the spaz of fitness has arrived

Conversations in Coaching

In Training on May 15, 2013 at 6:55 pm

I’ve been teaching for almost as long as I can remember– starting with peer-tutoring programs in elementary and middle school. In high school, I  guest-lectured in English classrooms during my summers in Taiwan. I also tutored students one-on-one and sustained these relationships from afar when I returned to the States. I saved money in college by working for SAT and AP-prep tutoring companies, and eventually stirred up my own small business in Arizona. These days, I teach composition and creative writing at a University. This summer and upcoming year, I’m also working at the Graduate Writing Center, where I help  fellow graduate students develop their writing. I love teaching– perhaps selfishly sometimes because I’ve always understood it as not only a process through which to share my experience and knowledge, but to enhance my own comprehension as well. In a good student-teacher interaction, no one goes unchanged. Everyone’s perspective changes. It’s a conversation.

But with all my experience, I’m still scared when I think about the magnitude of responsibility it entails. Teaching is serious shit. By virtue of my very position in front of the classroom, I’m granted an assumed and sometimes unjustified expertise.

I want to believe that all my students care enough and think critically enough about the world that they won’t take my words at face value. I try to instill in them the will to question what they’re told– to find their own reasons for following “rules.” But that’s not always the case. Even the kid rolling his eyes in the back of my classroom, fiddling with his iPhone in his lap– if I tell him to put away his Angry Birds and I write on the board “Thruster (noun): a form of sadomasochism performed in windowless garage gyms,” he might actually believe this new dictionary definition of “Thruster.” He’ll believe me not because he’s dumb or mindless, but because he placed a certain amount of trust in the University when he chose to attend– that it would educate him. It would guide him towards a better version of himself.

I try to be as honest with my students as I can at the beginning of each semester: I will never ask you to do something that I don’t believe will teach you something. I will not waste your time. I am confident in the merit of the things I’m teaching you, but I don’t know everything. If you ask me something to which I do not know the answer, I will tell you. And I will find the answer, if I can.

I think that same level of self-awareness needs to go into coaching. CrossFit certifies anyone who pays for a $1,000 seminar and passes a relatively simple, multiple-choice test. This says nothing about his/her ability to train an individual. But when  a gym supports that person– puts him/her in front of a class and a whiteboard– the members naturally trust the individual to know what s/he is talking about. I was once told– just once– that I needed an exaggerated “shrug” to finish my deadlift– to completely break all body tension and shift my shoulders back in order to get a valid, visible rep on the lift. Since that one, offhanded remark, I’ve been shrugging at the end of every deadlift. Even when I deadlifted on my own, I would no-rep myself and criticize myself for forgetting the damn shrug. It wasn’t until I had my deadlift form critiqued by a strength coach that I realized: the shrug makes absolutely no sense. You finish the lift by extending your hips. You keep your shoulders where they are because they’re holding hundreds of pounds off the floor and if you lose tension there, you force all that pressure onto an overextended spine.

I see two faults in my story. The coach who told me to shrug probably knew that the shoulders needed to be behind the bar, but didn’t understand that that visual cue was to ensure the athlete had achieved hip extension (and not spinal hyperextension). Non-critical-trainee-Jo simply thought “hrm, a coach told me so so it must be truth.” I think coaches do need to realize the amount of responsibility and authority that they have– they need to make sure that they’re properly educated and that they’re confident in their ability to give sound advice. But also, athletes need to take responsibility for themselves as well. There are fantastic coaches, and mediocre coaches, and people who have no business coaching. There are fantastic coaches that have bad days, and there are fantastic coaches with gaps in their knowledge. The thing is– bad advice, or even advice that’s not suited to the trainee– will inevitably happen. An athlete must learn to protect herself by educating herself and learning and knowing the eccentricities of her own body.

Let’s look at “scaling” as an example. I like the idea that most workouts were designed for certain time frames. For example: “Fran” is supposed to be a 4-7 minute workout. Athletes should scale accordingly even if it means a 45 lb bar and banded pull-ups. If an athlete completes 21-15-9 95lb thrusters and strict pull-ups in half an hour, he is no longer performing “Fran.” He has converted a quick, metabolic conditioning workout into an agonizing chipper. But in this situation, if said athlete insists upon a 30-minute Fran just because he can “Rx” it, I don’t think it necessarily falls on the coach to argue with him. After all, it’s his body. As the trainee, then, Half-Hour-Fran needs to acknowledge his training goals and how best to achieve them. The coach can (and should) offer advice, and should explain the philosophy behind the programming, but it’s up to Half-Hour-Fran to recognize his current weaknesses and address them accordingly.

The process of teaching and learning– coaching and training– should involve demand awareness of personal responsibility for both parties. We trust our coaches to know what they’re talking about and to admit when they don’t. We trust our athletes to understand their own needs and to articulate them when necessary. If you’re still beat up from the last workout, maybe today is not the day to try for that deadlift PR. If you can do a 95lb thruster, but not more than three at a time, perhaps you are not yet ready for a prescribed Fran. I’m a firm believer that there’s no “perfect” training protocol– that developing athleticism is a journey and there are infinite routes towards the same destination. Better communication between coaches and trainees can help us find the paths of least resistance– so that coaches don’t misguide their athletes, and athletes don’t wander off alone.

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