Raise your hand if you are a "visual person"?
So am I! Because of this, as an athlete I definitely understand cues better when I can visualize how they look like in space, or when I have a metaphor that I am comparing the movement to.
As an artist and designer, it's automatic for me to think of a visual comparison when I try to explain a weightlifting concept to someone, whether it be a common object (an accordion or the "hammer hits the bell" game at the fair), or an action (shooting a bow and arrow). If someone is familiar with how an object functions and can describe the feeling or sensation that happens with that function (for example, the loaded speed and bounce of pogostick), then they can apply that sensation to their execution of a movement.
This is extremely helpful if you, as a coach, are unable to demonstrate absolute perfect technique to your athletes, because your athletes will recognize a common shape in a familiar format (ex. the curve of a banana) better than trying to decipher the shape that your own body is making.
How do you start to incorporate visual metaphors in your coaching? Or as an athlete, why are visual metaphors important when you are trying to learn and execute a movement properly?
Here are a few tips and tricks on developing visual metaphors that I hope you will find useful.
Brainstorm and develop an arsenal of shapes or actions to have ready at your cue calling.
If your brain doesn't naturally think about objects on the fly, you may need to do some brainstorming beforehand to develop a list of possible visual metaphors you can use.
Let me invite you to take a 5 minute brainstorming session:
List all of the activities that you can think of (that have nothing to do with weightlifting itself) that involve "loading" and "firing" with a powerful punch.
- Shooting a bow and arrow
- Launching a pinball
- Firing a sling shot
- A spring-loaded mechanism that's ready to release
- A very taut trampoline
Now that you have your list, try inserting some of these ideas with your athletes who don’t seem to understand “vertical extension” or “snapping up" and see if any of them resonate.
You can use this brainstorming technique for any type of change you’re looking to develop in your athlete. For example, consider metaphors that represent:
- Staying Over / Covering the Bar (Keep the lid of the box covered until Peek-a-Boo!)
- Keeping the torso rigid and chest tall in a squat (Your torso is a bucket of water)
- Driving the knees out through the bottom of a squat (Keep the elevator doors from closing using your thighs)
Compare body shape with an object shape
Note the shape or structure that your body is supposed to make, and find an object that directly represents that shape.
For example, when I tell someone to be in a "hollow body" position and their lower back needs to stay pressed against the floor, I tell them to act like a "mezzaluna" (those moon-shaped pizza cutters) or like a baby rocker.
When someone loses core engagement in a hollow rock, their lower back will curve off the floor and the smooth rocking will become clunky as the hips and shoulders crash against the floor. By telling them to create a curved shape with their body that is round against the floor, it can give a better indication of what to do when cues such as "tighten your abs!" don't resonate as easily.
Here's another example for teaching someone how to "extend tall" when lifting a barbell from a hinged position: I teach them that their body is an accordion (where there are creases that happen in the hips, knees and ankles) and that they need to expand the accordion as aggressively as possible.
If I see someone who tends to pull back with their elbows instead of keeping them wide and outside, I tell them to “expand their wings out” like a falcon or an eagle. The vision of a majestic bird spreading it’s wings wide (and quickly) gives a strong visual of how our arms and elbows can spread and expand just as proud through extension.
Note that many of these cues won’t necessarily work for everybody. We all have different experiences and perspectives when it comes to feeling and visualization. Some visual cues will resonate with some athletes while others will be staring at you like a toddler seeing a TV screen for the first time.
In summary, when you’re assessing what type of visual shape to correlate with, take note if the body is supposed to be in a folded, rounded, or extended position, and think of common objects or examples that mimic that gestured shape.
Compare explosive movements with activities that have similar speed and objectives
The beauty of using visual metaphors is that they conjure up all kinds of sensory memory. The shock and shudder of something exploding…or the jolting reflex after a loud crash. Associating the movement or position of a lift with a comparable event (the sudden spring of a pogo stick, the rhythmic strike of a drum set, or a powerful magnet latching to the floor) can help create the sensational connection for someone.
One of my favorite cues I like to use is the “Bell Ding!” – I tell my athletes that there is a bell about a foot above their head when they stand, and they need to extend tall enough to DING the bell before they pull under to receive the bar.
Create Interactions With Imaginary (Or Real) Objects
Need to teach someone how to to keep driving their knees out in a squat? Tell them there are elevator doors closing and their knees and thighs are holding them open.
You can create situations in which a person can interact with an invisible or realistic object in order to have them move towards a certain direction.
For example, to maintain a hollow position on the floor, tell your athlete there is a bug under their lower back and they need to keep squishing it so it won’t get away.
To keep the bar close on a snatch or clean, pull the bar "up the shirt" or imagine that you have an enormous amount of chest hair and your barbell is the razor that will shave it close. (This is for pretend purposes, I have nothing against chest hair).
With any of these cues, your imagination is the limit here! The more creative you can get, the higher chances you have of coming up with a scenario that resonates with your athlete.
Learn from others.
Watching movement demonstrations from other coaches can reveal some cues that you haven't thought of before. If you haven’t taken the opportunity to drop into other gyms and experience their coaching cues, I highly recommend doing so (especially if you’re traveling).
Even if you’re on your own programming, feel free to tap into the coach’s knowledge base. “How do you get your athletes to extend more vertically or drive their feet through the floor more?" Many times, having a different set of eyes or hearing a movement explained in a different way to a class can also revive other visual cues you may have forgotten about in the past.
If you're a big fan of visualization, be sure to check out my latest t-shirt design..."Visualize, and make it happen!"
I'd like to know, what are some of your favorite visualization cues and visual metaphors that you love to incorporate? Leave a comment below or on my instagram page!