Human Performance, Performance | Jul 28, 2020
Nick Winkelman of the IRFU on the art of science of teaching movement to athletes.

Nick Winkelman was working at the 2009 NFL Combine in Indianapolis when he first acknowledged a problem when it came to teaching movement to athletes. 

By John Portch

Prior to the Combine, he had been working with aspiring players at the NFL’s eight-week Combine Development Program at EXOS in Phoenix, Arizona, where he served as Director of Training Systems and Education at the time. 

“I had the players’ data, so I knew how fast they could run and I had the video,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “I knew the quality of movement we had achieved, so I knew how fast they were and what they looked like when they came in. 

“Of course, they’re all running faster across their 40-yard dash and jumping higher for vertical jump and broad jump but, in many instances, they weren’t performing as well as in Phoenix. This bothered me to no end.” 

Winkelman’s dissatisfaction ultimately planted the seed for his new book The Language of Coaching: The Art and Science of Teaching Movement, which examines how instruction, feedback, and cueing can significantly affect training outcomes while challenging the reader with attentional and thought experiments that he hopes will cause coaches to modify their coaching practices. 

Back in 2009, Winkelman was the one who needed to change. “The biggest thing I noticed,” he continues, “is a lot of the movement quality, a lot of the improvements in coordination that I thought had been achieved seemed to dissolve. They’d almost reverted to type.” 

These athletes’ focus and ability to absorb detailed information, and therefore the quality of their movement, was dependent upon Winkelman’s presence. “I was the one who was constantly reminding them, feeding them over and over again the cues – the wrong cues – and when I cut that connection to me I cut their memory of the movement changes we made and they just reverted back to what they knew.” 

Winkelman, who currently serves as Head of Athletic Performance & Science at the Irish Rugby Football Union, addresses this performance gaps/through the analogy of the car versus the driver. “I’d upgraded the car but I had not optimised the tools for the driver,” he observes. The Language of Coaching is laced with similar visuals – he even dedicates a chapter to the topic of analogies – which soften the science and enable Winkelman to state his case clearly and convincingly.  

“Once I’d started to say less but improve the quality of what I did say, not only were we seeing physical changes – the car, the engine, in this analogy – we were seeing the coordination changes stick, which is difficult to do with someone who has been running a certain way for a long period of time.” 

Difficult but not impossible. The Leaders Performance Institute sat down with Winkelman to discuss why teaching athletes to optimise their movement means focusing on how you coach just as much as it does what we coach. 

“I want to be understood and I need you to understand” 

Ahead of the 2009 NFL Combine Winkelman had fallen into a trap that all too often awaits movement coaches in sport. “It tends to be inadvertent, even if there are some who want to show everyone what they know,” he observes. “The main consideration should be the amount of information the athlete can process and apply, not the amount of information you can give. 

I don’t need to understand how the body works in order to work my body. We have to be comfortable with language that the layperson can understand and let the power come in how you as a coach select that language. 

Winkelman argues that this sport-wide situation came about by an inadvertent failure of omission. “The language we use in textbooks is not synonymous with the language one should use to teach the body to achieve those ends. That’s a failure of our industry. There’s been no malicious intent – we just forgot to include pedagogy and the science of teaching to sit alongside the science of physiology, anatomy, and biomechanics.” 

It is something that Winkelman is seeking to change in The Language of Coaching’s exploration of the science of attentional focus and the science of cueing. “I minimise the use of those terms because they’re meaningless to most individuals,” he emphasises. 

In parts, the book resembles an ongoing conversation between the athlete and the coach. “That’s how you demonstrate the loop in action, through the use of questions and athlete involvement.” The Language of Coaching takes a forensic look at the communication loop between the coach and the athlete. “It’s born out of the communication habits that coaches use when they teach,” says Winkelman. In the book he describes the ‘long loop’, which he would employ to teach new athletes or perhaps a new movement. It includes five phases: describe, demonstrate, cue, do and debrief. 

