If you work as a trainer or a coach, you can probably see pretty quickly if a client isn’t strong enough or flexible enough to meet their goals. And you probably have a bunch of great strategies to help them get there.
But what about that client who just… can’t?
You know the ones I’m talking about. They should be able to do what you’re teaching them. They’ve got the necessary strength or range of motion. But they just can’t seem to perform the exercise you’re teaching.
It’s like there’s a missing link.
Often, what they’re missing is motor control. Even though their bodies have the necessary physical attributes to do the things they want to do, they don’t know how to put those attributes together to accomplish their goal.
Think of a baby trying to get its hand in its mouth.
It’s physically capable of doing it. Sometimes it even gets it in there by accident. But when it intentionally tries to move its hand toward its mouth, its hand goes all over the place!
Obviously, your clients have more control than babies. But you get the point. They need your help to fill in the missing link in their training. But compared to strength and flexibility, motor control is more subtle, harder to measure, and so can be hard to coach effectively.
I’ve used the following three strategies to help my clients achieve better motor control. Try them out and I’ll bet you’ll see results for your clients, too.
What’s Really Going On With Your “Difficult” Client?
Anyone can go on YouTube and find random exercise videos. Your clients come to you for coaching because they want your expertise on programming and technique.
Your job, more than anything, is to learn how each of your clients “tick” so that you can present information in a way that is meaningful to them, in a way that increases their ability to understand how to perform a particular movement.
So, when a student is getting frustrated because his body is not able to understand how to perform a movement, there’s a good chance you’re not connecting with him in a way that is best suited to him.
And that makes sense.
It takes many years to get comfortable enough with teaching a wide variety of clients, and to be able to adjust your teaching style to fit each of their needs. And that’s doubly challenging when you have clients who just aren’t getting it.
But it does come down to your teaching.
With the exception of clients who are being difficult for other reasons (which I’ll discuss below), if a client is struggling with motor control, it’s up to you to change your teaching approach to match their needs. Let’s take a look at three strategies to do just that.
1. External Cueing for the “Motor Challenged” Client
If a client just isn’t getting a particular movement with the cueing you’re using, it’s time to change those cues.
After all, if a cue doesn’t work, shouting it louder is not likely to work either.
The good news is there are many different things you can try with cueing until you find something that your client can understand and implement.
Internal vs. External Cues
It’s very common to teach skills using internal cues, which focus on responses within the body. For instance, when teaching a handstand, you might say, “push your shoulders up toward your ears.”
For many people, this type of cue works, but for those lacking motor control, asking them to feel a response in their bodies might not work. They’re not as in tune with where their bodies are in space, and won’t be able to use that feedback to dictate their movements.
In these cases, external cues work much better. This is where you give the client something outside of herself to use for feedback.
For instance, when teaching the handstand, I’ll tell a client, “push the floor away from you.” She doesn’t have to figure out what’s going on in her body and respond to that; she can just push the floor away. This will yield the same result as the “push your shoulders up toward your ears” cue.
How to Give External Cues
There are a lot of different ways to give external cues, but here are some good options:
- Distance–You can give cues related to distance. For instance, if you’re teaching your student broad jumping, draw a line to give them a good distance to aim for. For novice students, you’ll want to give distance cues that are closer to the body, whereas you can give cues that are further away for advanced athletes.
- Direction–Use cues that help them understand the direction of the movement (e.g. “pull the bar toward yourself” or “push the floor away from yourself”).
- Description–Select descriptive words that link to the movement, such as push, drive, snap, explode, spring, etc.
- Context–Create context for the movement. Chip Conrad talks about “squeezing the trolls’ heads that are inside your armpit.” I think of this every time I do push-ups. It may seem silly, but finding some context to which your client can relate the movement can be very helpful.
- Feedback–Give your client feedback appropriate for their level. Research shows that positive feedback is best for novices, whereas higher level athletes will respond better to negative feedback.
One thing that’s important to bear in mind is you don’t want to inundate your client with too many cues at once.
Be a minimalist in your cueing. Even high level performers can only handle a couple of cues at the same time. If there are hundreds of mistakes with an exercise, just pick the one that is the most foundational (and likely the cause of several others) and focus on that. The less the client has to think about, the more attention they can give to the movement.
There’s also no need to give feedback on every attempt. Science suggests that 33%-50% of the time is optimal. Allow the client to use as much of their attention on the movement as possible.
2. Addressing the Two Most Common Mindset Issues
Sometimes, a client will continue to struggle with a movement, even with adjustments in cueing. Often, this can be explained by common mindset issues.
