest up, they will do that by hinging at that one point of their spine – thus compressing it just before they lift. If you put that in a heavy deadlift setting, you are effectively creating the perfect recipe for a bulging disc to happen. Might take months, might take years but I’d rather not see it happen at all.


Even more so than the squat, there is no quick “use this cue instead” – you have to teach the person how to differentiate between moving from their spine, moving from their shoulders and maintaining a neutral position with correct intra abdominal pressure. Once someone gets the hang of this it is crazy the difference that they notice with their entire body. Think back to a time when you first started training and someone said to you “keep your belly tight!!” …like.. what does that even mean?  Once someone understands how to brace it makes sense, but I constantly find that the concept of ‘bracing’ and how to brace is not taught well enough, nor is it ever worked on – it is something you can practice every day, it is a massive focus within my Movement and Mobility seminars.



There are loads of things to take into account when it comes to how people interpret your cues, even things like “look forward!“: what if you want them to look forward with their eyes, while keeping their head down? But they take it as lifting their head up and cranking their neck? Remember, I’m not just being facetious, I am trying to provoke a thought process with you; always review about how you think about certain things and never be afraid to ask questions, as a coach or as a client. The best things I have ever learned/realised have came from me not knowing how to answer someone, gradually it happens less and less but that interaction with real, unique people is something you will never learn on a course. To grow as a coach, you need to really observe how people listen to instructions and be honest: could you have said less? Should you have said more? Or can you get them to figure out what you want them to do by asking questions?


Always remember there is no such thing as right and wrong, only different levels of understanding and how an individual interprets something! If you’re training it’s up to you to ask questions, if you’re coaching it’s up to you to put yourself in the shoes of the people you are interacting with to make your words as relatable as possible.

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2 Responses

  1. Can personally relate to pretty much this entire article, though I teach yoga, but same sort of problems. I think there’s a nice sort of parallel in that when you teach people you are trying to get them to relate to their bodies, i.e. by learning for themselves or figuring out for themselves how to adjust or change the way that they do things. And in the same way, when we teach we are trying to relate to them.
    So in the same way we get our students or clients to change the way they do things for better performance, so do we too as teachers need to change our instructions or what we teach for better performance (as a coach or teacher).

    anyway, enjoyed reading your article.



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