What we say Matters / How Coaching Language can Improve Athlete Performance

John Barry

[9 min read]

Regardless of whether it’s the Sports Science or the Sports Coaching department you are coaching in, harnessing the athlete’s attention long enough to deliver the message you are trying to convey is critical to the athlete’s learning. The way you deliver your message, your coaching language, is just as important as the drills and exercises you prescribe. Attention can be viewed as the currency of learning, the athlete needs to pay or invest their attention into the task they are to complete if they are to master the task (Winkleman, 2022). As coaches, we need to be conscious that what we say matters when delivering our message.

Attentional Capacity

Every individual has a certain amount of attentional capacity. It has been shown that we struggle to complete two tasks successfully at the one time depending on the complexity of the tasks, also attention spans wane as the day progresses or the session in this context (Kahneman, 2012).

Let’s think of our attention span as an empty bucket and the information the coach is giving the athlete is water filling the bucket. When the bucket fills, the water overflows and spills, or in this context you have lost the athlete’s attention, and the information you are giving them is not being retained. You may also know this as ‘Analysis Paralysis’. So how can we overcome this to be effective at giving our athletes the information they need?

What is Attentional Focus?

This has received a lot of attention in the literature in the quest to understand how to optimize learning in athletes. It has been categorized in terms of its direction (Internal v External) and its width (Wide v Narrow) (Nideffer, 1976). This model is to understand the various forms of Attentional Focus and how they act upon each other along a continuum.

  • Broad External / for example, a corner forward in GAA assessing the movement of other players around them so they then make a decision where they will run to, to receive the pass or not.
  • Broad Internal / for example, they have received the ball and then have to decide whether to pass or take on their marker, this decision comes about from what is happening around them in the game.
  • Narrow Internal / for example, the perceived effort of going for the next ball leads them to decide to go or not.
  • Narrow External / for example, a dummy solo will create more space for a shot.
Figure 1: Types of Attentional Focus

Using coaching language to get an athlete’s attention

 There are some strategies we can apply to our coaching language to get an athlete’s attention:

  1. Use of Names / The easiest of all methods to get an athlete’s attention. There is the phenomenon known as the ‘Cocktail Party Effect’ whereby an individual will hear their name in a noisy environment and have their attention drawn to where they heard their name mentioned (Conway, Cowan and Bunting, 2001)
  2. Use of Previous Experience / You can also get their attention by drawing on a positive or negative previous experience, follow this up with the message you want to deliver. For example, showing a clip from a previous game (Visual) and following it up with your coaching point (Verbal). This also aligns with Dual Coding Theory (Clark and Paivio, 1991)
  3. Aligning Goals and Motivation / If the athlete is perceiving the information to have no significance in improving their performance they switch off. Explain to them why you are doing this specific exercise so they can connect it to their own field performance (Winkleman, 2022).   

How does Attentional Focus influence sports performance?

It has been well established that focusing the attention of the athlete externally relative to an internal focus is much more effective when learning and refining skills (Wulf, 1998, Wulf, 2013). As coaches, we are facilitators in athletic performance. The coaching language we use will influence how quickly the athlete understands the task they are trying to master.

Figure 2: A Coach’s Responsibility

Coaching Language / The Power of the Cue

The prime responsibility as a coach is to capture, keep, and direct the athlete’s attention to the information you are giving them. This is achieved by cueing the athlete to perform the movement successfully. Knowing your audience is crucial to the type and choice of cues you use and whether or not they will be effective. Cueing follows a similar pattern to the Attentional Focus Continuum mentioned previously. Your cues can be categorised along the continuum as:

  • Narrow Internal / focuses on the action of a single muscle/joint, for example, ‘Squeeze your glute’.
  • Broad Internal / focuses on the action of the entire limb, for example, ‘Keep your back flat’ when performing an RDL.
  • Hybrid Cue / focusing on an interaction of body and environment, for example, ‘Shoelaces through the ball’ when kicking a football.
  • Close External / focuses on a feature of the environment around the athlete, for example, ‘Push the ground away’ when accelerating/sprinting.
  • Far External / focuses on the environment but it is a distance away from the athlete, for example, ‘Move the ball toward green grass’ when looking to play a pass into open space (Winkleman, 2022).

