The Language of Coaching

The Language of Coaching

Paul Arden | Tuesday, 25 October 2022

Nick Winkelman has written a truly first class book on the science of coaching. I am regularly asked by new instructors how to teach and what to teach. Where to even start? And while this book will certainly help new instructors and should in my opinion become essential reading, I think perhaps it’s greatest value is in helping experienced coaches to become better at what they do. I am a strong believer that as constantly improving flycasting coaches, we should be looking outwards to coaches of other sports, in order to see what they do, how they interpret the scientific research of learning movement, so that we can bring their expertise and insight into our profession. Nick is a coach’s coach and so “The Language of Coaching” is an excellent place to start. 

While Nick’s book is entitled “The Language of Coaching”, there is very much more to it than the use of language. It is really a book on how to coach modern sports movement and get the best results. I particularly like his starting position, of analysing movement using the 3Ps: Position, Power and Pattern.

In fly casting we have an additional point of focus. We do not throw the rod, but instead move the rod to turn the line into an unrolling loop. This loop is shaped by the path of the rod tip during the Casting Stroke. Because the Loop is the outcome and because the rod tip needs to track straight (for many casts), everything that the body does needs to make this straight tip path happen. It’s of such overwhelming importance that many instructors only concentrate on this. That’s actually one of my primary reasons for recommending his book – because tip path is the outcome of rod movement, which in turn is the outcome of body movement. In other words, when we teach, we first and foremost teach the body how to move. If you agree with that, then this book is for you.

The Language of Coaching is very detailed in explaining how students/athletes learn and recall. It covers all aspects of cueing in detail. It has a section devoted to one of my favourite things; analogies. And of course, as you would expect, Nick discusses the use of words and really listening to your student to discover what words he/she uses. And finally, it gives us the tools to challenge and change how we coach. In short: it’s going to make you a better coach. 

So I thought it would be interesting to get in touch with Nick and ask him a few questions. I have a few of my own and a few from Board members…


Questions for Nick Winkelman


Nick, thank you very much for writing your excellent, informative and thought-provoking book! And thanks also to agreeing to answer a few questions from us. 

My pleasure, Paul, thank you for inviting me to chat about the concepts in the book and how they apply to fly casting.

Here are a few from me:

How important do you think it is it for a coach to be able to perform or demonstrate the skills he/she is teaching?

Some background to begin. I believe a coach’s ability to cue a movement is, in part, impacted by their physical ability to perform it. It is hard to build up a nuanced understanding of how to cue someone into the right pattern of movement having never developed an embody sense of it (i.e., how should this feel) yourself. That said, it is inevitable that a coach’s ability to physically demonstrate will change with age, limiting their ability to model the movement effectively. However, this doesn't remove the embedded “physical memory” of how to perform the movement, which underpins effective cue/analogy creation. 

Now for the question. Yes, I believe that demonstrating or providing a visual model of how the movement should be performed is very beneficial to most. We have far more neural real estate dedicated to processing visual vs. verbal information - this is why we say a picture is worth a thousand words. However, given what I’ve discussed above, there are no rules that say the demonstration couldn’t come from another student or even a video. While live is best in my opinion (as the eye picks up the three dimensions authentically), I see no issue in using video for both demonstration and analysis of change over time. 


How much crossover is there between teaching movement in one sport to another?

Principally, the more movements you are familiar with performing and coaching, the greater you can generalize those senses and skills to coaching other movements. As a strength coach, I do not coach singular sporting skills per se, however, I coach a huge inventory of general movement, which has given me a highly transferable sense of how the body organizes itself to produce outcome oriented movement patterns. Interestingly, you don’t have to be great or elite at performing the movements yourself, you just need to have a sense of how effective movement is sparked or felt, and how to convert that into language that can be absorbed and applied by the student. 


When studying an athlete’s movement, many of us have what I call an “ideal movement silhouette filter” that we place between the athlete and ourselves. Yet we also talk about athlete self-organisation through constraints. Sometimes it’s just a hell of a lot easier and quicker to say to an athlete “try this”. Are the results for self-organisation so compelling that this is always a better way?

