Attentional Focus & Cuing

Why Instructions Don’t Get Through to Your Clients—and How to Fix It.

by Nick Winkelman, MS on Jan 01, 2017

Nod if these scenarios seem familiar:

  • You give your client well-articulated instructions and get a blank stare followed by, “So what do you want me to do?”

  • You give your client a series of cues, but the client’s movements actually get worse because your point is misunderstood.
  • You have a successful training session one week where the client really seems to click with everything you are saying, but the next week it is as though your coaching had dissolved and the client is right back to those inefficient movements.

How do we keep this from happening? The answer lies in learning to optimize what we say and what our clients hear. Coaches and trainers are really educators specializing in human movement, so it’s central to our success—and that of our clients—to build a fluid understanding of how humans learn to move and how we can influence their learning. 


For starters, we have to develop a strong grasp of the language of movement and the right way to deliver instructions in the proper sequence. But that’s not enough. We also need to optimize our instructions in order to overcome the brain’s tendency to foul up a movement if a client’s attention gets focused on the wrong things. 


Proper cuing and attentional focus can give your lessons more staying power. This article shows you how to make it happen. 


Why Attentional Focus and Cuing Are So Important

If you’re not getting through to clients, it’s tempting to conclude that they are simply not paying attention. Yet extensive research on training and coaching suggests another possibility—you may not be using the right cues to optimize your clients’ attentional focus. Studies tell us the right kind of attentional focus helps people improve, while the wrong kind can impede progress. 


Attentional focus plays a major role in motor learning—the process of improving abilities through repeated practice—for a broad spectrum of populations, environments and movement skills (Wulf 2012). We can define attentional focus as a conscious effort to focus attention through explicit thoughts in order to execute a task with superior performance. 


Attentional-focus cues can be either internal (directed toward the body) or external (targeting something beyond the body) (Wulf, Hoss & Prinz 1998). Two examples:


  • Internal cue: A trainer guiding a client through the upward portion of a bench press says, “Focus on extending your arms and squeezing your chest.”
  • External cue: The trainer tells the client, “Focus on explosively pushing the bar to the ceiling.”

The great news for trainers and coaches is that extensive studies have found that externally focused cues are more effective than internal cues. By combining your understanding of the language of movement with properly executed, externally directed cues, you can help clients to make lasting changes in the way they move. 


The Science of Attentional Focus

In 1998, Wulf, Hoss & Prinz were the first researchers to address attentional focus, using a series of balance tasks. Their first study involved three groups of participants and a ski simulator. Internally focused participants were instructed to “exert force on the outer foot,” while the externally focused group was told to “exert force on the outer wheels” of the simulator. The control group received no explicit instruction. The results showed that the externally focused group had superior performance and learning compared with the other two groups. 


Since then, extensive research has validated the effectiveness of external focus across a spectrum of performance qualities, including balance and postural control, jumping, speed, agility, strength and several sport-specific skills (Wulf, Hoss & Prinz 1998; Wulf et al. 2003; Porter et al. 2010a; Porter et al. 2010b; Wulf et al. 2007; Ille et al. 2013; Marchant 2011; Wulf 2012). 


Why External Focus Works Better

The constrained-action hypothesis has been proposed as a theoretical explanation of why external focus can be beneficial, while internal focus can be detrimental. Wulf, McNevin & Shea (2001), developers of the hypothesis, posited that mentally focusing on our body movements “constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control processes that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement.” In contrast, they suggested, if we focus on an external movement goal, the “motor system [can] naturally self-organize, unconstrained by the interference caused by conscious control attempts.” 


To test the efficacy of the constrained-action hypothesis, Wulf, McNevin & Shea (2001) examined how people reacted to a light probe during a simple balance task under internal- and external-focus conditions. They found that people who focused attention externally had significantly faster reaction times, superior balance and higher frequency of low-amplitude movement (i.e., they were more responsive) than those who focused internally. These results support the concept that external focus allows for a more automatic expression of movement, while an internal focus seems to interrupt natural control mechanisms; this may be happening because an attempt at conscious control overloads working memory (Beilock & Carr 2001).


Furthermore, external focus explicitly points to the environment and the intent of the movement. This reduces uncertainty and allows clients to explore their movement until the intent and outcome are achieved. Conversely, internal focus requires clients to think about one aspect of the movement while remaining focused on the desired outcome. This puts greater load on working memory and disrupts the actual movement. 


External cues do the best job of sending a message that is short, meaningful and directed at the most important aspect of the movement. 


In summary, the evidence supporting the use of external-focus instructions for various aspects of strength and power development is robust. Not only do we need to select the right exercises, performed at the correct intensities and placed in the correct sequence, but we must place equal importance on the attentional focus we create through our instructions. Table 1 provides specific external-focus examples for some of the most popular strength and power movements.

