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Diving in Deep with Proteus Analytics

Today's guest post comes from physical therapists Will Waterman and Tanner Allen.

In an analytically driven world, finding a way to capture coveted and seemingly intangible qualities of athletes is highly sought after. Back in January, Cressey Sports Performance - FL began looking into Proteus as a potential way to bridge the gap between training programs and objective measures (see the article Taking Proteus for a Spin). Following Proteus Motion’s release of the General Power Test in June of this year, we decided to apply this testing to CSP-MA and their college summer program in hopes of finding out what role power plays in a collection of athletic qualities. Today, we'll reviewr the results of our power testing on athletes and discoveries that may have an impact when creating and enhancing individualized training programs for our athletes.

(Right-Click to Expand/Save and View)

The Power Test report shown above is an output shown on the Proteus system’s touchscreen after 17 exercises are performed in under 5 minutes. The data is tracked for each player over time, and can also be printed, shared by email, or accessed remotely through a web login.

Before we dive in, it will be helpful to know a little bit about the Power Test listed in the video below as well as the structure of our small study and what we intended to capture. The CSP-MA college summer program consisted of 14 collegiate pitchers tested 3 times over a 6 week period (beginning, middle, and end). Normally, it would have been a longer training period and sample size, but COVID-related restrictions thinned the herd a bit and led to a shortened timeline. We looked at General Power Test reports utilizing Proteus and pitching velocity captured by Rapsodo. This 3-minute video will briefly explain the General Power Test.

The five primary goals that we intended to identify utilizing Proteus throughout this study included:

● Showing objective improvements in CSP’s training with test and retest findings
● Establishing normative power profiles that quickly help identify areas of weakness among athletes
● Finding intra-body norms for push vs pull as well as unilateral vs bilateral comparisons and imbalances
● Identifying other metrics that Proteus captures to create more specific tests in the future to further enhance its capabilities
● Identifying correlations between Proteus and pitching velocity

Following the completion of the 6-week study, we were able to collect normative data ranges for our test group sample. This allows coaches using Proteus to analyze patterns in search of the lowest hanging fruit to address in training. Through providing easy-to-digest information, this helps coaches identify outliers as well as over and underperforming athletes within a group.

In the picture below, you are able to see a breakdown of how an individual improved from his 1st session at the beginning of training to his 3rd session following completion of CSP training over the six weeks. The dotted red line depicted below represents the average scores across the entire test group, allowing for simultaneous comparison. This ultimately allows for quick recognition of areas in which a specific athlete has under or over-performed compared to their age group norms and peers.

The addition of this quantitative and analytic test of power output can then be compared with the rest of CSP's assessments to create a comprehensive view of how an athlete is currently performing, how they are improving, and which areas require further development. This comprehensive approach lets strength coaches and other healthcare professionals understand how structural and functional presentations may affect power output.

(Right-Click to Expand/Save and View)

Next, I want to show examples of interesting findings related to intra-body comparisons along with unilateral and bilateral imbalances discovered within the baseball population using Proteus.

*Disclaimer: These are based on small sample sizes, so by no means should these be assumed as a one size fits all.

1. Greater power in dominant side rotation compared to non-dominant side rotation

A unique attribute of Proteus is the ability for rotational qualities to be tested. One would think that these athletes have an increased amount of power rotating towards their non-dominant side (e.g. throwing or hitting a baseball), but our findings were the opposite. In our study, 7 out of 10 right-handed pitchers showed an average of 5.6% increased power output rotating towards their right (dominant side). After considering what could be the reasoning for this metric finding, we generated five hypotheses:

● Proteus motion is concentric in nature with the testing protocol performed in a non-counter (“non-plyometric”) fashion which does not allow the athlete eccentric loading prior to the task. With natural movements such as throwing a baseball, an athlete naturally pre-loads prior to rotating towards their non-dominant side. Due to the testing design, this could provide motor interference to what would normally be a natural movement to them
● PRI (Postural Restoration Institute) considerations, as Left AIC patterns are commonly seen throughout the baseball population.
● Years of eccentric stress from decelerating on their right side obliques improves strength on their dominant side over time.
● Limited thoracic rotation or decreased testing ROM.
● Simple fatigue as these tests were completed following max effort Rapsodo bullpen sessions.

Note from EC: we've effectively eliminated the last point (fatigue) as a consideration in the extensive testing we've done in our professional baseball players this offseason. The differences have been just as pronounced (if not moreso) in this population, and without a bullpen before testing.

2. Greater power in non-dominant side lateral bound compared to dominant side bound

In this example, imagine a right-handed pitcher being more powerful in his lead leg compared to his dominant right leg (his drive leg in pitching delivery) with a frontal plane movement like a Heiden. This group showed a 4.5% bias in power on the non-dominant leg (i.e., right handed pitcher was better pushing off from the left to go to the right).