This is certainly a hot topic in motor learning. At the end of the day, we are not puppet masters pulling the strings, so it is all self-organization at a basic level. The question is whether the athlete is learning to self-organize under learning conditions that represent the skill in real life - I call this the National Geographic filter - is this how it is done in the wild. Now, people argue that the more the athlete can “figure it out or solve it” on their own the better. The rationale here is simple, if you learn without understanding how you learned (i.e., not being exposed to detailed - step-by-step - instruction) then you are less likely to over-analyze and succumb to paralysis x analysis. This is why we say “it is like riding a bike” when it comes to moments or behaviors that are engrained at a physical opposed to conceptual level. With all this said, we have to recognize that humans are movement generalists - we can run, swim, and climb, but we are not the best runners, swimmers, and climbers in the animal kingdom. As such, the body is really good at getting good enough. Learning to ride a bike is not the same as becoming an elite BMXer. Thus, instruction is often what is needed to go from “good to better.” However, the health warning here is what led to the debate on whether “to coach or not to coach.” If we over-coach with the wrong information, even with the best of intentions, we can lead the athlete to create a hyper-intellectual or conceptual understanding of the movement that is as physically strong or embedded in their sense of performing it. This is best seen when the athlete says, “I know what to do, I just don’t know how to do it.” This is why having a methodology for effective cue and analogy creation is essential. This methodology, built on the motor learning area of attentional focus, helps the coach understand how to “educate the students attention” in a way that harmonizes with “natural” self-organization, rather distracting from it. In short, it is about better cueing and better constraints not cues vs. constraints. 


Now I have a rather long one! Most of my lessons nowadays are via Zoom video conferencing and I’ve had many opportunities to experiment, particularly recently with internal and external cues. Not being aware of the distinction until only last year, I started to analyse how I’ve been cueing. Mostly my successful cues are external (I’m happy to say!). I really like the way you describe how to use the cue: short, to the point and delivered after a pause. This advice has undoubtedly improved my coaching, so thanks! 

However, it has also inevitably led me down the garden path of trying to turn my internal cues into external ones in order to assess the results over time. And I have found that it can be extremely difficult to find an external cue for a sequence of movement (pattern) that otherwise could be relatively easily described and taught using, for example, slow motion pantomime. In particular when teaching the backcast in flycasting, it can be challenging to find an analogy because it appears to be not something we have done before or have developed in our childhood. Ie throwing something up and over our shoulder – who does that? (We do have analogies of course, such as throwing car keys over our shoulder, but we still have to teach how to do this!). Also, a single cue doesn’t always work if we are training a kinetic chain of motion and we want to focus on one particular link in the chain. In this regards it can be extremely difficult to teach without drawing attention to how the body moves which of course becomes internal focus.

There is a simple answer here - both types of cues (internal and external) are important. The key is knowing how to use them in the correct order to maximize conceptual understanding (i.e., WHAT is required for the movement to be successful) and movement performance (i.e., HOW to perform the pattern in its - oneness or wholeness). At the end of the day, we experience this symphony of joints and muscles as one, however, the limitations of language require that we break things apart to talk about them. As such, we cannot confuse the “rules” of language with the realities of movement. Therefore, when I’m teaching a skill, I use what I refer to as the Coaching Communication Loop. This is a five phase process that organizes a coaches language so they say the right stuff at the right time. The long version of the loop is used for teaching a skill for the first time or reviewing it in depth. The short version of the loop is used for teaching skills the student is already familiar with. 