The next section provides a framework to help you individualize external cues and strategically modify them over time. Clients will respond differently to the same cues based on factors discussed in the language-of-movement sidebar; this makes it vital to know how to purposefully modify cues to maximize their effectiveness.


Attentional Focus and Cuing Framework


Research identifies three key features of external cues: 


  • direction: telling the client which way to target a movement 

  • distance: telling the client how far to go

  • description: using active verbs and creating mental imagery through analogies


Going in the Right Direction


External cues will almost always tell the client which way the movement has to go. For example, take “driving the bar toward the ceiling” versus “driving the bar away from the ground.” While the message is the same, one cue guides “toward” while the other guides “away.” From my experience, not all clients process these terms in the same manner. If you ask clients whether they prefer to push toward or push away, you’ll probably see a balance of both. There is no direct research showing that one works better than the other, so either one (or both) can be used within an external cue.


Going the Distance


How far you guide a client’s attention can play a role in an exercise’s effectiveness. For example, asking someone to “push away from the ground” would be considered a close (or proximal) cue, whereas asking the person to “push toward the ceiling” would be a relatively far (or distal) cue. Research has found benefits in external cues that focus an individual distally (Porter, Anton & Wu 2012). This has been shown in jumping, balancing, and skills related to sports like golf (Porter et al. 2013; McNevin, Shea & Wulf 2003; Bell & Hardy 2009.)

Some research suggests that the benefit of distance may depend on the experience level of the client—that is, novice vs. expert (Wulf et al. 2000). When you are initially teaching a skill, therefore, it may be beneficial to use environmental reference points that are close to the body—or example, focusing on the movement of the equipment. This allows a client to make a connection between the movement and the direct impact on the environment. 


Conversely, as the client gains expertise, and performance factors like speed become important, then it may be appropriate to increase the distance of the focus (e.g., focusing on moving the implement toward a point in space, like the ceiling). Overall, distance is almost always included in an external cue, so it is important to consider how it affects the movement outcome.


Giving a Description

Description means the specific language you use to guide clients through the movement. The verbs you use are critical in describing how the movement should be performed (explode, drive, push, snap, accelerate, etc.). 


Specific analogies also play a descriptive role (think: “Sprint with a slight lean, as if you were in a wind tunnel” or “Accelerate off the line, like a jet taking off.”) Generally speaking, active verbs and analogies inform the pace and technical execution of the movement pattern.

When considering language, it is also important to select words that evoke a specific image rather than a general concept (Roche 2001). For example, consider the following word pairings: 


  • sweat—work

  • hand—help

  • dream—idea

  • imagine—think

In each of these pairings, one word evokes a more distinct image than the other. This is important, because we are much better at recalling visual memories than we are at recalling words, numbers and concepts. Therefore, external cues that use active verbs, analogies and/or words that evoke images will be significantly more memorable and easier for clients to apply.


You should always consider manipulating direction, distance and description to find the best external cues for the specific movements you are teaching. This framework provides a systematic approach to tailoring instruction, feedback and cues to the client in front of you. Over time, you can build lists of cues for all the primary movements in your programming. Moreover, you may find that certain cues are better for novices, while others work better for advanced clients. 


Remember, there is no perfect cue—there is only the right cue for the client you are working with. Figure 1 provides an overview of the framework for external cuing.


Optimizing the Client Experience

While we like to think of coaching and teaching as art forms, there is a distinct science to communicating for optimized motor learning. Communication starts by engaging clients in a way that ensures they are listening. Once we have their attention, we want to provide instructions, feedback or cues that focus the clients externally rather than internally. Further, we want to account for any physical limitations across position, pattern and power that could be limiting the effectiveness of our coaching. Finally, we need to consider how to individualize external cues by manipulating direction, distance and description. By systematically integrating these factors, we can develop evidenced-based platforms that enable us to express the art of coaching. 


SIDEBAR: Understanding the Language of Movement

Getting instructions to really sink in with clients requires an understanding of the most effective means of communicating movement. At its most basic, this communication has three components:

  • instructions on how to perform a movement
  • feedback on how to refine the movement
  • short cues that remind clients about key aspects of the movement pattern

For all of these to work, clients have to be paying attention to what you’re saying. It’s vital that they are looking at you and intently listening before you convey important information. A simple way to facilitate this is to call your clients by their first names, because we are primed since birth to respond to our name. As every mom knows, we pay more attention when we are called by name.

SIDEBAR: Producing More Force

Strength training often focuses on increasing force production. Research has shown that an external focus of attention leads to higher levels of maximal force than either an internal focus or a control condition with no explicit focus. Marchant, Greig & Scott (2009) found that focusing externally on the movement of the curl bar resulted in significantly higher peak torque (102.10 ± 2.42% MVC) than focusing internally on arm muscle activation (95.33 ± 2.08% MVC). External focus also resulted in significantly lower EMG compared with internal focus. This finding further supports the idea that an external focus boosts neuromuscular efficiency while improving force-specific performance outcomes, compared with an internal focus.

