Coaching Movements and Skills with Nick Winkelman

There are two parts to great coaching.

The first is possessing the right knowledge—what techniques to use, what exercises to use, what drills to use and what methods to use.

The other part, which is often overlooked, is the ability to communicate and help people apply the information in real situations.

You may know the right exercise to use, but unless you can get people to perform the exercise correctly, they won’t be able to get the results you expect.

This is why the art and science of coaching is so important.

Nick Winkelman is the head of athletic performance and science for the Irish Rugby Football Union, and was formerly the Director of Training Systems and Education for EXOS. He’s an expert when it comes to coaching, having worked with elite athletes from many different sports over the years. He has worked with NFL athletes, rugby players, tactical athletes, firefighters, baseball players and more.

The following article from Nick on the science of coaching will help you teach your clients how to pick up new skills quickly. You’ll be able to help them get more out of their training sessions, reduce frustration when practicing new skills and increase their trust in your coaching abilities.

You’ll learn a three-part framework for coaching, and how to optimize each component—the environment, the instructions and the feedback—for maximum skill learning and retention.

If you already have a lot of head knowledge and want to improve the results you get simply from changing the words you use to deliver that information, you’ll find this article very useful.


Nick Winkelman: The Science of Coaching

[Nick Winkelman] I’m going to show you a framework for coaching that will help your athletes learn new skills faster, and help them transfer those new skills onto the field of play.

Even if you work with the general population, this framework will help you communicate more effectively with your clients, and help them learn new movements much more quickly.

The Theory: A Framework for Coaching

coaching hierarchy

If you look at the framework for coaching, at the bottom is the learning environment. Independent of what you say to your athlete or client, you can design a specific environment that optimizes learning.

Changing a person’s environment can immediately start to have an impact, not only on how an athlete practices, but also how that information is retained and, more importantly, transferred to the field.

While practice is important, what you really want is for it to transfer into real situations.

From there, you want to start looking at instruction. How do you actually teach an athlete to move? How do you give instructions to a novice, an intermediate or a highly expert athlete? How can you optimize it just from that first exposure?

Finally, once an athlete or client moves, how can you give appropriate feedback to refine that motor system? Are there certain bits of information that are going to help them, or certain bits of information that can hinder them?

You want to know the information that’s going to optimize learning, and immediately start retracting any statements that could be negative to learning.

Let’s look at each three of these components in greater detail.

  1. Optimizing the learning environment

When you look at practice design and the learning environment, the first thing you want to attain is the goal. The goal is to optimize learning and retention in an effort to reach maximum transfer to the sporting environment.

It’s all about how that practice transfers to the environment. Just because someone is practicing well does not mean the information they’re learning is going to transfer to the environment of sport or play.

Setting up practice to optimize transfer

There are two factors that influence how practice transfers to actual game situations: practice variability and contextual interference.

Practice variability is the variety of movement and context characteristics that a person experiences while practicing a skill.

With practice variability, our goal initially is to create context.

You want people to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. This empowers them to make those changes by themselves. This way when they make an error, they can look back at it and tell you what they did wrong.

On the next repetition, you don’t even need to give them information. They’ll understand how to make the fix. This is context. The higher the level of context our athletes have, the better it tells us how expert they are.

The goal of contextual interference is to interfere with an athlete or client’s context—their understanding of how to do the movement, how to correct it, when they’re doing it right or when they’re doing it wrong.

You’re probably thinking, “Why would you want to interfere with context? Why would you want to interfere with your athletes’ understanding of what they’re doing right or what they’re doing wrong?”

Essentially, if you do the same movement over and over again within the same session, it almost becomes automatic. You know the predictability of the pattern because you’re doing it over and over again. Your focus on that movement isn’t high. When your focus on the movement isn’t high, you tend not to learn as well.

If we interfere by giving you more movements, more variations and even randomizing the order of different movements, your cognitive system undergoes greater overload.

You can’t get complacent. You can’t predict or anticipate what’s going to happen next. Your body constantly has to be prepared to react. Your cognitive system ends up experiencing a greater load.

Just like the body, when you overload a certain area of the system, the system will adapt by learning and being able to deal with these higher interference factors.

Think about a time when you’ve driven home. You’ve driven home thousands of times on the same road. I’m sure there have been times where you didn’t even realize how you got home.

You covered that 30 minutes, but in your mind you’ve been going through what you did that day, what you’re going to do that night, and what you’re going to do tomorrow because your body has the auto-pilot, this autonomy.

Essentially, this same thing can happen in practice when it’s a blocked practice. Your body just knows what’s going to happen. Thus, you do it over and over again. The learning effect isn’t as high.

This is why if we interfere with contextual interference through a random-type practice, it has been shown to drive up learning effects in transfer skills and actually transferring to the sport.

