There is Value in Both Internal and External Cues When Teaching

A group of people playing volleyball Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Of the many things that, in retrospect, I wish I had done better in my career is giving more thought to how I provided feedback to players. I knew what behavior I wanted from a player or team, but I was uncertain about transmitting the information in the most impactful fashion. I’m better now because more information is available, and I have the time to absorb how to be a better teacher. Most club coaches know the techniques of the game. Still, they are challenged to put players into a practice environment and provide quality feedback that effectively transfers the coach’s knowledge to the players.

Feedback can take many forms; however, there are two general feedback methods. The first is internal cues which bring attention/focus to a body part or segment. Your athlete will focus on what their body is doing. Internal cues direct an athlete’s attention toward a specific body movement.

An example of an internal cue might be a coach telling their athlete to drop their head and shoulders, keep their weight forward, and the head level on their spike approach. Consequently, the athlete will internally focus on their posture and weight distribution during the approach. At times, the focus is so consuming that the athlete loses track of other vital aspects of the skill.

The second feedback method is external cues which bring attention/focus to something in the environment. External cues direct an athlete’s attention toward the intended movement outcome. Staying with a spike approach as an example, the verbal cue might be, “I want you to crouch like a lion ready to attack.” The focus is no longer on a body part or weight distribution. The focus is now external.

Samantha Bricio – Crouching for the Attack

Both of these verbal cues describe the same action. One cue (internal) has the athlete focusing and analyzing their body actions. The other cue (external) has the athlete focusing outside of their body.

“Existing literature suggests that external cueing is the most effective cue to improve motor learning and performance in all populations (Winkelman et al., 2017; Benz et al., 2016; Wulf, 2013; Makaruk et al., 2014). For example, external cueing has been shown to enhance motor learning by increasing movement effectiveness and efficiency. While movement effectiveness “is associated with accuracy, consistency, and reliability in achieving the movement goal,” movement efficiency is “the investment of relatively little physical and mental effort” when successfully performing the movement (Wulf, 2013).

By comparison, internal cueing is not the most effective cueing to improve motor learning and performance (Winkelman et al., 2017; Benz et al., 2016; Makaruk et al., 2014; Wulf, 2013). Furthermore, it has been shown that this cueing may even hinder performance in certain situations (Halperin et al., 2017; Halperin and Williams et al., 2016).” Source

Although external cueing has shown significant effectiveness, does internal cueing have a place in your approach to feedback? Without a doubt, there is value in presenting a detailed explanation to some players. Two groups come to mind as wanting or needing this type of feedback. One group might be experienced and skilled players who need subtle but essential modifications to their techniques. The other group might be beginning players who need specific knowledge of basic concepts.

The next challenge is to develop your own external cueing vocabulary. Instead of describing a spiking armswing analytically, perhaps ask the players to “pull the arm back like you are pulling a bow back to shoot an arrow.” If you want the athlete to lift the knees when running, try “imagine you’re running through tall grass.” Or, when blocking and you want the blocker to tighten their core in the blocking motion, tell the blockers to “imagine you are about to get punched in the stomach” Lastly, an external target for the server might be “serve at the head of the passer.” These brief descriptive phrases will place the athlete’s focus outside their bodies and allow them to understand the desired behavior better. One rule with external cues is that they must be limited to a couple of words or phrases that the athlete can easily recall.

Awareness of internal and external cues is essential, but it is only half the battle. Since humans are different, no magical cue will be the panacea for all the issues confronting every individual on your team. The coach needs to discover what works for each player. How might a coach learn what works? By asking! You don’t ask them what they like best, internal or external cues. They will shoot you a weird look. But if your desire a faster spike approach, ask the players what word might describe that behavior using their lexicon. It might be “explosive” or “dynamic,” perhaps “powerful.” It doesn’t matter what the word is as long as it is meaningful to the athlete. You will begin to appreciate what types of words matter to them and put these words into your vault for future use.

Most coaches are more comfortable with internal cues. I encourage coaches to be bold and make a concerted effort to develop a library of external cues that will be meaningful to the learner, then observe results.