How do our clients learn new movements? How can we best communicate with our clients? How, if at all, should our communication differ between training an individual and training a group? How can we best utilise our communication skills as trainers to maximise the learning process and training experience for our participants?

The learning process

Motor learning “is the process of acquiring a skill by which the learner, through practice and assimilation, refines and makes automatic the desired movement"1. This is what our clients experience when learning a new exercise! Our professional responsibility as a trainer is to help our clients best execute our chosen exercises so as to avoid injury and achieve their goals. The exercises we choose are only effective to the level at which they are executed. We can create some of the most triumphant training programs around that will have little to no benefit to our clients if executed incorrectly. For this reason, the way our clients learn is of the upmost importance and depends ultimately upon our ability to teach. Put simply, in order for our clients to have success in their training, we must render the learning process as simple and effective as possible through high-quality teaching.


As a coach, there are myriad ways we can help our clients learn new movements. Many professionals rely heavily on verbal information as a feedback mechanism to correct clients’ execution. The extent to which this coaching technique can positively impact on a client’s motor skill acquisition has recently been put into question.

Communication is the imparting or exchanging of information. It is our means of developing client rapport, building relationships, explaining exercises and communicating our professional knowledge. Coaches are very much on the front line of human interaction, in direct contact with clients, and hence must be experts in the art of communicating.

There are many different ways we can choose to communicate with our clients and there are direct – positive and negative – repercussions of the specific language we choose. Coaching cues are snippets of information, or task-orientated information, used to teach the client how to perform the task/skill2. How we utilise our coaching cues can be the difference between the client completing the task successfully and executing the movement correctly and potentially injuring themselves.


Attentional focus is defined as the conscious ability of an individual to focus their attention through explicit thoughts in an effort to execute a task.3 An athlete’s attentional focus can be directed internally on their body movements or externally on the effect their movements have on the environment.

Example: “explode through your hips” or “explode off the ground”

The constrained action hypothesis (CAH) states that internal attentional focus may potentially impact on an athlete’s performance negatively, causing them to interfere with their body’s natural movements. More specifically, when a client’s attention is directed externally (i.e., to a task) rather than internally (“activate the core”), the motor control system operates under non-conscious processes, hence improving movement execution. The reason for this is because, when attention is directed internally, the motor control system operates under consciously controlled processes, potentially invoking working memory4, which constrains the motor system, leading to a less reflexive and fluent movement pattern. Consequently, movement performance is impaired when compared with an external focus of attention5, 6.

Cue frequency

Our short-term memory has a biological limit of approximately four items of information on average7. Similarly, it is known that verbal instructions and cues can have an impact on working memory, which is closely tied to the efficacy of motor skill acquisition8. The load placed on working memory has a direct impact on performance, with internal focus instructions having a greater demand on working memory compared with external focus instructions4. Hence poorer performances as a result of the adoption of internal focus may be due to the increased memory demands placed on the individual. The accumulation of information that results from an overload of internal focus instructions disrupts the working memory and potentially causes a decrement in athletic performance.

It is thus proposed that providing short and concise external instructions will lessen the demand that is placed on the athlete’s working memory and therefore lead to enhanced athletic performance8.

Learning styles and groups

There are three primary learning styles our clients may bias. An auditory learner is a person who most effectively learns through listening. A client with this learning style may benefit most from the initial part of our coaching, in which we explain the exercise to the client and the client listens. A visual learner is a person who learns most effectively through observation. A client with this style of learning may profit most from the demonstration part of our coaching, whereby we demonstrate the correct execution of the movement. Finally, a kinaesthetic learner is someone who prefers to move with their body and interact with their environment when learning. To better understand something, they need to touch or feel it; hence practical information is usually preferred over theoretical concepts. For this reason, a kinaesthetic learner may benefit most from the physical practice of an exercise while we observe and provide feedback to the client.

In a group, we may find that each individual biases a different learning style and, consequently, it becomes troublesome effectively communicating exercises. A tell, show, do approach, in which we provide the opportunity for each client and their associated learning style to apprehend what is required of them, may be the most effective approach. At the heart of ViPR and Loaded Movement Training lies this simple and effective teaching technique, whereby we first explain the task and what is specifically required of the client. Secondly, we demonstrate the exercise while providing some more specific cues with visual reinforcement. Lastly, we allow the clients to perform the exercise while providing simple feedback to ensure they feel the correct execution. This teaching technique allows us to tackle separately each individual learning style while collectively explaining exercises to larger groups of people.

Conclusion – practical applications

Understanding the way our clients acquire motor skills and how best we can teach new movements is of upmost importance. It is apparent that the way in which we teach any one client must directly correspond with their specific learning style. Demonstrating our understanding of human anatomy and movement to our clients through the use of internal cues might not be the most effective way to teach our clients. It is evident that, to best enhance the motor learning process, clear and simple external clues are most effective.

The way we communicate with an individual client and a group may differ due to the different learning styles present among the individuals in the group. In order to successfully communicate with a group, an integrated approach of tell, show, do – whereby we first explain the movement, then demonstrate it and, lastly, have the clients perform it – may be most effective.

Joseph Taylor is the founder of The Total Player, a UK-based sports performance training company, providing athletic development to professional footballers. ACE certified personal trainer and a ViPR Master trainer specialising in functional training and sports performance, Joseph is also a professional footballer with over 150 appearances in professional football in Singapore, Italy and the UK.


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