Yes, your athletes may make more errors with contextual interference. But you will see higher retention rates from practice sessions, meaning your athletes will master new skills in a shorter amount of time.

2. Optimizing instructions

Priming the motor system with proper task instruction is important whether you’re working with athletes or the general population.

You can instruct in one of two ways—using either verbal information or visual information.

Visual information

With visual information you have two options. You can show someone learning the movement for the first time, mistakes and all. Or you can show someone performing it perfectly.

You should try to instruct using the latter—showing someone performing the task perfectly, though there may actually be some benefit from observing a novice and learning from that.

Verbal information

With verbal instruction, you want to provide one or two focus cues to build awareness. Within this, you want to limit unnecessary information to avoid over-coaching. The more information we give, the more of their attentional capacity we take. The more of their attentional capacity we take, the less attention they have to actually focus on the movement they’re doing.

A perfect example is this: Have you ever had someone do a movement and then while doing the movement, you say, “Great job. Keep that up.”

All of a sudden the person messes up.

The reason is we’ve diverted the attention from what the person was doing and put the attention toward you, now exposing the movement as having a dysfunction.

In all reality, the movement was fine. It was your interference or the attentional focus that drove the movement to go haywire.

With verbal information, you can either give it an internal focus or an external focus.

Internally focused cues draw attention to muscles and body parts. For example, extending a knee, firing a quad or squeezing a glute.

Externally focused cues, on the other hand, draw attention to the environment around the body. For example, pushing the ground away or driving the body off the line.

When we cue, we want to cue with an external focus, and diminish any kind of cueing that drives up an internal focus.

This is probably the most important concept for both instruction and feedback.

Dr. Gabriele Wulf’s work has shown that focusing someone externally improves performance and efficiency, as opposed to focusing someone internally, which decreases performance and decreases efficiency.

External focus also improves transfer and retention.

Every time you give information, you’re affecting the attention of the person. If you focus the attention externally, it takes up less demand. If it takes up less attentional demand, it allows more attentional resources toward the movement.

This is exactly what we want.

What to always start and finish instructions with

You want to always start and finish instruction with what you want versus what you don’t want.

If you tell people not to do something or you identify an error, there are 1,000 other things they can do. You’re not focusing their attention.

You want to tell them what we want them to do correctly. Give them one option—one focus point. It decreases their attentional demand, allowing the focus and move to be successful.

3. Feedback to refine learning

Feedback is given during practice to refine the motor system. You’ll still use verbal information and external cues as previously outlined.

There are two different categories of feedback—task-intrinsic feedback and augmented feedback.

Task-intrinsic feedback is very simple. It’s essentially the natural feedback that comes from doing a movement. It can be visual, auditory, tactile or proprioceptively connected.

Taking the example of people in archery. If they pull back and shoot, they can use visual feedback to understand exactly where they hit on the target. You don’t need to tell them they missed the bull’s eye.

Other tasks give less feedback naturally and require an additional input of information. For example, it’s hard for sprinters to tell how much extension they have or how much knee drive they have.

This is where augmented feedback comes in.

You can give two types of augmented feedback—knowledge of results or knowledge of performance.

Knowledge of results is essentially information about the outcome of a skill or the goals achieved. It’s the numbers. For example, how fast a person runs.

Knowledge of performance is information about the movement characteristics that led to the outcome. These are more qualitative.

In the example of running a 40, knowledge of results would be that you ran the 40 in 4.56 seconds.

Knowledge of performance would be driving the knees during the first five yards.

If you want to be highly external, draw a black dot on the end of the knee and say, “Drive that black dot more during the first five yards” to drive in even more external focus.

As athletes improve ability and have the context on how to correct themselves, we tend to give them more knowledge of results.

How much feedback does a person need?

New coaches tend to think that more is always better. They coach every single repetition. They’re talking the entire time because they value themselves as coaches.

But is this ideal?

Let’s look at one of the most powerful studies ever done on instruction and feedback, a study from Dr. Gabriele Wulf done in 2002.

Fifty-two participants took part in a passing accuracy task. Feedback frequency and internal versus external focus was examined. They had four different groups.

They had one group who received 100% feedback, and there was an internal cue. The second group received 100% feedback, and there was an external cue. The third group received 33% feedback, with an internal cue. Finally, the fourth group received 33%, with an external cue.

As a whole, both in practice as well as a couple of days later in retention, an external focus was found to be superior to internal focus. Performance, accuracy and all of the variables improved not only in practice, but in retention as well.

They also found that 33% feedback—giving information every third repetition—was superior to 100% feedback for all internal focus conditions. Internal focus messes up athletes, so giving them less of that feedback is better.