One hypothesis might again be explained by the Left AIC pattern as described by PRI. Many athletes are subconsciously unaware that they tend to jump off of their left leg when going for a layup, jumping for a ball, or cutting for example. PRI explains this as a consequence of the L AIC pattern, as those with that pattern tend to be more comfortable in LOADING via standing or landing on their right leg and tend to be more proficient with EXPLODING or launching movements off their left leg. PRI explains this as a common implication of the Left AIC pattern, which is a pattern of being over lateralized on the right side in the frontal plane. This finding might be an indication of that pattern, as most of the athletes were biased towards having more power jumping off of their non-dominant left lower extremity. Greater sample sizes in the future will help us confirm or deny this finding.

3. Unilateral pressing and rowing movements are more powerful than bilateral variants by 4%

The likely reasoning for this finding is the rotational sport athlete’s ability to tap into the transverse plane component of these movements. Since Proteus Motion utilizes 3D resistance, the athlete is not confined or restricted by specific planes of motion (frontal or sagittal) as they are in other traditional training methods (e.g., shoulder blades being pinned down on a bench). This allows for proper scapular protraction and retraction to take place throughout the test.

In the picture below, you can see an example of points 1&2, of a right-handed pitcher showing both qualities.

Besides intra-body comparisons, we also looked at comparisons of Proteus data to pitching velocity to see if we were able to identify what movement qualities may translate to throwing performance. We used Rapsodo to capture pitching velocity, and then cross referenced it against all metrics that Proteus measures, even those not provided in the General Power Report (which only provides power data and does not give breakdowns of acceleration, deceleration, and other metrics). Whadiscovered was that average dominant side acceleration in (m/s2) had a strong correlation with pitching velocity showing a R-value of .76, and P-Value of .003 during Session 3 testing. This was an intriguing finding and one that has started future planning of a potentially better and more specific baseball related Power Test.

Dominant Side Acceleration = Average Acceleration of all dominant side movements except using non-dominant trunk rotation instead of dominant side.

In conclusion, here are the key takeaways the team has learned this summer and how we plan on implementing our findings into future iterations of CSP tests:

1. We can use Proteus for benchmark testing to help us identify areas of weakness or strengths in each athlete. This information can help to quickly adapt individualized training programs to improve training efficiency and outcomes.

2. In addition to measuring power in (Watts), we want to incorporate acceleration (m/s2) into our future readings and reports as well as provide a comparable metric across different resistances. This can be extremely beneficial for coaches when tailoring programs for individuals to allow for appropriate starting points along the strength/speed or speed/strength continuum (e.g., medicine ball movements and weight best suited for the individual).

3. Measuring the difference in output of an individual between using non-counter movements (which is currently how the General Power Test has been performed) vs counter-movements such as plyometrics. We can then compare the ability of the athlete to create elastic vs reactive qualities of movement. By allowing for small eccentric loads while transitioning between movements during the amortization phase, we can assess different metrics of power and acceleration of a plyometric and compare it to pure concentric drive when there is no or low loading phase present. Prior to Proteus, coaches relied heavily on visual observations and movement patterns to differentiate plyometric and concentric biased movements. Proteus will assist and enhance coaches targeted interventions specifically for upper body and core movements.

Overall, the summer study that Proteus and CSP MA performed had huge success in identifying the progress of players, improving target metrics for specific populations, and enhancing testing qualities. On average, athletes had a 25% improvement on the General Power Test from Proteus between sessions 1 and 3. Pitchers also improved on 3+ mph on their fastball velocity on average following their six-week training camp (84 -> 87 mph). Proteus Motion offers a lot of different benefits for both short term and long term development of athletes by capturing objective data throughout an individual’s strength and conditioning journey. Proteus provides CSP a unique way to objectify future evaluations, program development, readiness testing, and monitor training and rehabilitation.

*If you’re interested in learning more, visit www.Proteusmotion.com and follow them on Instagram @ProteusMotion to stay up to date.

 About the Authors

Tanner Allen received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of St. Augustine in 2019. After graduating, he completed an Internship at CSP-FL in the Fall of 2019, and recently joined Diamond Physical Therapy inside of Cressey Sports Performance - Florida. Tanner also serves as the Baseball Performance Manager at Proteus Motion. He enjoys working with athletes of all ages and backgrounds on a continuum from rehabilitation following injury all the way through sports performance training. He graduated from Valdosta State University in 2015 with a degree in Exercise Physiology and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist (ACSM-EP) as well as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Will Waterman, DPT is the Director of Performance and Sports Science at Proteus Motion. He previously worked as a physical therapist for over 10 years in a variety of clinical settings, including Stanford Hospital and D1 athletics at DePaul University. He is an Orthopedic Clinical Specialist (OCS), is Postural Restoration Certified (PRC), has a Certification in Orthopedic Manual Therapy (COMT) from the Ola Grimsby Institute, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He completed his doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT) from Armstrong Atlantic State University in 2010 and his B.S. in Exercise Science from the University of Georgia in 2007. Originally from Atlanta, GA, he and his wife now live and work in San Francisco, CA where he serves as a primary resource for Proteus Motion on the West Coast.