The two most common mindset issues that hold people back from making sufficient progress with their motor control are a fearful mindset and a fixed mindset.
A client with a fearful mindset will be scared that “I’m not flexible enough” or “my elbow will break if I try that.”
Any number of fears can create a block in a person’s progress. And when it comes to motor control in particular, fear can be a big hindrance.
In many cases, these fears are legitimate, but even if they’re not, don’t dismiss them.
When I have a client with this mindset issue, I simply break the movement down to something she knows she can do. I’ll start there, and then take her step by step until we reach the movement that is giving her trouble.
Even if you know they are capable, you need them to know that before their body will allow them to do it.
Carol Dweck talks about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
A growth mindset is when you feel that you can improve and change any aspect of yourself with consistent work and effort. A fixed mindset, though, is when you believe your abilities are predetermined and unchangeable.
When you have a client with a fixed mindset, it’s going to be difficult to help them see that they can learn to do things they couldn’t do before.
I have found a couple of strategies that work when dealing with people with fixed mindsets:
- Build Trust–Once you build trust with them, your confidence in their potential abilities may help them overcome their own barriers.
- Give Them Space–My wife has a fixed mindset, and sometimes, I will suggest a progression and she will refuse to try it. I will leave her to think on it for awhile, and after some time, she often approaches the progression on her own.
- Try a Group Setting–Sometimes students with fixed mindsets do much better in group settings. In classes, the students can see peers at comparable (or lesser) skill levels, and that often motivates them to push past whatever they think they can’t do.
You can encourage clients with fixed mindsets to cultivate growth mindsets, by spending some time helping them explore what’s important to them and what will help them stay motivated to continue improving.
You may, however, also encounter some fixed mindset clients who are not ready to cooperate and do things that are unsafe. Without question, these are clients with whom you have to part ways. Keeping them on will only pose a liability to you, and will only make them more frustrated with their lack of progress.
3. Use Movements That Directly Target Motor Control
A vital part of helping your clients overcome difficulties with motor control is to directly address this issue with the movements you’re teaching them.
External cueing and addressing mindset issues will make a big difference in the exercises you’re teaching, but supplementing that with locomotive movements that take your clients through unique positions will quicken their progress and help them learn better.
Playful movements help improve motor control by challenging proprioception and coordination, and by giving your client opportunities to practice controlling their movements in unique positions.
There are many movements you can try out, but here are just three examples of some movements you can incorporate into your training sessions with motor challenged clients. These can be used as a warm-up or cool down, or as a more substantial part of your training session.
- Start in a downward dog position, with your butt pushed up into the air.
- Press your wrists into the ground as you walk forward by sliding your right arm and left leg forward at the same time.
- While still pressing your hands into the ground, move your left arm and right leg forward.
- Keep up this contralateral pattern as you move slowly and with control.
- Start by dropping into a deep squat position (as deep as you can comfortably go).
- Place your hands on the ground to the front and outside of your leg, so that your right hand is just in front of your left foot and your left hand is about a foot apart from your right hand.
- Press into the ground as you pull your legs over to the left, landing with your right foot just behind your left hand.
- Keep going toward the left for several paces in a row before switching directions.
- Similar to the Monkey, you’ll start in a squat position, going as deeply as you can comfortably go.
- Place your hands on the ground about a foot in front of you, with your hands just inside your knees.
- Press into the ground to hop your legs forward to meet your hands.
- Reset your hands so they are in front of you, and keep moving forward in this fashion.
Helping Your Clients Build Better Motor Control
Motor control might seem like a tricky thing to improve, even if you don’t specifically struggle with it. Teaching someone else how to improve motor control can seem downright impossible.
But with the right cueing and attention to details, you can make a big impact.
Plus, you can work with your clients on improving their motor control by incorporating specific movements that will help them increase their control and body awareness, which will then translate into whatever exercises you’re teaching them. Our GMB Trainers have had great success with using these movements to encourage better motor control.
Movements that put them into positions they’re not used to being in will help them learn to navigate their bodies through the space around them.
Our Vitamin course is made up of movements that specifically target motor control. Use these movements with your clients (or yourself!), and you’ll see how much better they perform with the skills you’re teaching them.
Use Movement to Improve Motor Control
Vitamin will help you and your clients build better motor control by increasing confidence and creativity in your movement.
To recap, here’s a quick summary of the main points I covered in this article:
|How to Teach Motor Control|
|1. Use external cueing.|
|2. Help them overcome fearful mindsets and fixed mindsets.|
|3. Teach them movements that directly target motor control.|