Last week, during my physical therapy session, my PT cued me: “Push through your heel.” I was doing a movement for shoulder-stability. Lying on my back, arm raised with a dumbbell overhead, I had to bring my leg over to the other side.
When I pushed through my heel, I pushed myself all the way over. “Oops, bad cue!” he said, laughing and apologetically.
What’s in a cue
A cue is an instructive statement to help improve performance. Things like “tuck your tailbone” or “press through your heels” are corrective instructions to help keep a student and/or athlete within a healthy range of motion for the movement they’re performing.
Cues come up in all varieties of coaching, whether it’s life coaching or Crossfit. In Western yoga, the cues can get pretty flowery, prompting calming coos from some and eye rolls from others.
When used well, they elicit an improvement in the motion. For someone performing a clean, “fast elbows” may help them to catch the bar in a more secure position as the weight gets heavier. In tree pose, “imagine your foot has roots” can help with stability.
Good cues, bad cues
The worst experiences with cues I’ve had have always had to do with language differences. Of course! Language isn’t just what you speak, but also your cultural perception of the world.
In Brazil, the word “quadril” means hips. Many times in Crossfit classes there, I would get so angry with the coach because he’d be giving me the same cue over and over: “Use your hips!” The cue meant nothing to me. How do I use my hips? My hips are part of the movement, of course I’m using them.
The cues that would’ve worked better for me? “Squeeze your glutes.” “Extend fully.” “Push through your heels.” But when I watched everyone around me responding to “use your hips,” it worked for them – I was the odd one out.
However, for a good coach or teacher, repetition is the enemy of meaningful communication. If one cue doesn’t work, it’s important to iterate and try another.
For the same movement (cleans), with a different coach, the result was completely different. He gave different cues, like “bring your weight into your heels,” “let your hips extend fully,” “keep the bar close to your body.” All of these helped me to see a larger picture (I was leaning forward in cleans, pulling early, and not using triple extension to power my movement) and gave me actionable points to work on.
During my yoga teacher training, we talked about cueing extensively. It was one of the most helpful units in the course.
We often, unconsciously, use cues that we’ve heard before from others. So we end up in these linguistic loops, mimicking our coaches and our coaches’ coaches.
While many of those cues are time-tested and are good foundations, it’s important to both a) have a variety of tools in your arsenal and b) develop your own voice. An exercise that has helped me with this is – when planning a class – to sit down and pinpoint movements where you might need to provide cues. Then, brainstorm.
Think of different verbs, metaphors, analogies, and so on to get the point across. In yoga, “spine tall” can mean different things for different people. You might also use “sit up straight,” “pretend you’re trying to touch the ceiling with the top of your head,” “proud chest,” and so on.
Sometimes we don’t know when we’re repeating ourselves. Cues can become less about directing others, and more about directing ourselves. If you always say the same cue when transitioning from a specific movement to another, it may be a way to help you stay organized in class, too.
Give yourself the tool to hear when that’s happening so you know how to improve upon it. I always come back to “And then we’ll…” as a crutch for my language when teaching. But I don’t hear it in the moment.
If I record myself speaking, however, I can hear just how many times I rely on that. From there, I know what’s my trigger, what was going on in my head (or not) at that moment, and areas where I can try something different without cluttering my mind while teaching.
Between recording yourself and brainstorming, you have a lot of fodder to try new things. Having data is helpful, but what’s more important is the act of implementing it.
In a class, try some new language out. Be mindful. If it doesn’t work, adapt. No cue is “one size fits all.” Instead, try something new. If it works for some students, great! For the others, try another option. It’s an ongoing process.
If you’re unsure of some ideas, test it out. With friends, family, or yourself. Whenever planning out a yoga class, I always tried it out on my own first to confirm how the poses and transitions felt it my body. The same goes for cueing.
Okay, I know I just said to find your own voice, but… I love to write down great cues from other teachers when I hear them. Something that resonates well for me may resonate for another person.
One of the best parts of being a teacher is learning from other teachers. Everyone has their own style, their own experience, and their own communities that they cater, too. It’s imperative that we don’t fall into comparing ourselves, but learning from each other so we can bring those lessons back to our own communities.
Good cues help your athletes and community grow. Without it, they may struggle to see the improvements and results they’re looking for. Progress, while not a pre-requisite, is a helpful feedback tool for students to remain engaged in their activity.
Being mindful of and sitting down to work on your tried-and-true cues can be a great way to ensure your students are responsive to your feedback and moving forward comfortably, safely, and in good alignment.