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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Wiggins

Yes, you CAN! (make this simple cueing change)

Pilates teachers: as we begin 2023, I'll share insights to help you become a better movement teacher. I don’t pretend to know everything, nor claim to be the world’s best instructor. But I know what works and what the movement science recommends as best practices. We’ll begin this week with a simple change you can try in your next class.

First, imagine you’re going to a painting class for the first time. You know, one of those fun classes where they teach you step-by-step how to paint a serene landscape while you laugh with your friends. [they’re entertaining as a date night or girls’ night out, heads up!]

On this particular night, you’re working with a teacher who warns you about all the typical mistakes:

“…make sure your sky isn’t all blue. Don’t paint mountains that are perfect-looking triangles. Don’t hold your brush like a fork. Avoid smudging your paint. Don’t use a dirty brush when switching colors. Stop laughing; this isn’t funny….”

How long would you last before you give up and paint stick figures instead?

Imagine an alternate scenario:

“Use your pencils to draw the mountains, one grid box at a time. Use the example here as a reference. For the sky, start with a base color using this blue. Add layers of white and soft pink around the top right corner, where the sun is setting. Paint in the mountains with the dark grey on your pallet. Follow the pencil outline first, then fill in the rest of the mountains below.”

This time, the teacher explained what you can do to get the desired result, and left out the "do not's."

Pilates teachers can learn from this example if we put ourselves in the minds of students. Our students are always learning, even if it’s a routine exercise with a new variation. We want to make the process easier to understand. We can begin by adopting this approach: use cues to teach what to do instead of what not to do.

Removing fear-based, negative cues from our teaching vocabulary is worth the effort; there’s good science to back this up.

You may hear someone say, “don’t think of a purple elephant,” to illustrate how our minds struggle to filter out the “don’t” part. (You thought of a purple elephant, didn’t you?) The same holds for learning how to move our bodies; when students hear only what they can do, it helps improve the learning process.

Do you think students would rather hear, "Don't look down," or, "Look ahead"?

As I changed my teaching to include more positive cueing, I sensed less student frustration. Consider a scenario where you hear, “don’t let your heels drop” or “don’t bend your elbows here.” Imagine being told instead, “keep heels lifted and arms straight.” Not only do people hear exactly what to do, but you’re also using fewer words.

If you’d like more examples, read on. I’ll use myself as an example. Catherine Negative (CN) used to include more “don’t” cues until she learned differently. Catherine Positive (CP) uses a positive cueing approach. When she focuses on what can be done, people can stay safe, minus a fear-based focus on “potential mistakes.”

Compare what CN and CP would say for a lunge:


Step your right foot forward. Bend both knees towards the ground. Don’t bend your right knee beyond your toes, or you could hurt your knees.

When a person hears a cue not to bend their knees beyond the toes, it adds complexity as they filter out what they can and cannot do.


Step the right foot forward as far as you can. Bend your knees and lower hips towards the ground.

In the second case, we can keep knees extending beyond the toes by cueing students to step out as wide as possible.

[We’ll talk later about the validity of not-extending-knees-beyond-toes for now. But stay tuned.]

Another example, this time for a squat:


Stand with feet shoulder-width, and sit back into a squatting position. Make sure your knees don’t go past your toes. Don’t drop your head or bend shoulders forward. Don’t lift your heels.

A student might think, there's a lot of things I'm "not" supposed to do. What exactly can I do?


Stand with feet shoulder-width, and sit on an imaginary chair behind you. Keep your spine tall, shoulders broad, and chest lifted. Move in a range that feels doable for you.

All of these cues can help a student move successfully.

Remember, a student only hears the cue, even if preceded by a "DON'T" or "NEVER." Why not focus on all the ways they can succeed in an exercise?

One last example, using step aerobics cueing (apparently step is making a comeback? Dust off your thong leotards, they’re next!):


Step right, then left foot on the bench. Right foot down, left foot on the floor. Don’t let your ankles hang off the back. You can add a hop, but don’t hop onto the floor.


Step up, step down. Use your entire foot to step up. Add a hop at the top.

You’ll love how removing negative cues gives you all this free time. You might even have time to practice your joke-telling skills. Bring on the dad jokes, y’all!

Movement teachers, I challenge you to leave out all negative cueing this week; instead, direct students on what they can do. Please tell me how it went!

Non-movement teachers (even parents), consider adopting this approach with those who learn from you. We spend much energy on the “don’t” stuff, but what happens if we focus on the “do”? My personal experience tells me it’s worth exploring.


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