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Keeping Attention in Relevant Context

Coaches and trainers are really educators specializing in human movement, so it’s central to our success—and that of our clients—to build a fluid understanding of how humans learn to move and how we can influence their learning.

For starters, we have to develop a strong grasp of the language of movement and the right way to deliver instructions in the proper sequence. But that’s not enough. We also need to optimize our instructions in order to overcome the brain’s tendency to foul up a movement if a client’s attention gets focused on the wrong things.

Once you have your clients’ full attention, their brains start processing the information you are sharing.

The quantity of information presented affects clients’ ability to apply it. Researchers have shown that our attentional capacity—along with how much
we can remember in the short term—is limited (Miller 1956). Information overload can blind clients to the true focus of your message. Hence, it is vital to keep your instructions, feedback and cues concise and focused on the most important aspects of the movement being taught (i.e., one or two major focus points).

Also, the context and quality of the information are critical to the clients’ understanding. Specifically, if clients receive new information that is not contextualized to something they already know, they have a hard time remembering and applying what they’ve been told. For example, researchers examining how information is processed, and the role of memory, now suggest the following (Williams et al. 2008):

“It is not simply the case that the longer a piece of information stays in short-term memory, then the more likely it is to go into long-term memory. Instead, the more significant a stimulus or event is, then the greater likelihood it is retained in long-term memory.”

This means if you want clients to truly remember the facts about a movement, they must be able to understand those facts within the context of something that seems meaningful and important. This explains why clients can make progress in a movement while you are coaching them, but can fail to retain or integrate the movement in future sessions.

The key here is to consider each client’s interests, age and generation, and his overall cultural or regional background, as this information represents the basis for how the client sees and understands the world around him. For example, picture a trainer trying to teach a client how to get better hip extension during the finish of a kettlebell swing. The trainer who knows the client is from Texas and grew up riding bulls might tell him, “Focus on showing your belt-buckle as you swing the kettlebell at the wall,” rather than saying, “Extend your hips as you swing the kettlebell forward.” While both examples carry the same message, the first example is likely more interesting and relatable for that particular client.

The best instructions, feedback and cues account for clients’ primary movement errors. For example, trying to cue a change in leg action while a client is running will not accomplish much if poor posture is the true cause of the running error. You must have a distinct understanding of how to prioritize visible movement errors, so that your cues address the most critical aspect of the movement.

To read a more in-depth discussion about keeping your clients’ attention, please see “Attentional Focus & Cuing” in the online IDEA Library or in the May 2015 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

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