Now, here’s the interesting fact: In terms of the external focus, 33% and 100% feedback were equally as effective. If you’re working with novice athletes or they’re learning a novel task, you might want to communicate with them a bit more. That’s fine as long as the feedback is externally oriented.

As a whole, though, less feedback is better than more. That 33% to 50% feedback amount is what you see in the literature.

And external is better than internal.

Identifying what feedback to give

You have to understand how the movements biomechanically and physiologically are supposed to be performed so you can focus your attention.

You want to understand the major technical components of the movement and understand that multiple errors will oftentimes be seen, especially when you’re looking at running, linear and multi-directional movement.

You then want to prioritize the multiple errors.

You want to direct your feedback at the true weakest link—cause versus symptom. This means if you see five things going wrong, four of them are probably symptoms, but one of them is actually a cause.

The better you understand movement, the better you can understand the causes of movement dysfunction and which are just symptoms

When giving feedback, you can give prescriptive or descriptive feedback.

Prescriptive is better for the beginner or intermediate athlete. You want to say exactly what you want them to do right to fix the problem. Even if what they’re doing is wrong, focus on what you want them to do. Keep it positive.

Descriptive means telling the athletes what they did wrong. If they have high levels of autonomy and you tell them what they did wrong, high-level autonomist athletes can handle that because they know how to fix it. They don’t need you to tell them how to fix it.

A final reminder

Don’t just be proud of practice, but look at how practice and training actually transfers to the field.

If you’re making baseball players faster, does it actually result in more stolen bases? If you’re making golf players stronger, can they actually drive the ball farther and more accurately when they’re on the golf course?

Look for transfer.


Nick Winkelman

Nick Winkelman is the head of athletic performance & science for the Irish Rugby Football Union. Prior to working for Irish Rugby, Nick was the director of education for EXOS (formerly Athletes’ Performance), located in Phoenix, AZ. As a performance coach, Nick oversaw the speed and assessment component of the EXOS NFL Combine Development Program. Nick has also supported many athletes in the NFL, MLB, NBA, National Sport Organizations and Military. Nick is an internationally recognized speaker on human performance and coaching science, and has multiple publications through the UKSCA, NSCA and IDEA Health and Fitness. The best way to connect with Nick is via facebook or twitter .

If you liked this article and want to learn more from Nick about effective coaching, here are a few resources you may find helpful.

Nick Winkelman: Science of Coaching—Theory Applied


This article was extracted from Nick’s lecture, Science of Coaching: Theory Applied. In the complete lecture, Nick goes through other important coaching points, including:

  • Three different ways you can practice: which you should use with beginners, and which you should use with highly skilled individuals.
  • Factoring in regulatory and non-regulatory conditions when designing practice sessions. These affect motor skill characteristics and must be considered if you want practice to transfer into competition.
  • The difference between closed and open skills, and which you should use in practice depending on the situation
  • Do your athletes want to jump higher? A simple cue from one of Gabriele Wulf’s studies that got people jumping significantly higher
  • Types of feedback that allow you to optimize the quality of feedback you give to people
  • Where the current research in motor learning falls short, and what coaches need to factor in when reading the research
  • A type of feedback to try with advanced athletes that can empower them and tell you more about how they want to receive information

Click here to get Nick Winkelman’s full lecture, Science of Coaching: Theory Applied.

Gabriele Wulf: Attention and Motor Skill Learning


This is the book Nick refers to in his lecture.

In Attention and Motor Skill Learning, Gabriele Wulf looks at the the difference between internal and external focus, and its impact on motor skill learning. She delves into the research and draws practical applications for different groups and situations.

This is a great resource if you’re interested in the science behind teaching and coaching a motor skill. This is a textbook and a fairly heavy read.

Click here to get Gabriele Wulf’s Attention and Motor Skill Learning on Amazon.

Want to become a better coach or trainer?


In Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums, Gray Cook and Dan John provide plenty of practical tips you can start applying immediately.

They cover—

  • When to correct and when to coach
  • Minimum standards to progress, hold or regress
  • The difference between an exercise continuum and a training progression
  • How to evaluate movement health, competency, capacity and complexity
  • Postures and patterns, and drills to develop both
  • Exercise choices for power, work capacity and metabolic load

… and much more.

You can use what you learn, together with what you learned in Nick’s commentary on the science of coaching to get better results for your clients.

To find out more about Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums, click here.

Tap into the Brains of Some of the World’s Leading Performance Experts

FREE Access to the OTP Vault


Inside the OTP Vault, you’ll find over 20 articles and videos from leading strength coaches, trainers and physical therapists such as Dan John, Gray Cook, Michael Boyle, Stuart McGill and Sue Falsone.

Click here to get FREE access to the On Target Publications vault and receive the latest relevant content to help you and your clients move and perform better.