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Elite Baseball Development Podcast: Should Pitchers Bench Press?

I'm flying solo for this week's podcast, as I wanted to tackle a controversial topic in the world of baseball strength and conditioning: pitching and the bench press. Before we get to it, though, a special thanks to this show's sponsor, Athletic Greens. Head to http://www.athleticgreens.com/cressey and you'll receive a free 20-pack of Athletic Greens travel packets with your first order.

Sponsor Reminder

This episode is brought to you by Athletic Greens. It’s an all-in-one superfood supplement with 75 whole-food sourced ingredients designed to support your body’s nutrition needs across 5 critical areas of health: 1) energy, 2) immunity, 3) gut health, 4) hormonal support, and 5) healthy aging. Head to www.AthleticGreens.com/cressey and claim my special offer today - 20 FREE travel packs (valued at $79) - with your first purchase. I use this product daily myself and highly recommend it to our athletes as well. I'd encourage you to give it a shot, too - especially with this great offer.

Podcast Feedback

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Variation Without Change

I can recall the late Charles Poliquin speaking many years ago about the concept of "Variation Without Change."

When I first heard this phrase, I believe he was referring to the stimuli needed to induce muscular hypertrophy. If you wanted bigger lats, you might do chin-ups (supinated grip) for a month, then neutral grip pull-ups for a month, then regular (pronated grip) pull-ups for a month. Simultaneously, the focus might shift from sets of 8-10 reps to sets of 4-6 reps.

The principle was simple but effective: if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. However, subtle variations to the approach - without throwing the baby out with the bath water - were important for providing for longer term adaptation while not developing overuse injuries or mind-numbing boredom.

To me, "variation without change" is a subcategory of periodization. The overall training priority might be adjusted from one mesocycle to the next, but some of the exercise categories can remain relatively consistent. Medicine ball work is a good example; we use it in a variety of ways throughout the year.

In-season, for a right-handed pitcher, we might do left only rotational med ball scoop tosses to counteract some of the crazy imbalances that can emerge in such a unilateral dominant sport.

In the early offseason, we might utilize anti-rotation drills to give athletes reminders on where to find rotation without being so aggressive that it beats them up at a time of year when they should be recovering.

As the offseason progresses, we can get to more drills where we attack rotation - and then build in sequencing that incorporates momentum.

Finally, as the season approaches, we can make the drills more open-loop by having athletes either respond to a "go" command or have to "receive and release:"

As you can see, all of these exercises fall under the same broad heading, but are each categorized slightly differently. In our recent podcast with Bill Parisi, we discussed how pronounced fascial changes take 18-24 months, so you need variety to keep athletes engaged while still incorporating these long chain, multijoint movements at varying speeds and loads.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll have a few new articles to dig deeper on the topic of rotation. In the meantime, however, I would strongly encourage you to check out my new Medicine Ball Master Class. I created this new resource in collaboration with Athletes Acceleration, and it’s on sale for 20% off through this Sunday at midnight. It includes over 50 exercise demonstration videos, as well as my rationale for including them. Just visit www.CresseyMedBall.com and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout.

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Accidental Strength and Conditioning Success

I often joke that some of the biggest training successes of my career came about when I was trying to develop one athletic quality, but actually wound up accidentally developing something else that yielded a great return on investment. Medicine ball training might be the absolute best example of this.

Back around 2007, I started implementing high-volume medicine ball training: both rotational and overhead work at least three times per week with our baseball athletes. There was some decent research on how it could positively impact throwing velocity and bad speed, but I found the training protocols in those studies to be really underwhelming. It was just a lot of “three sets of 10 reps” monotony and relatively basic and unathletic drills. by getting more creative with exercise selection, I felt that it would yield bigger returns on power development while keeping athletes more engaged. And, it accomplished both goals.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was also simultaneously creating much better movers. You see, all that medicine ball training was chipping away at some important adaptations we needed in the fascial system to prepare athletes for elasticity in more extreme positions of rotation. By manipulating load, the extent to which we pre-loaded, and where we sat on the force-velocity curve, each rep was helping athletes to develop adjustability, something that’s crucial to withstanding the unpredictable nature of many sports.

And, the truth is that what we learned from training with medicine balls, gave rise to open mindedness in similar avenues. The Versapulley allows us to train higher load, lower velocity rotation with more eccentric overload. 

Proteus allows us to train both high and low load rotation with a concentric focus.

