Friday, January 30, 2015

Tales from the front - Coaching - its not just about reps and miles...

"The difference between stupidity and genius, is that genius has its limits".

Albert Einstein

To be honest, this wasn't the blog I was planning on writing. But in the last week, I've watched an excellent "Barbell Shrugged" episode on coaching, a very passionate debate with a new intern at INTENT, a truly quality and intelligent individual Brian Madaj, then, read Caitlin Constintine's latest blog post. My mind quickly changed on the topic of my post.

I fully admit, as a coach, I have much to learn. I mean, its somewhat ridiculous when I think about the amount of information that I personally need to know to help my athletes or clients reach their goals and beyond. But something that struck a chord with me, particularly in Caitlin's blog, was the recognition of coaches's limits. In our current climate, coaches, personal trainers, and fitness professionals are often given more credit than we deserve. And that can inflate egos, or the way that fitness professionals are viewed. I'm not trying to slander my own, but I also recognize that if the athlete or client isn't willing to put in the work, than there won't be positive results, regardless of the amount of knowledge we possess. So its important to give clients their due.

Which leads me to a bigger point - being a great coach requires that we not only be diligent in our pursuit of new information, being students of our craft, but more importantly being in tune with our clients and athletes. What does that mean? Well, a lot of things. In the simplest way, it means understanding how to properly program for said athletes/clients. Recognizing faults in movement patterns, assessing strengths and weaknesses, helping the client/athlete define goals, getting the individual to acknowledge their "goats" and the importance of attacking them daily to live a healthier, and fuller life. As we proceed on the spectrum of being in tune with our athletes/clients, comes something a bit deeper, and definitely more personal. That is, knowing when we as coaches, are outside of our depth when a client/athlete has a problem that goes beyond the scope of our knowledge. Now, what does that mean? Well....

Let's take a simple example. An athlete falls and is experiencing pain in the collarbone/clavicle. We would immediately, and without hesitation, recommend that athlete/client seek the counsel of a doctor to diagnose exactly what is wrong. But what happens when our clients ills aren't surface level? What do we do when a client/athlete is suffering from something invisible to the naked eye, something that permeates their daily life, whether its when they are with us or not? This is where things become murky, and can destroy the relationship between client/athlete and coach.

I've seen it, and I've experienced this on both sides. What I am referring to, is what do we do when a client/athlete is suffering from a mental illness, things like, anxiety, depression, self-shaming, body dismorphia, eating disorders?  The direction we need to point said athlete/client is no different than the one with the damaged clavicle - to an expert who has spent time becoming licensed in these areas and can provide the CORRECT care to our clients/athletes. Understand, I'm not talking about the athlete/client who simply needs to "vent", looking for an understanding ear to discuss an issue that has them upset. Those types of conversations are normal, and surface level compared to what I am referring. Our ability to become great coaches requires us to know when to recognize someone is suffering from something deeper, and that we do not have the answer. We must be humble enough to admit that simply "running one more mile" or "get in one more rep" isn't going to solve their issues. We are not qualified to diagnose, prescribe or heal said person who is suffering from those issues. And if we really want to be great coaches, then we must be able to recognize when our client/athlete is suffering in said way.

This requires a bit more diligence on our part, mainly due to America's view on people who suffer from the above. We make people who suffer from anxiety and depression feel weak, feel "less than", which in the world of fitness is exacerbated because we are constantly bombarded with fitspo bullshit that reminds us we must be strong. We vilify those who quietly suffer, and are often afraid to admit they need help for fear of looking weak, or vulnerable. Society is quick to give a pass to those with high cholesterol or those who have developed Type 2 diabetes, but depression? Oh no. There's something REALLY wrong with you. Truth is, it takes tremendous strength to admit you need help. That you need to talk to a professional to sort out what you are experiencing. In the world of fitness, its verboten to seem weak, so many people never get the proper care they need. They fear ridicule, or shame. When all you hear is "suck it up buttercup!" you start thinking that no one really gives a shit about what you are experiencing. Like you are a freak because you have anxiety attacks, or panic attacks, or are constantly uncomfortable in your own skin. Yet millions of Americans suffer from anxiety and depression daily. Its a real thing. Doctors spend years to become licensed to help people with said issues.

Let me be the first to say, that as someone who does suffer from anxiety and depression, I was extremely concerned what people would think if they knew I was in need of medical help to deal with my issues. And I'm not just talking about my coach. It was family, friends, my competitors and colleagues. Thankfully, with the help of an excellent doctor, I got the help I needed over 10 years ago. But there was a good 2 year period where I hid my illness for fear of what people would think. Thought of myself as weak, helpless, " less than". When I told my coach, she was extremely supportive and thankful that I was seeking the help of a professional, as she recognized that my issues went beyond the scope of her coaching abilities.

I know I talk about the importance of being strong, or being UNSCARED. So let me assure you that one of the bravest things you can do is ask for help of a professional when you find yourself in such a position. And as a coach, it is an extremely intelligent, supportive and huge show of strength to admit that your client's issues are beyond your scope. We aren't doctors, we aren't the end all, be all. Yes, you may have helped someone lose 30 lbs, however, that doesn't mean you know how to help them deal with anxiety disorder. So to be truly in tune with your athletes/clients, be aware of the clues. Be honest and direct in suggesting professional help. That's how you become great. That's how you show you care. Take the time to research doctors or therapists in the area who are professionals in dealing with anxiety, depression, eating disorders.

True, we can't "heal" our client, but we can point them in the right direction. And in doing so, that's how we become great. As coaches and as people. Because, and I say this from experience, you can't run from your anxiety. Its ever-present, taking on almost human form, following you from room to room, from swim, to bike, to run, to weights, to burpees, a guest who has over-stayed their welcome. There is no text book, no seminar that prepares fitness professionals for that. Know your limits. Your clients/athletes will be glad you did.

Stay strong,