The Art of Cueing and Motor Learning

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While some movement practices involve heavy doses of verbal cueing, self-thought, self-observation, and self-”correction,” there are times, when action and movement skill may need to be executed absent of thought.

Pilates can sometimes be wrought with incessant verbal cueing. While in the beginning, we are taught to match specific cues to movement, there can be a tendency to over apply these cues and at times this may disrupt motor learning processes.

I recall stepping into one of my first pilates studios for observation hours. After class, several students stayed behind, appearing somewhat dazed and confused, commented "Man...there's so much to think about!" A sure sign of overcueing and student overwhelm. It is recommended after all, that some well known heavy concentrators of exercise prescriptions, such as TVA (transversus abdominus muscle) activation, be limited to 10 minutes MAX.

Although words will be involved in teaching sessions, some aspects to think about involve observation and adjustment according to student/client response. Are we taking a look at clients and adjusting the pace and type of cueing or simply spouting out a bunch of cues to hear ourselves speak? Are we allowing clients to feel and process?

Here are the 4 stages of the Motor Learning Cycle:  

Stage 1: unconscious incompetant 

Stage 2: conscious incompetent  

Stage 3: conscious competent  

Stage 4: unconcious competent 


As you can see, eventually, you want your athletes to reach Stage 4: unconscious competent. In this stage, there will be less cueing, significantly less. That is, unless your clients just love it. There are cases where individuals do love to hear metaphors to see how ideas may translate into the body. Some of these aspects can be captured in think/feel/observe movement practices such as Feldenkrais or Alexander Technique. This is wonderful, however, over time, it is beneficial for one to eventually be able to perform some of the practiced movements free of verbal instruction. For some practices such as sports athletes who need to react quickly, albiet long durations of think/feel/observe may be helpful at times, the athlete’s actual movement skill (reactivity/agility/power), should be a large aspect of this athlete’s overall training time. While there may be a place for “stop and think” practices, the sucess of an athlete overall, may involve the proper dose and application of such practices.


In W. Timonthy Gallwey's, enlightening book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Gallwey makes a distinction between what he calls Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the thinking and rationalizing mind, while Self 2 is the non-thinking mind. Self 2 may operate a bit more holistically, may (re)act very fast, and may be instinctive. Individuals may describe athletes as "being in the zone," or it seeming as if he/she has "found his/her rhythmn." In such cases, we may say that Self 2 is operating without so much direct input (or disruption) from Self 1.  

Of course, the mind/body, conscious/subscious, superego/ego/id, idea is not an entirely new idea at all. But it may be noteworthy to take a look at such aspects when thinking about how we train others, and how we as movers feel and execute movement.  

Timothy plays with the idea of working almost directly with Self 2, while Self 1 is in the background. In thinking about tools and strategies to talk to Self 2, we might explore things like imagery. Imagery can sometimes have a more system wide effect – encapuslating the nerverous, kinesthetic, motor, endocrine, etc.  This may bypass the need to cue every movement instance and the image may produce  whole body orchestration. In the article How Imagery Changes the Way We Move, Christi Idavoy, mentions that "visualizing the movement within the mind’s eye....primes neural pathways and reprograms [muscular movement]" Of course, one aspect of imagery to take note of is that not everyone's emotional association with imagery is the same. Perhaps an image of white sandy beaches and palm trees may allow one person to dissipate tension in the body, while in another, may conjure up feelings of excessive heat, sunburn, and general dis-ease.  

Another aspect to explore in possibly working directly with Self 2, may involve offering a point of focus (to Self 2). In The Inner Game of Tennis, a client is coached to focus on the seams of the tennis ball during play hits, and not so much on the backswing arm technique. This, Timothy seems to observe, may allow the client to focus on the approaching subject, and allow the body to come into natural calculations without thinking about it a lot. In some instances, if the desired goal of the technique is reached, one might be called to notice the feeling of the body motion, and to simply replicate the feeling. This is, indeed, a different type of strategy than direct knowledge or information given to Self 1. From Learning Cycle theories, I may say that neither is correct or incorrect, but is circumstancial.  

With regards to offering a platform of focus for Self 2 to arrive into, it is important to make a distinction between forced focus vs. natural focus. From The Inner Game of Tennis:  


"Focus is not achieved by staring hard at something. It is not trying to force focus. Nor does it mean thinking hard about something. Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested. When this occurs the mind is drawn irrestiably towards the object or subject of interest. It is effortless and relaxed. Not tense and overly controlled. When watching the tennis ball, allow yourself to fall into focus. If your eyes are squinting or straining, you are trying too hard. If you find yourself chastizing yourself for loosing focus, then you may be overcontrolling. Let the ball attract your mind. And both it and your muscles will stay appropriately relaxed." 


Motor learning theories is an ever expanding field. While new information may always be born, we may still keep focus on the everyday instances in our practice, and know that at times, the individuals in our practice may neither always be a reflection of the research, nor always fit into what research may pronounce.   


To learn more about the art of cueing and coaching in general, we borrow a bit of knowledge from the Crossfit world. The community is wrought with fantastic resources regarding muscle physiology, mindset, building client relationships, etc.  Here is a fantastic article by coach Bergeron called The Deeper Side of Coaching, which speaks to the heart of what makes a great coach – a nice short read on being able to see aspects from the client point of view vs. your own.  Also, a great read for anyone who may be shopping for classes or coaches such that it gives great insight into what aspects one might look for in a coach. 




About the Author

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Ingrid Seid
Movement Artist and Educator
Certified Comprehensive Pilates Instructor
Founder Strength and Grace Movement