Rotational work on traditional functional trainers seems to be a happy medium between the two. I’ll have their place, but you just need to know what to train.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll have a few new articles to dig deeper on the topic of rotation. In the meantime, however, I would strongly encourage you to check out my new Medicine Ball Master Class. I created this new resource in collaboration with athletes acceleration, and it’s on sale for 20% off through this Sunday at midnight. It includes over 50 exercise demonstration videos, as well as my rationale for including them. Just visit www.CresseyMedBall.com and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout.

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My Medicine Ball Master Class (New Resource)

I'm excited to announce that I've partnered with Athletes Acceleration to bring you a course on how we integrate medicine ball training with our athletes to develop rotational power and other elements of athleticism. You can learn more at www.CresseyMedBall.com.

Included in the two-hour course:

1. The Case for Medicine Ball Work
2. The Challenges of Specificity in Rotational Sport Athletes
3. The Force-Velocity Curve
4. Building a Yearly Calendar
5. Exercise Categorization and Progressions/Regressions
6. Coaching Cues
7. Limitations to Rotational Power
8. "Filler" Strategies

This resource is on sale at a 20% introductory discount through this Sunday at midnight. Just visit www.CresseyMedBall.com and the discount will automatically be applied at checkout.

 

 

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CSP Elite Baseball Development Podcast: AJ Ramos

We're excited to welcome Colorado Rockies relief pitcher AJ Ramos to the latest podcast. As an athlete who has come back from both a Tommy John and a shoulder surgery, AJ has many insights to share on the rehab process to contribute to our sports medicine series.

A special thanks to this show's sponsor, Marc Pro. Head to www.MarcPro.com and enter the coupon code CRESSEY at checkout to receive an exclusive discount on your order.

You can follow AJ on Twitter at @TheAJRamos and Instagram at @TheAJRamos.

Sponsor Reminder

This episode is brought to you by Marc Pro, a cutting-edge EMS device that uses patented technology to create non-fatiguing muscle activation. Muscle activation with Marc Pro facilitates each stage of the body’s natural recovery process- similar to active recovery, but without the extra effort and muscle fatigue. Athletes can use it for as long as they need to ensure a more full and quick recovery in between training or games. With its portability and ease of use, players can use Marc Pro while traveling between games or while relaxing at home. Players and trainers from every MLB team - including over 200 pro pitchers - use Marc Pro. Put Marc Pro to the test for yourself and use promo code CRESSEY at checkout at www.MarcPro.com for an exclusive discount on your order.

Podcast Feedback

If you like what you hear, we'd be thrilled if you'd consider subscribing to the podcast and leaving us an iTunes review. You can do so HERE.

And, we welcome your suggestions for future guests and questions. Just email elitebaseballpodcast@gmail.com.

Thank you for your continued support!

Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive Instant Access to a 47-minute Presentation from Eric Cressey on Individualizing the Management of Overhead Athletes!

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CSP Elite Baseball Development Podcast: Fine-Tuning the Fascial System with Bill Parisi

We're excited to welcome Bill Parisi to the latest podcast for an in-depth discussion on the fascia system and how it impacts health and performance. Bill has a ton of experience in the trenches and a great network, and he leverages both to deliver some excellent information on this overlooked aspect of developing athletes.

A special thanks to this show's sponsor, Marc Pro. Head to www.MarcPro.com and enter the coupon code CRESSEY at checkout to receive an exclusive discount on your order.

You can follow Bill on Instagram at @Bill_Parisi, or visit FasciaTrainingAcademy.com.

Sponsor Reminder

This episode is brought to you by Marc Pro, a cutting-edge EMS device that uses patented technology to create non-fatiguing muscle activation. Muscle activation with Marc Pro facilitates each stage of the body’s natural recovery process- similar to active recovery, but without the extra effort and muscle fatigue. Athletes can use it for as long as they need to ensure a more full and quick recovery in between training or games. With its portability and ease of use, players can use Marc Pro while traveling between games or while relaxing at home. Players and trainers from every MLB team - including over 200 pro pitchers - use Marc Pro. Put Marc Pro to the test for yourself and use promo code CRESSEY at checkout at www.MarcPro.com for an exclusive discount on your order.

Podcast Feedback

If you like what you hear, we'd be thrilled if you'd consider subscribing to the podcast and leaving us an iTunes review. You can do so HERE.

And, we welcome your suggestions for future guests and questions. Just email elitebaseballpodcast@gmail.com.

Thank you for your continued support!

Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive Instant Access to a 47-minute Presentation from Eric Cressey on Individualizing the Management of Overhead Athletes!

