Table of Contents

External vs Internal Cues – Negative vs Positive Reinforcement

When I was young, my parents taught me it was important to be mindful of the things you say to others.

“Think before you speak,” they would tell me.

That old adage, ingrained into my head over the years, has a great deal more relevance to me now than I had ever given it credit for. As I have grown older and gained more wisdom, I have found — especially when working with athletes — that the words we use and how we use them matter.

When developing athletes, what you say — which is called”cueing” — can elicit a positive or negative response. Through cueing, coaches can focus an athlete’s attention either internally toward their own body movements, or externally toward the effects their movement has on the environment. Researchers have found that performance movements in sports like golf, which require the generation of force or power, can be significantly increased by externally directed cues (Bredin, Dickson and Warburton 2013).

Internal vs External Cues

An example of the difference between an internal and external cue can be seen in the interaction
between Chris Finn, physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach at Par4success Sports
Performance, and an athlete he was coaching. In order to get the athlete to move her knees higher
when running, Finn gave the external cue of “running through tall grass,” and then the internal cue of practicing “high knees” while the athlete had her hands up against a wall.

As a coach, it is important to identify the goals you and your athlete are trying to achieve and keep cues simple. When learning a new movement pattern it can be frustrating at times for both the coach and athlete, but everyone learns at their own pace and will respond to different cues based on their own personal experiences (Wulf 2010). Developing a relationship with the athlete will facilitate communication. Being patient and learning how to say the same thing several different ways until the desired outcome is achieved is the sign of a diligent, attentive coach.

Positive vs Negative Reinforcement

Another manner in which coaches attempt to elicit a reaction from an athlete is through positive and negative reinforcement. Positive refers to a reinforcing stimulus that the coach wants the athlete to continue, whereas negative reinforcement occurs when trying to remove an adverse stimulus as a result of a behavior. Negative feedback is NOT a punishment, and is considered much more effective when changing an initial habit. But this effect wears off in the long run. Using a combination of both, whereby negative feedback gets you started and positive feedback maintains the progression, has been shown to be a more successful method (McLeod 2015).

As an example, consider a golfer who has been coming over the top of the ball. Negative feedback would be eliminating the yelling (adverse stimulus) from the member’s home you keep hitting. While positive feedback would entail a coach complimenting his athlete “great job not hitting the home on the first hole.” Ok, perhaps I need to work on that one.

Overall, it is more productive to be mindful of how we speak to each other (in all walks of life, really). But when dealing with an athlete specifically, it is of utmost importance to understand how the words you choose through external and internal cueing– and the way you say them — will influence an athlete and help or hinder their performance.

Marc Beeber
Intern, Spring 2017


Bredin, S., Dickson, D., and Warburton, D., 2013. Effects of varying attentional focus on health-related physical fitness performance. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 38, pp.

McLeod, S., 2015. Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from conditioning.html

Wulf, G. et al., 2010. Frequent External-Focus Feedback Enhances Motor Learning. Frontiers in
Psychology, 1, pp. 190.

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