Long loop:

DESCRIBE the movement (internal or external language here)

DEMONSTRATE the movement (visual representation that can be used for pantomime)

CUE the movement (provide one - that’s ONE - external cue or analogy to guide oneness of mind)

DO the movement (student performs with the CUE guiding the movement)

DEBRIEF the movement (coach and student discus outcome and decide to REPEAT, REFINE, or RETIRE the cue)


Short Loop:

CUE the movement (provide one - that’s ONE - external cue or analogy to guide oneness of mind)

DO the movement (student performs with the CUE guiding the movement)

DEBRIEF the movement (coach and student discus outcome and decide to REPEAT, REFINE, or RETIRE the cue)


To be clear, this model is a guide and not every step needs to be used before every rep or a set of an activity. You may use more or less description, depending on demonstration, at times. Equally, you may purposely avoid cues early on to see how the student self-organizes on their own. However, when you are evaluating your coaching communication behavior, this is a very helpful model and system to optimizes what you say and when you say it. 


For a long distance backcast the sequence of movement is to first look at the rear target, draw the rod back, slowly lift the elbow (and rod) as we shift weight from front to back foot, twist the torso, rotate the shoulder. And then, sequentially, from the ground up, weight shift stops, torso twist stops, forearm “blocks” and the wrist flips the rod over. Trying to find an external cue for this “drawn-out catapult” process I find incredibly difficult and instead demonstrate the movement in slow motion, describing the movement from the ground up, momentum travelling up from the feet, through the body and ultimately through the hand. It’s really the sequential stop that I focus on when teaching this pattern and in particular the final stop/blocking of the forearm, forcing the wrist to flip the rod over. 

I’m quite sure that this is not the only movement sequence where it is difficult to find an external cue for developing pattern (I can think of others!). I found your use of putting bits of reflective tape on the body to be a very interesting idea. Is this perhaps something you would use sticky tape for? And if so, do you find that having tape stuck to the elbow gives significantly better results than drawing attention to the elbow itself? I’m very curious about this and will certainly try it when I have the opportunity. 

(That was a long one but it’s been bothering me for some time now! :)) Incidentally there is a video of me teaching this sequence here ). 

Echoing what I’ve outlined above, I’d DESCRIBE the movement in the least amount of critical steps or chunks. I would do this in parallel or series with a repeated DEMONSTRATION (as you did in the video). Now for some, you’d allow them to give that a go and pantomime. At the same time, you may give an external cue or analogy for one aspect of the movement series to help give them a singular guiding focus. For example, the “blocking” of the forearm was mentioned quite a few times. You could invite the student to imagine there was a wall extending up from the shoulder that their hand or the reel can’t hit. Then to modify height of release, you could play around with saying, now cast as if the wall is higher or shorter based on how high you wanted the cast to be. Similar to your question on the tape, we can focus on a part of the movement using tape, an external focus, or an analogy, and in all cases this does result in a better outcome and learning the referencing the explicit joints or limbs the analogy is implying. Think of it as a within cast task that promotes the outcome we want without calling too much attention to the singular body parts involved - this is what can lead to underperformance. 


And finally (phew!), a widely used teaching method in flycasting is to use pantomime, especially in slow motion. We use this to teach various casting strokes, as well as the use of the line hand. (Many years ago a highly influential instructor Mel Krieger introduced pantomime for teaching the double haul). Is pantomime something that you have explored when teaching movement? The reason I ask is because it appears distinct from “self organisation” and external cues. However it can be highly effective for teaching both position and pattern. I also believe that it’s fundamentally tied to how we as humans and apes (I’m more ape than human) learn. 

Pantomime or physical mirroring is built into our learning DNA without question. This is one of the tools that should be used in concert with effective cueing and constraints. 


Ok and now I have some other questions!l :)

From Vince: 

What would Nick consider to be an essential skill set for coaching movement skills?

1. Understand the general movement model (allowing for individual differences) of the skill you’re teaching

2. Understand how to evaluate where the student is at and they key technical areas that, if changed, would lead to a systematic improvement in performance.

3. Evaluate the best tool or tools to guide the change — a demonstration + pantomime, a physical constraint, and/or a cue — these can be used in combination

4. Understand or know the student well enough to (a) identify coaching language that is familiar to them and will resonate and (b) have good enough conversation skills to dialogue on how they are feeling and responding to the coaching - leading to a feedback loop for you as the coach to understand how the student is responding. 