One final aspect to consider is the audience you are working with; the cue should make sense and resonate with them, or you will lose them. An example would be how you get a 6-year-old and an adult to perform a CMJ. You may tell the 6-year-old to ‘Jump like a frog trying to touch the sky’ whereby if you used that coaching language with the adult you are guaranteed to get a confused look.

The 3D’s of Cueing

So, we understand the types of cues we should use but what makes up a cue? We can follow a simple framework that encompasses what is known as the 3D’s and follows a specific pattern of Describe, Direct, and Distance. As coaches, we should adapt our coaching language to fit the desired outcome that we are hoping to elicit, for example, if an individual is performing a Bench Press you may cue them to ‘Push the bar toward the ceiling’. Push – Describing the movement. Toward – Directing the movement. The ceiling – Distance of the movement.

One of the keywords in the cue above is the use of the word ‘Push’. This is seen as an action verb. The use of action verbs has been shown to move us physically and emotionally with the specific example of grip force increasing when action verbs were used when cueing the movement (Aravena et al., 2012).



Finally, using analogies allows us to paint a picture for the athlete using words and themes they are familiar with. These are known as the Principles of Similarity and Familiarity (Winkleman, 2022). This allows the athlete to connect their own lived experience with the exercise they are doing and more importantly allows them to free up working memory when it comes to executing a task/movement etc. (Lam, Maxwell and Masters, 2009, Reber, 1993).

This practice is prominent when we are working with kids and using the names of animals to mimic the movements. we want them to execute. Take the example of the CMJ and ‘Jump like a frog’, or it may be a Pogo Hop you are coaching, and you will ask them to ‘Hop like a bunny’. For an adult when accelerating you may ask them to ‘Imagine they are hammering a nail through the floor’. When you are cueing them to generate as much force as possible in the first three steps.


The coaching language we use is just as important as the exercise we have them perform. The next time you have an athlete in front of you and they are struggling to grasp what you want them to do, take a quick moment to reflect and ask yourself – Can you cue them better? Will a different cue lead to a different response? Did I have their attention when explaining the scenario? Am I giving them too much information? What analogy would be more effective here? There will be variability in how our coaching language resonates with the athletes we work with, so it is important that we know our audience when cueing because what we say matters.

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  • Aravena, P., Delevoye-Turrell, Y., Deprez, V., Cheylus, A., Paulignan, Y., Frak, V. and Nazir, T., 2012. Grip Force Reveals the Context Sensitivity of Language-Induced Motor Activity during “Action Words” Processing: Evidence from Sentential Negation. PLoS ONE, 7(12), p.e50287.
  • Clark, J. and Paivio, A., 1991. Dual coding theory and education. Educational Psychology Review, 3(3), pp.149-210.
  • Conway, A., Cowan, N. and Bunting, M., 2001. The cocktail party phenomenon revisited: The importance of working memory capacity. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8(2), pp.331-335.
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  • Lam, W., Maxwell, J. and Masters, R., 2009. Analogy Learning and the Performance of Motor Skills under Pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31(3), pp.337-357.
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  • Reber, A., 1993. Implicit learning and tacit knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Winkleman, N., 2022. The Language of Coaching: The Art and Science of teaching movement. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Wulf, G., Höß, M. and Prinz, W., 1998. Instructions for Motor Learning: Differential Effects of Internal Versus External Focus of Attention. Journal of Motor Behavior, 30(2), pp.169-179.
  • Wulf, G., 2013. Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), pp.77-104.

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About the author

John Barry

John Barry holds an M.Sc. in Applied Sports Coaching from the University of Limerick and is currently working as a Sports Scientist with the Kerry GAA Senior Footballers and a Strength and Conditioning coach and an online coach with Limitless Fitness and Performance.

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