Why Teaching Beginners Is Not a Job for Beginners

About the Author

Chet Morjaria

For almost every gym, it’s not the elite members who pay the bills.

It’s those members either new to training or the training you offer who provide the critical mass required to stay alive as a fitness business. So it’s this population who should be receiving the most coach focus and attention to improve member retention.

In gyms with coaches of varying experience and ability, there seems to be a trend of placing junior coaches to work with the more “junior” (in training age, not chronological age) members. In other words, scheduling the interns and assistant coaches to lead the induction classes and beginner’s groups. Whether it’s because the more senior coaches want to work with the cool kids, a case of matching new with new, or a presumption that novice members are easier to coach, I believe this pairing is a mistake. The problem arises from the intersection of how a beginner needs to be coached and cued, versus how a junior coach often coaches and cues.

Let’s clarify how a beginner needs to be coached first. Salmoni (1984) provides us with a “guidance hypothesis” which tells us feedback guides the member to correct movement, reducing errors and facilitating performance. This is obvious and straightforward. Slightly less straightforward is that we don’t want to take this principle too far and create feedback dependence, or a reliance on the coach for every rep. That’s not realistic for any purpose, sporting or life.  The member would never progress beyond performing that movement with a coach right by his or her side delivering continual feedback.

Our feedback must therefore do three things:
  1. Empower the member to perform the required movements correctly without constant supervision.
  2. Improve retention, so the member doesn’t need to relearn the same things over and again.
  3. Facilitate transfer, so themember can employ the movement in other situations, whether in competition or in life.

Makes sense, right? Now let’s take a peek into what the research says.

External Cues > Internal Cues

The research on motor learning and attentional focus (much of it by Dr. Gabriele Wulf) overwhelmingly displays that external cues are vastly superior to internal cues. Internal cues are where the member’s focus is directed to what’s happening inside his or her own body. An internal cue example for a kettlebell swing would  be “squeeze your glutes”, or “fire your hips hard”. Internal cues are process-based.

External cues are where the member’s focus is directed on how the body’s output affects the environment, for example “throw the kettlebell through the wall in front of you”. External cues are outcome-based.

One of Wulf’s most famous studies examined how the effectiveness of feedback for the learning of complex motor skills was affected by the focus of internal or external attention. The study examined the effects of providing more or less internal or external feedback. In one of the two experiments conducted for the study, football (soccer) players were required to shoot passes at a target.

There were four test groups:

  • The first group was given 100% feedback and an internal cue.
  • The second group was given 100% feedback and an external cue.
  • The third group was given 33% feedback and internal cue.
  • The fourth group was given 33% feedback and an external cue.

The results showed that external focus feedback resulted in greater accuracy than internal focus feedback did, in practice and retention. That’s not a surprise. External cues allow the motor system to self-organise to produce optimal performance outcomes. External cues allow the body to choose the most effective movement patterns to get the task done.

Interestingly, the test also showed that reduced feedback frequency was beneficial under internal focus feedback conditions, whereas 100% and 33% feedback were equally effective under external focus conditions. As far as internal focused cues and performance goes, internal focused cues seem to have a detrimental effect on performance by getting the member to focus too much on mechanical intricacies of the body. This chokes effective performance. Less internal feedback is more when it comes to getting desired results.

The Problem for New Coaches

So if we are to use internal cues, less internal cueing (in this case, one in every three reps as opposed to every rep) leads to a better movement outcome when it comes to motor learning. This is something new coaches will struggle with.

Most inexperienced coaches will:
  • Use internal cues the majority of the time.
  • Throw multiple cues at the member at any one time.

Internal cueing tends to be the default method of cueing for a new coach. Without a deeper understanding, it appears to be a more direct way of influencing movement.

But why does a new coach often throw out so many internal cues? Perhaps it’s an effort to impress with quantity of knowledge. Perhaps it’s an all-out effort to improve the members’s movement.  Perhaps it’s an inability to filter out what is more relevant and fundamental to the improvement of the motor task at hand, compared with what is less so. Perhaps it’s somewhere in between all of these. Regardless, there is little effective external cueing going on. More experienced and knowledgeable coaches know how valuable and powerful external cueing is.

The problem is, effective external cueing is hard. As part of our Training Systems framework at Strength Education, we teach a L2 Coaching and Cueing Module which expands on the concepts we are discussing here. This module is only open to those who have completed three one-day movement modules and completed and passed one two-day coaching course. In other words, those who are some way into their coaching journeys.

Our coach education is structured this way for a few reasons, not least because good external cueing requires an understanding of:

  • The biomechanics of the movement you are cueing.
  • A solid grasp of the movement outcome you are looking to achieve.

These two areas of understanding involve time spent learning the theory followed by time spent putting it into practice. Wash, rinse, repeat. New coaches lack this grounding and development of insight.

Internal Cueing Is Not Always the Enemy

Time to throw another shark into the water. In another of Wulf’s experiments, groups of novices and advanced volleyball players practiced tennis serves under internal focus and external focus feedback conditions. The results showed the type of feedback (internal versus external) didn’t affect movement quality, but accuracy improved with external focus during both practice and retention.

As this result highlights, much of this research has been done through the spectacles of performance. In the above experiment, movement quality was unaffected by the type of feedback, whereas accuracy (performance) was. Performance is not always a beginner’s purpose, but movement quality always should be.

But let’s go deeper than movement quality. When coaching many beginners, whether new to a sport or new to a complex motor task, the purpose may simply be to increase body awareness. Before any notion of movement and patterning comes awareness and position. If positions are facilitated by body awareness, we can’t ignore the use of internal cues to help members “feel” parts of their body, map the body to the brain, and be more mindful throughout the process.

Purpose, Performance, Prioritisation, Progression

If, as you’re reading this, you’re beginning to think that coaching beginners is a complex interplay of purpose, performance, prioritisation, and progression, you’re right. It takes a refined approach, and that takes coaching insight and the experience that comes with putting that insight into practice.

So here’s what I propose in terms of how to coach beginner members in your gym:
  • Pair up your more experienced coaches with your novice member.
  • Encourage time together exploring and considering the member’s purpose.
  • Concentrate on refining and delivering effective external cues.
  • Work on the frequency of cue delivery, particularly internal ones.
Remember, it’s not about the coach, it’s about the member. Particularly, it’s about the beginner member. They are the future of your business. Invest your time and best resources in them. 

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