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CSP Elite Baseball Development Podcast: Managing Baseball Injuries with Dr. Christopher Camp

For the latest podcast, we're excited to welcome Dr. Christopher Camp, team doctor for the Minnesota Twins and orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Camp goes into great detail on the classification, management, trends, and prevention of baseball injuries. Additionally, he speaks to the complexities of various surgeries we see in overhead throwing athletes, and discusses where further innovation is needed to better manage these players.

A special thanks to this show's sponsor, Marc Pro. Head to www.MarcPro.com and enter the coupon code CRESSEY at checkout to receive an exclusive discount on your order.

You can follow Dr. Camp on Twitter at @ChrisCampMD.

Sponsor Reminder

This episode is brought to you by Marc Pro, a cutting-edge EMS device that uses patented technology to create non-fatiguing muscle activation. Muscle activation with Marc Pro facilitates each stage of the body’s natural recovery process- similar to active recovery, but without the extra effort and muscle fatigue. Athletes can use it for as long as they need to ensure a more full and quick recovery in between training or games. With its portability and ease of use, players can use Marc Pro while traveling between games or while relaxing at home. Players and trainers from every MLB team - including over 200 pro pitchers - use Marc Pro. Put Marc Pro to the test for yourself and use promo code CRESSEY at checkout at www.MarcPro.com for an exclusive discount on your order.

 

Podcast Feedback

If you like what you hear, we'd be thrilled if you'd consider subscribing to the podcast and leaving us an iTunes review. You can do so HERE.

And, we welcome your suggestions for future guests and questions. Just email elitebaseballpodcast@gmail.com.

Thank you for your continued support!

Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive Instant Access to a 47-minute Presentation from Eric Cressey on Individualizing the Management of Overhead Athletes!

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CSP Elite Baseball Development Podcast: Performance Principles and Progressions with Kelly Starrett

We're excited to welcome renowned physical therapist, coach, author, and presenter, Dr. Kelly Starrett, to the latest podcast as we kick off a series of podcasts with a sports medicine focus. Kelly shares some awesome insights related to universal performance principles, recovery strategies, "upstream" initiatives, and long-term athletic development.

A special thanks to this show's sponsor, Marc Pro. Head to www.MarcPro.com and enter the coupon code CRESSEY at checkout to receive an exclusive discount on your order.


Sponsor Reminder

This episode is brought to you by Marc Pro, a cutting-edge EMS device that uses patented technology to create non-fatiguing muscle activation. Muscle activation with Marc Pro facilitates each stage of the body’s natural recovery process- similar to active recovery, but without the extra effort and muscle fatigue. Athletes can use it for as long as they need to ensure a more full and quick recovery in between training or games. With its portability and ease of use, players can use Marc Pro while traveling between games or while relaxing at home. Players and trainers from every MLB team - including over 200 pro pitchers - use Marc Pro. Put Marc Pro to the test for yourself and use promo code CRESSEY at checkout at www.MarcPro.com for an exclusive discount on your order.

Podcast Feedback

If you like what you hear, we'd be thrilled if you'd consider subscribing to the podcast and leaving us an iTunes review. You can do so HERE.

And, we welcome your suggestions for future guests and questions. Just email elitebaseballpodcast@gmail.com.

Thank you for your continued support!

Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive Instant Access to a 47-minute Presentation from Eric Cressey on Individualizing the Management of Overhead Athletes!

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A Coach’s View on Internal vs. External Cueing

Today's guest post comes from Matt Kuzdub.

Stay on top of the ball. Extend the arms. Stay tall. Finish high. Stay back. Follow-through. Use your legs. Snap your wrist...

You’ve probably heard these cues before. Maybe you’ve even used them yourself. From individual sports like tennis, to team sports like baseball, and even in the weight room, coaches have been using verbal cues like these for decades.

While some may be effective, many have issues. For instance, if I tell an athlete, “use more of your legs” when trying to jump higher, what does that really mean?

You see, most of these cues are a bit vague and leave room for ambiguity. But the root problem is this: the types of cues we give an athlete will direct their focus and attention. And this, in turn, will impact their ability to change a movement and learn a new skill.

So the question becomes: what should coaches bring their athletes’ attention to during practices and drills? The same question can be asked about the gym; does cueing differ on the field vs in the gym? Surely learning to hit a 95mph fastball with the game on the line isn’t the same as setting a bench press PR in the weight room.

That’s what we’ll explore in this post. We’ll set the stage by outlining the difference between two types of cueing strategies: internal and external. We’ll then present additional focus of attention research (a branch of motor learning theory) - and suggest a rebuttal to that research. Finally, we’ll provide additional examples to gain some clarity from a coach’s perspective.

One caveat before I continue. I played competitive tennis (the equivalent of the minor leagues in baseball) and hold a MSc degree in sport science. Given this, my role is often one of bridging the gym with the court. In other words, I can relate to both sides of the coin: the technical and tactical elements of the game, along with the off-court elements needed to be physically prepared. Eric, who I have admired for years, is someone who not only can relate to these two elements, but can also bring sports medicine into the mix.