SIDEBAR: Keeping Attention in Relevant Context

Once you have your clients’ full attention, their brains start processing the information you are sharing.

The quantity of information presented affects clients’ ability to apply it. Researchers have shown that our attentional capacity—along with how much we can remember in the short term—is limited (Miller 1956). Information overload can blind clients to the true focus of your message. Hence, it is vital to keep your instructions, feedback and cues concise and focused on the most important aspects of the movement being taught (i.e., one or two major focus points).

Also, the context and quality of the information are critical to the clients’ understanding. Specifically, if clients receive new information that is not contextualized to something they already know, they have a hard time remembering and applying what they’ve been told. For example, researchers examining how information is processed, and the role of memory, now suggest the following (Williams et al. 2008):

“It is not simply the case that the longer a piece of information stays in short-term memory, then the more likely it is to go into long-term memory. Instead, the more significant a stimulus or event is, then the greater likelihood it is retained in long-term memory.”

This means if you want clients to truly remember the facts about a movement, they must be able to understand those facts within the context of something that seems meaningful and important. This explains why clients can make progress in a movement while you are coaching them, but can fail to retain or integrate the movement in future sessions.

The key here is to consider each client’s interests, age and generation, and his overall cultural or regional background, as this information represents the basis for how the client sees and understands the world around him. For example, picture a trainer trying to teach a client how to get better hip extension during the finish of a kettlebell swing. The trainer who knows the client is from Texas and grew up riding bulls might tell him, “Focus on showing your belt-buckle as you swing the kettlebell at the wall,” rather than saying, “Extend your hips as you swing the kettlebell forward.” While both examples carry the same message, the first example is likely more interesting and relatable for that particular client.

The best instructions, feedback and cues account for clients’ primary movement errors. For example, trying to cue a change in leg action while a client is running will not accomplish much if poor posture is the true cause of the running error. You must have a distinct understanding of how to prioritize visible movement errors, so that your cues address the most critical aspect of the movement.

SIDEBAR: Increasing Jump Stats

Wulf and colleagues (2007) were the first to look at the effects of attentional focus on vertical-jump performance. Their first experiment showed that external focus of attention resulted in significantly higher jump heights than either an internal focus or a neutral control condition. Similarly, a follow-up experiment using the same protocol showed that individuals not only jump higher but also have a greater vertical displacement of their center of mass when using an external vs. internal focus of attention.

Research evaluating the effects of attentional focus on horizontal jumping has had similar results. Porter and colleagues (2010a) found that by asking individuals to focus on “jumping as far past the start line as possible” (external) vs. “extending your knees as rapidly as possible” (internal) resulted in superior jumping distances in the standing long-jump. Similarly, Porter, Anton & Wu (2012) found that both near and far external focuses resulted in significantly farther horizontal-jump distances than a control condition in which participants were told to “jump to the best of their ability.” Further analysis showed that the “external far” condition resulted in significantly better performance than the “external near” condition.

Two mechanisms may explain the difference between near and far external-focus conditions. First, when the focus distance increases, there is a more definitive task end-point. The greater distance creates further separation between the movement process and outcome, which may lead to additional motor system optimization. Second, there may be a difference in the way an individual processes “toward a point in space” (i.e., external far) vs. “away from a point in space” (i.e., external near). (See “Going the Distance” section in the main article for more on cuing distance). Collectively, these two explanations may provide insights into why increasing the distance of an external focus resulted in superior performance.

SIDEBAR: External Cues In Action: Strength and Power

Trainers and coaches know the importance of strength and power development. Traditionally, we try to identify optimum doses (reps and sets) and periodization schemes rather than consider the types of cues we are using. However, we now know that attentional focus can influence movement velocity, movement force, vertical-jump and horizontal-jump characteristics, just as you would expect programming variables to affect such things (Vance et al. 2004; Marchant, Greig & Scott 2009; Wulf & Dufek 2009; Porter et al. 2010a).

The first paper to look at the effects of attentional focus on a strength-based exercise evaluated integrated electromyography (iEMG) and movement velocity during a biceps curl (Vance et al. 2004). Results showed that directing an external focus on the curl bar produced significantly higher angular velocity at the elbow joint and lower total iEMG in the biceps and triceps than an internal focus on the biceps muscles.

Focusing on the implement being moved—rather than the process underpinning that movement—frees the motor system to organize in a way that maximizes efficiency (muscle recruitment) and performance (movement velocity). Conversely, focusing on the “muscles” involved in the desired movement forces the motor system to explicitly manage local muscle performance rather than global interand intra-muscular coordination.

In conclusion, internal cuing causes a reduction in neuromuscular efficiency through increased muscle co-contraction and reduced movement velocity. This regression in performance can be avoided through the task-relevant application of external cuing during strength-based exercises.