Ultimately, listening and looking is the key. To be truly present and understand what you are looking at, what you are looking for, and how best to close that gap with known learning strategies. 


From Mark:

1. How important is an observable or measurable objective in motor skills development?

Ideally you have both, but some sports lack clearly measurable outcomes (e.g., artistic sports). As such, anchor your coaching to what information is available and use the athlete experience as the strongest source of feedback on how your coaching is impacting them. Connecting what you see with what they feel - aligning first person experience (athlete) with third person observation (coach). 


2. What factors should influence a coach when goal setting?

My answer to Vince’s question above could fit here as well. I would add that the key to goal setting is aligning the desired change with the process that will lead to it in terms of a reasonable timeframe. This should then be communicated and continuously evaluated and updated with the student. 


3. The lexicon we use as coaches matters, how important is it that, wherever possible, a word is connected to its purpose or objective?

Yes, our coaching grammar is important. However, we have to be open the the cultural grammar we use to coach a sport may not always align with the athlete’s understanding of it. As such, I work from a place of trying to translate my coaching grammar into the athlete’s language. This is why I talk about speaking from the athlete’s language locker. We can start by speaking from ours, however, as we get to know and dialogue with athlete, this language should slowly adapt to the person in front of us. 


4. Does he believe that coaches across sport have fully accepted the implications of the work by Gabriele Wulf?

I get very little resistance to the ideas, however, many if not most are still coaching blindly, not putting the same amount of time into HOW they coach as they do WHAT they coach. This is no fault of anyone just where we are at in our evolution. 


5. I’ve seen Vince’s question and that’s one I’d be very interested to see the answer to.

6. Could he recommend a reading list for amateur instructors starting to teach motor skills.


Rob Gray - How we learn to move

Tim Gallwey - The inner game of tennis

Doug Lemov - The coach’s guide to teaching


And then following a moment of inspiration down the jungle I asked Nick…

I have a question about the 3Ps. In particular Power. 


So P1 - Position. I like this because it doesn’t necessarily mean anchored. In flycasting we typically use the term Stance. Position works for me slightly better for me because it has a wider meaning, and is still applicable. 

Yes, position principally means the athlete can get in the position(s) necessary for the skill. This is underpinned by the mobility and stability to perform the pattern. Other people use the term shape - as in, can they get in the right shapes at the right time.


P2 - Pattern. I’ve always referred to this as Sequential Movement. Pattern I like and am happy to use. It means approximately the same thing and may even be more accurate. 

Yes, I think of the key positions as the movement steps - snapshots - that when combined into oneness of motion become a pattern. The pattern is the coordination and the ultimate expression of what we are trying to influence.


P3 - Power. Now this is where my question lies. In Sports movement is this Athletic Power or is it Power Application? With athletic power we would be suggesting a weights training programme or sprints exercises. 

Power literally means the minimal expression of force and velocity to perform the movement. In some sports, which I imagine flycasting would be included in, do not require a high level of power expression. In those cases precision of pattern and capacity to get in right positions are the areas we focus on.


Many many thanks Nick. I'm certainly pleased that you have taken the time to answer our questions. You’ve certainly given me and I’m sure many others here much to think about. Thanks!!


You can buy Nick’s book or find out more on his website here: 


Cheers, Paul



About Nick Winkelman

Nick Winkelman, PhD, is the head of athletic performance and science for the Irish Rugby Football Union. His primary role is to oversee the delivery and development of strength and conditioning and sports science across all national and provincial teams. Prior to working for Irish Rugby, Winkelman was the director of education and training systems for EXOS (formerly Athletes' Performance), where he directed the development and execution of all educational initiatives. As a performance coach, he oversaw the speed and assessment component of the EXOS NFL Combine Development Program, and he supported many athletes across the NFL, MLB, NBA, national sport organizations, and military.

Winkelman completed his doctorate through Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions with a dissertation focus on motor skill learning and sprinting. He is a recognised speaker and consultant on human performance and coaching science and has publications through the UK Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), IDEA Health & Fitness Association, Human Movement Science, and Routledge.