I’m bringing this up because, first, I think that no matter where you lie on the spectrum - on the field as a skills coach or in the lab as a researcher - knowing a little bit about cueing and learning is probably a good thing so that you can have at least have a meaningful conversation about it.

Second, a lot of these principles are interchangeable with different branches of the performance world. Even physios can apply some of the research on attention and motor learning with their patients, just in a slightly different context.

Lastly, because of my experiences in tennis, a lot of the examples you’ll see in this post will stem from there. I’ll do my best to tie in other sporting examples, especially from the baseball world, but please don’t be too hard on me if I’ve made a baseball nomenclature mistake along the way.

What’s the Difference Between External and Internal Cues?

Internal

Remember the cueing examples in the intro? In tennis, we see similar ones. Things like "turn your shoulders" and "move your feet." The commonality here is that each instruction is focused on a body segment or part.

Gabriele Wulf - prominent researcher in attention and motor learning - would say that these cues are bringing an athlete’s attention to internal factors. More specifically, she defines internally-focused cues as “where attention is directed to the action itself” (2007).

But how does a player interpret a cue like, “bend your knees?” How low should the athlete go? Is a 90-degree knee bend as effective as a 100 degrees of knee flexion? At what point in the swing/movement? Should one knee be bent more than the other?

As you can see, this cue can be interpreted in a number of different ways, depending on the athlete and the context.

Now, I’m not saying this cue can’t be used or that it’s not effective. The fact is, however, it’s got to be much more specific. For example, perhaps I want my player to load the rear leg on the forehand side to initiate a more forceful hip and trunk thrust towards the oncoming ball. So, instead of “bend your knees,” you might say, “put more weight on that rear leg during your set-up, then use it when accelerating to the ball.

See how much more specific that is compared to “bend your knees”? You might be saying to yourself, “but that’s a pretty long cue”. Yes, it is. But we may only have to use that entire cue once (or periodically). The athlete will now understand a shortened version of it like "load that rear leg" or "add pressure to that back foot" or some similar alternative - and we’ll still end up at the same outcome.

External

Here’s an example of an athlete practicing their serve (and missing a lot) using external cues only (i.e. a target):

Orienting your attention externally, on the other hand, is described as “where the performer’s attention is directed to the effect of the action” (Wulf 2007).

To clarify, external focus instructions are aimed at factors outside the body, like an implement, support surface, the trajectory of an object, or a target. A baseball batter, for example, could direct his/her focus to the bat (its path, velocity etc), the ball (its spin, speed, trajectory etc.) or to the area of the field they’d like to hit into (target).

In tennis, hitting with depth (i.e. getting the ball to land near the opponent’s baseline) is a pretty important skill. Because in today’s day and age, if you hit just a touch short, you’ll soon be on defense. To practice this ability, we often use an externally-focused cue, and it’s usually a target. For instance, with our elite guys, we might mark a line three feet from the baseline and get them to focus on hitting the ball past the line. With younger players, a starting point for "depth training" might simply be to get the ball to land past the service line.

In this example, the cue is not only external, but it’s also distal and has an environmental component - meaning that the focus is further away from the athlete. An example of a proximally-oriented external cue would be focusing on the movement of the racquet. This would not fall under the environmental component, but what researchers call skill-oriented (i.e., we’re directly attempting to target the skill of swinging the racquet - or some sort of technical outcome).

On the gym side, as we’ll see below, there’s been a fair amount of research suggesting the benefits of cueing athlete’s externally to produce more force, more power or during speed training. For example, instead of asking an athlete to use more of their legs during a countermovement jump, you might ask them to “push the ground away” or simply pick a spot on the wall (or use a basketball hoop) and see how high they can touch. I like the latter as a form of competition amongst a group of athletes (see vid below) it’s also more distal/environmental vs. proximal/skill oriented.

Here's an example of athletes trying to touch the highest part of a ceiling during a jump.

The Theory

If you haven’t figured it out already, a lot of the recent evidence points to bringing an athlete’s attention to external - instead of internal - factors. But why is that?

According to Wulf (2013), internal focus of attention instructions contribute to a conscious awareness of the desired movement. And if we’re more conscious of what we’re doing, this will inhibit automatic processes. The opposite is true for externally-focused cues - they almost deliberately facilitate a subconscious control of movement.

One theory behind this - one which Wulf (2013) suggests - is that directing attention to a particular limb for example, will provide a neural representation of the self. The result, according to Wulf, is we over-regulate our actions.

So instead of moving with more grace, we end up increasing tension. Instead of effortlessness, our movements are rigid and more mechanical. We’ve all been there before, right? You’re given feedback to keep your wrist locked at impact, for example, and what happens? Your entire arm, shoulder, neck, etc. get tight, and you can’t even make clean contact with the ball.