Next is the ‘short loop’, which broadly omits the ‘describe’ and ‘demonstrate’ phases for athletes familiar with the cue. “There’s an asterisk on that,” says Winkelman of the short loop. “It depends, as it will not be every set or every rep that a coach will say something – and rightly so. We want to give the athlete time to absorb the information and apply it and consider it for themselves.” 

External cues help to set better goals 

External cues – those referencing an athlete’s environment – are at the heart of the art and science behind teaching movement. As he argues in The Language of Coaching, Winkelman says that every cue must generate a thought, then an intention to move.  

“Ultimately a cue, in its raw form, is words; and those words turn into the athlete’s thoughts. Those thoughts ultimately manifest into one’s intention. The goal could be ‘push off the ground’, ‘run fast’, or ‘defend the goal’. Once that goal is established then the body can set out what we call the motor plan or the movement required to achieve it. 

“The way we think about a goal we’re trying to achieve, in very nuanced ways, influences the way the body goes about doing it.” Our brains, says Winkelman, use past experiences to understand new experiences and the same goes for sensory-motor experiences. “Consider how me asking you to ‘push’ versus ‘punch’,” he continues. “Do those verbs make you feel differently?” The Leaders Performance Institute indicates that it does. 

Winkelman continues, satisfied that we have given him the foundation on which to build his point: “There is a real sense and action associated with those words and the movements they represent. And here’s what we now know: verbs, actions words that our movements are dependent upon, are processed in the same part of the brain associated with acting those words out. 

“If you were to watch someone push, say the word ‘push’, read the word ‘push’, hear the word ‘push’ or if you push someone yourself – all of those experiences leverage the same part of the motor cortex, the part of the brain that sends the response to the body to move. That part of the brain is also directly related to the intentional brain centres; the part of the brain that establishes a movement goal. 

“Words are nothing more than labels for movement and language is simply our way to access it. That’s why this is so exciting, because if we get the precision of language right, we are tapping right into the motor system responsible for bringing those actions to life. 

“I suggest giving one goal, clearly embedded in the outcome – an external cue – and use language that captures the essence of the biomechanics i.e. push versus punch.” 

External cueing is favoured because of what Winkelman terms the “cognitive pollution” caused by internal cueing in the athlete’s brain. “If I ask you to extend a joint or squeeze a muscle,” he says, “I’m asking you to move away from the holistic, whole movement you are performing to consider one part of it. The logic behind that suggests that you build movements from one joint or one muscle at a time. While physically that is the case, cognitively, it could not be further from it. 

“On the other hand, if I give you an external cue, and I tell you to ‘push the ground away’, or ‘explode towards the finish’, or ‘drive off the line like you are sprinting up a hill’, I’m simply painting a picture, which takes up less cognitive load. It’s impossible to get someone to stop thinking but there is language, which by its very nature causes less cognitive pollution. 

“External cues are clean-burning mental fuel. They paint pictures that relate to the physical environment that I can see and experience and simplify the thought by constraining it. 

“It doesn’t require the level of thinking that one would need to process step by step, which is what we’re promoting when we’re using overly internal language or when we give people more than one cue.” 

The right cues, adds Winkelman, also leave an “emotional resonance”. “Previously, I didn’t ask you for the difference in meaning between ‘push’ and ‘punch’, I asked if these words make you feel different and you said ‘most certainly yes’,” he reminds the Leaders Performance Institute 

The best cues leave a residue in the feeling they give you; a feeling of tension, a feeling of relaxation, a feeling of length, a feeling of shortening, a feeling of speed, a feeling of deceleration.  

“An echo is left in that emotional resonance that words give us. If I tell you to squeeze your glute and I compare that to explode off the ground, I’m going to argue that the emotional resonance of squeezing the glute is quite minimal and, in fact, you have to think about that; versus ‘explode off the ground’, which can be interpreted by anyone. 

“This emotional resonance, by its very nature, allows us to shift from that cognitive pre-frontal cortex and leverage more of our emotional brain centres, the feeling we get or the drive that the language gives our body in achieving a given goal; it’s an urge that we can put words in, but most importantly, it is felt. You can think about it, but you can shed those words almost immediately in favour of the feeling; and it’s the feeling that is the intention that we’re looking for. 

