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Behavioral Cueing – Give Yourself a Plan!

How Do We Cope?

From a 2019 Unrivaled Article...

Continuing along the lines of mental development – our ability to cope with obstacles and setbacks can have a dramatic impact on our longevity in competitive sports. If you look across the professional sporting landscape, many teams now employ sports psychologists or performance experts to help ‘train the brain.’ In my experience, this is the final frontier in sports and something that has long been missing or considered taboo.

While I cannot imagine a sports psychologist having much luck in a football locker room in the late nineties when I started out; it is clearly a performance differentiator and something that can serve all of us well.

One aspect of sports psychology that many of us do naturally is create behavioral cues that help guide us through the practice or match. Think of cueing as part of your routine; imagine a basketball player going through his warm up routine, or a soccer player readying for a penalty kick. These routines improve our performance because they allow us to shift focus from the potential outcome or gravity of the situation, to the process of taking that attempt.

We can see scientifically and anecdotally that this process improves our performance in those specific moments, but I don’t think that goes far enough. The more often we can put ourselves into the performance mindset by giving ourselves a cue, the more often we will see the desired outcome.

We often focus on cueing from a coaching standpoint. External cues have long been favored by coaches because they allow athletes to self-diagnose how to exert action on an external factor. Ideas such as "push the ground away," or "drive through the ball" are a great way for a coach to focus a player effort on a specific task. I am also interested in the ability for player's to control their own cueing as a larger ability to control their careers.

Take The Time To Lock In

I’ll give you a personal example – when I was playing football I had a short cue that I said out loud before every play – almost like a checklist. Running plays I reminded myself to get my second step down. It allowed me to now focus on the defensive scheme, box movement, tackle stance, etc. It helped me free my mind because I was already locked into the correct mindset. Same process with pass protection ('set & hands')…this is something I started doing and found it helped me lock in. Only later did I make the associative link between this and scientifically proven methods of preparation.

It is very easy in football to remember a handful of words when the plays only last six seconds on average. But what about more fluid sports? Basketball, soccer, rugby; what do you choose to think about and when do you find the time?

The answer to the first depends on your age, maturity level, and level of play. For many young athletes having a laundry list of reminders would be unsettling and lead to slower play. Focus on one or two things. I categorize reminders into two buckets:

1) Emotional/Cognitive reminders

2) Action reminders

As we have discussed before; humans tap emotion before they give commands, and body functions such as deep breathing can help create an emotional response. This means that we can dramatically affect our competitive demeanor with simple breathing reminders throughout the event. Reduce stress, clear the mind, move to a state of calm…all things affected by our breathing patterns.

We need to understand that the process of cueing is an active process, not just when things need to be adjusted

External Motivators

One way to get into the right mindset is to associate your field energy with an event (lightning, wind), or an animal (cheetah, gorilla). Pick anything that reinforces images you find appealing.

“Lightning fast”

“Gorilla: dominant and powerful”

Whatever gets you thinking about how you want to feel about yourself – go for it. It’s for you and you alone, it can be anything you want.

The second part of this for me is an action reminder something I want to continually reinforce. Most likely it ties into your spirit animal or force of nature.

“Quick hands”

“Trust your eyes”

“Always attacking”

These ideas are forceful, definitive, and continual throughout the session. Remember, this is for you. How you want to perceive yourself. This is not coaching notes, or play reviews. This is how you want to look on tape at the end of this training or competition. At the basic level, we want to feel a specific way, and associate that feeling with some type of action.

It is easy to sit down before a match and write down your avatar and messaging. It is an entirely different thing to be able to recall it during the game for many athletes. When the bullets start flying many people start seeing everything and nothing at the same time! One thing that can help is using physical objects to relay the messages we want to give ourselves.

Reminder Reminders

Remember when people used to tie a string around their finger to remember something? In football you can write notes on your wrist tape. Basketball players put messaging on their sweatbands. Now you can easily create your own bracelet with your own messaging embedded, take it everywhere, and steal a quick glance when you are momentarily out of the play. Everyone has a different mountain to climb when it comes to performing under pressure. We need to find simple solutions that each individual can tailor to fit their needs.

As athletes progress chronologically and/or developmentally, we can turn this singular action into game specific ideas.

Let’s take basketball as an example:

“I want to be smooth and slash like a hawk”

“Smart on the fake” on defense

“Attack first step” on offense

These examples of game reminders can be restated during out of bounds plays, when play slows, during transitions, etc. These reminders are very specific to how they want to feel during the game. “Smooth, slashing, hawk-like, attacking, smart.” This is along the lines of considering the process first and worrying about the outcome second – something we have preached in this series continuously.

Call to Action: spend some time considering how you want to feel about yourself at the end of the session – practice or game. Work backwards from there; what embodies how you want to feel about your game? Now pick one, maybe two action points you really want to focus on. Something that you really want to emphasize about your game. Make those the start of you behavioral cueing tool bag. As you gain familiarity with the process, these the information in the tool bag will become part of your identity, and the recall will become automatic.

Hit me with any questions on Twitter @UnrivaledESS, Instagram UnrivaledSystems, or email me at

Check out the Process 2 Perform podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Keep focused!



Have a Plan

Find your voice

Give yourself a performance cue

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