But perhaps there’s a place for being more aware? To consciously move the elbow into a certain position. At least for some period of time.

What’s the Research on Attention and Motor Learning Have to Say About This?

If you’re like me - and get really hyped up about this sort of stuff - then you’re probably eager to find out, what’s the research suggesting? Which is best for learning and ultimately, performance?

In a review article by Wulf (2013) where close to 100 studies were investigated, significant differences exist between externally and internally-focused cueing across a variety of sports and disciplines

Specifically, it’s externally-focused cues that significantly and consistently outperform internal cues. Apart from a few studies that showed benefits to internal cueing - or no significant difference between the two types of cueing strategies - external seems to be the way to go.

But here’s the thing, most coaches use internally-focused cues most of the time. In fact, Porter (2010) found that 84% of track & field athletes reported that their coaches gave instructions that were specific to the movement of a body part or segment. Van der Graff et al (2018) reported a similar finding in elite Dutch league pitchers; they only heard externally-focused cues 31% of the time. If collected, I’m sure data would reveal similar findings across many sports.

Specific Research Examples

In a 2007 study on golfers, Wulf and Su found that external instructions were superior in both novices and experts. When attention was directed at the swing of the club or a target (instead of a specific movement of the arms), performance was better. Conversely, Perkins-Ceccato et al. (2003) found that internal instructions were more beneficial with less skilled golfers than more skilled golfers.

In baseball, the results vary based on a number of factors, including the skill being coached. Out of four different attentional conditions, Castaneda and Gray 2007 found that highly skilled batters performed best when attention was focused on “the flight of the ball leaving the bat.”

These same batters performed worse when attending to “the movement of their hands” where the focus was internal. Interestingly, however, the less-skilled batters performed worse when attending to environmentally-oriented external cues. These batters fared best when the attention was aimed toward the execution of the skill - and there was no significant difference between external and internal instructions. So, in less skilled performers, both internal and external cues benefited performance.

In other sports, we see more of the same (Wulf 2013). Basketball free throw shooting accuracy benefited more from external cueing vs internal - i.e. focus on the trajectory of the ball instead of the flexion of your wrist. On the performance side, agility scores were better after external cues versus internal ones (Porter et al 2010).

There’s a host of other studies that have reported better results for externally-focused groups versus internally-focused ones (Wulf 2013). Benefits include greater maximal force production, more reps being performed during a bench press test, reduced 20m sprint times, increased broad jump distances, further discus throws, and a host of others. For specifics, I direct you to Wulf’s review, Attentional focus and motor Learning - A review of 15 years.

My Counter-Viewpoint

By now, you’re probably ready to throw all your internal cues out the window and completely switch over to external cueing strategies. Before you do, hear me out.

Let me be candid for a moment. Yes, there’s some compelling evidence suggesting that directing an athlete’s focus externally is more effective compared to internally. But after dissecting some of the research, conversing with world-class coaches - and testing it with my own athletes - I’m not sure that I’m completely convinced.

Because there’s an issue with a lot of the research. First, most studies are short lived. Learning is similar to typical training adaptations; there’s often a latency period (and at times, a pretty lengthy one at that). So, we’re still not quite sure if long-term retention and learning would be better served by using external versus internal cues.

Second, most seasoned coaches employ a combination of these two cueing strategies. They assess the situation and the athlete, and then provide a cue that corresponds to the needs of that particular moment/setting.

Do you really think a basketball player will become a better shooter, in the long run, if the only thing they focus on is the target (i.e., the basket)? That improving elbow position, and sequential extension of the elbow and flexion of the wrist won’t help the player perform better, eventually? If so, I’m sorry but you haven’t been around sport enough; and in particular, you haven’t seen less skilled athletes evolve their skills.

Sure, tell the basketball player to “flick the wrist” after releasing the ball and you’ll probably see them tense up certain muscles...initially. But over time, as that movement becomes automated, and they now have the ability to add spin and height to their shot, those muscles will eventually relax. And now tell that player to focus more on the hoop.

Personally, I believe there's a constant tug and pull, a back and forth, a mix and match type scenario that should occur. Sometimes, we need to focus on the positioning and/or execution of a particular body part. Other times, we should focus more on an external factor like the flight of the ball or a target. But this will all depend on the athlete, their preferences, their skill level, the time of year, the complexity of the task, the sport in question, and probably a host of other factors I haven’t yet considered.