“We don’t need to give them the detail – the detail is part and parcel of achieving the goal. Set the goal and the detail follows.” 

Involve the athlete in cue creation – and reshape minds 

Winkelman is keen to emphasise from the outset that cueing cannot be a didactic process. “If I were writing a second edition I’d make this point even louder,” he explains. “The involvement of the athlete in cue creation and in debriefing what has happened in a movement is crucial. 

“I was acutely aware that I didn’t want The Language of Coaching to come across as this advocate for one-way didactic, instructional coaching. The athlete has to be involved in creating cues because they’re the ones who have to brings the cue’s benefit to bear in their own movement. That means asking questions during the debrief such as how did that feel? Did that focus work for you? What did you focus on during that repetition? 

“So many times I’ve had athletes say ‘oh yeah, I didn’t even think about that’. Well, how can we reshape your movement if we’re not reshaping your mind? I’d tell them, ‘I’m not going to give you many cues, but when I do, I need you to focus on them because if they aren’t good then we’re going to get rid of them; but we might find that a couple of these are really going to help you unlock the movement pattern.’ 

In describing this trial and error process, Winkelman explains that he might ask an athlete to ‘drive’ a barbell to the ceiling and, in repeating it back, they happen to use a different verb, such as ‘push’ then he is going to use their word instead.  

“As long as they didn’t fundamentally change the meaning of what I said, because the meaning is critical and it relates to the biomechanics I’m trying to promote; but if they just change one word in there, and it’s one of the interchangeable features, then I’m simply going to repeat that word back to them and I’m going to use their language now. They’ve given me a word to slick the road; that lowers the barriers to learning because it’s their word and obviously has stronger magnetism and meaning than the one that I used.” 

The collaboration can even be more direct. “I could tell them, ‘we need to get this bar off you fast, we’re working on speed today. What do you think you can think about on your next repetition to get that done?’ I’ve explained what I need to happen, I’ve explained the goal fundamentally, now I’m going to have them come up with the intention; the thought that’s going to help them achieve that. 

“The biggest thing for me is starting to have the conversation on both the front end and the back end. It’s not a philosophical discussion either – this is fast and furious. Sometimes it’s closed questions, like the A and B cue option, sometimes it’s open-ended, especially if we’re doing a task that has a little bit more rest involved. 

“Remember, if they’re not actively involved in the cue creation process, you’re losing an opportunity to gain buy-in, you’re losing the opportunity to understand their language locker, and the words they use to think, and you’re losing an opportunity to scaffold motivation, because if you have success on the back of something you created, ultimately you’re more inclined to do that again.” 

The Leaders Performance Institute asks Winkelman how he recommends a coach track the progress of an athlete. “What you’re doing is mapping their subjective experience to their objective experience. You observe the objective; did the cue make a change? Yes or no? Subjective; do you feel like the cue made a change? Yes or no? The best cues give us both. They make an objective change that is subjectively realised and that for me is the secret sauce of making it sticky because that person is going to want that experience again and again; and they know the feeling the cue promotes is the way to get there. 

“Even if they’re fighting themselves, reverting back to type; if they’re feeling like they’re choking or whatever the sports phrase might be, they now can find safety in these mental cues that bring them back to where they’re meant to be.  

“These cues are low cognitive pollution so they’re not going to risk over-thinking, which can end up being the architect of your demise. That’s unfortunately what a lot of cues do: they force you to over-think. External cues are a hack for that.” 

Winkelman’s goal is clear. “I want to give coaches the tools to upgrade their behaviours as a coach,” he says as we wrap up the conversation. 

The message is clear: coaches watch your language. 

Looking for more performance insight?

This article first appeared in our Performance journal, which is available for download now and leads with a selection of insights lifted from our At Home With Leaders podcast series, which has featured the likes of England Rugby’s Eddie Jones, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Shapiro, and Chelsea’s Emma Hayes speaking directly from their home offices.

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