My Experiences and Personal Observations with Cues

1. With beginners, I’ve used a mix of strategies from day 1. I have never been a fan of a kid standing in line waiting to hit a tennis ball from a stationary position. So instead, we would try to get kids rallying as quickly as possible. And a good way to do that would be to get them to focus on some external cues first. Drills that would help with the perception of an oncoming ball, the trajectory of the ball, a target, focusing on bouncing the ball off the string bed and so on. Then, we would try to tie in some interna’ cues to help them rally with more power, get more spin and so on. Things like “get your chin to touch your front shoulder” to facilitate more of a shoulder turn worked well.

2. In certain cases, external cueing can be more beneficial when approaching competitions. Many tennis players I’ve coached don’t want to hear anything about “traditional” technical cues (e.g., arm position, leg drive) when a big match is around the corner. In these instances, I’ve found that talking more about targets and trajectories works well. Things like “add shape” (using my hands to show the shape I’m looking for) to the ball might help to get more height (and safety) over the net. “Aim for the baseline” might help achieve more depth on shots when players are hitting short. Those types of external cues are also more distal - which get players thinking even less about their bodies (and letting automation take over).

3. While most players I’ve worked with don’t want to hear much about technique during competition time, there are some that need that type of feedback. In most cases, keeping cues familiar and simple has worked best. The key though, is that it should be specific to that player, and what you’ve been working on (and reinforcing) of late. For instance, one of my “minor league” pro guys was getting stuck with his forehand. He just wasn’t creating enough space between his elbow and his torso, which took some power off the swing (less leverage). We tried many cues but what worked for him was the feeling of getting his elbow “straighter” at contact (even though it was never completely straight). This actually forced him to prepare a little sooner, so that he could strike the ball earlier (more in front), which led to more distance between his elbow and torso (and all the other benefits - kinematically - that come with that) and which resulted in more speed on his forehand. This internal cue (“get that elbow straighter at impact”) worked for this player, no matter the time of year (even hearing it during the warm-up before a match helped).

4. I believe that some of the externally-focused cueing has been blown way out of proportion. On certain tasks, do we really need to bring an individual’s attention to an external source? Here’s an example I heard recently that a coach was cueing an athlete’s stance during a squat and said, “Imagine you’re standing on two railway tracks.” Really? Can we not just say, “stand shoulder width apart”? Is that going to make a big difference? Perhaps a cue like “I want to see your shirt logo during the entire squat” could help an athlete maintain better trunk positioning...but some athletes might be just fine with, “Keep your chest up”. As you can see, a lot of this is probably very athlete-dependent, which means a coach needs to know their athlete. And a lot of the cueing will be trial/error. And I think that’s completely fine!

5. One cue in, one cue out. This has been a game-changer for me, as I believe certain athletes are intelligent individuals and can process more than one cue at a time. For this to work well, tell the athlete to focus on one cue at the beginning of a movement - usually internal. And then one cue after that movement, or during the execution portion - usually external. For instance, during a jump, you might tell an athlete to “swing the arms back” as they are loading the movement and then ask them to “push the ground away” just prior to the propulsive (jumping) phase. The same can probably be done with swinging a racquet and hitting a baseball - keep the elbow [insert internal cue] during the prep phase and aim for the [insert external cue] when in the midst of striking.

6. The type of sport matters. Running, track, strength training, all have less opportunities for external focus cues compared to open-skilled sports like tennis and baseball. Therefore, it’s no wonder that more track coaches employ internal vs external cues with their athletes; there’s logic to that. Tennis and baseball, on the other hand, probably allow us to use a bit more externally-focused cueing strategy and just let the athlete go at it for a while.

Wrapping it Up...And What’s Next

I’ve heard the argument from researchers before - because most coaches use internal cues instead of external cues, athletes are accustomed to them and prefer them. But I’m not entirely convinced of this. Many elite settings - like Cressey Sports Performance, Altis, and others - have coaches who understand and employ both.

Either way, as you’ve noticed, I don’t believe we should use one type of cueing exclusively. Both have their place. Dan Pfaff, an elite tack coach (and mentor of mine), offered me this advice: “Most successful coaches are the ones that know when to use one over the other, and how to tread that line.”

He also mentioned that the timing/frequency of cueing - when, how often, etc. – is equally, if not more important. And when it comes to internally-focused cues, maybe that’s the issue. Maybe it’s tough to learn when you’re hearing five different cues in the span of ten seconds? But that’s a whole other can of worms...one we’ll explore in a follow-up post.

Note from EC: if you're looking to dig a bit deeper on this topic, I'd highly recommend you check out this podcast I did with Nick Winkelman:

 About the Author

Matt Kuzdub, MSc, (@CoachKuzdub) is best known for creating www.mattspoint.com - an online platform for all things tennis training - including coaching, resources and ebooks. He also coaches a small group of elite players (college & pro), both on and off the tennis court. Previously, Matt was the lead sport scientist at 'Train with PUSH' and holds an MSc in Strength & Conditioning from the University of Edinburgh. You can follow him on Instagram at @mattspoint_tennis.

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