Just because you have the certification doesn’t make you a good instructor.
This morning before I head downstairs to start packing for my next Big Trip, I scanned an article by Medium peep Beth Winegarner. She writes about her experience as a big person in a Pilates class, and the challenges she experienced at the hands of her instructor. Her point, which I am condensing here for the sake of brevity (not my strong suit), is that fitness instructors, in this case Pilates, need to be prepared to deal with all bodies. ALL bodies, not just bodies like their own, which may well be more slim than some in their classes.
Her primary point:
A good Pilates instructor should know how to work with a wide range of bodies, big and small, short and tall, injured and pain-free.
I’m going to hijack and expand on that.
Here’s her piece:
This brought up a few things for me. First, over the last few weeks I was watching Eugene’s Genuine Fitness owner Aaron Orton and some of his trainers work with a group of folks learning how to perfect their poses for the recent Cecil Philips Classic bodybuilding competition.
These are folks who, like my trainer Ryan, work with fatties* and baddies and badasses and folks at every single possible point on the fitness arc. I’ve been in the gym with obese folks struggling to punch out one single pushup. I’ve been that obese person myself. One woman has gifted genetics, and her hard work got her serious acclaim for a near-perfect silhouette.
What I so appreciate about Aaron’s team and his example is that it is a hugely inclusive environment. Our bodies are imperfect, some old, some with cellulite, some in amazing shape, some getting there. There is not a whit of judgement. Just support. You can see what that does for folks, too. The permission to be precisely where you are right here, right now creates a safe space. That safe space creates champions- and by this I don’t mean just the ones who walk off with trophies.
That means all of us, for on our own personal arcs we all need to feel like winners whether or not we grace the stage with a statue at our feet. The first night I went to posing practice the three women I was chatting with all said in unison that people simply have no clue where they began.
You could and should legitimately argue that there are plenty of bad students and clients, but kindly, this isn’t that article. I’ve had them myself, but this piece focuses only on the folks claiming expertise and authority.
I am a 68-year-old adventure athlete. About as graceful as a drunken camel. I usually trust my instructors until they demonstrate that they can’t be trusted. I have done my time being big. Part of what Beth’s story underscored was what it felt like trying to squeeze myself into spaces where Only Thin People Were Allowed. I am no longer obese, but I am now much older. That brings with it a whole slew of other experiences.
Beth’s story brought up an incident from six years ago at a popular downtown Denver sports store. They specialized in kayaking and skiing. Back in 2015 I had taken basic kayaking lessons, but never mastered the roll. I got good enough to competently paddle Class II rapids in the Colorado rivers, recover after a dunking and master a slew of skills to move around the rivers safely. In order to really get competent, you need to master the kayak roll. This:
As I do a lot of sports, and I regularly get dinged up (did I say I was as graceful as a drunken camel?), that particular year I’d come back from Africa with multiple bruised and broken ribs from rafting the Class V rapids in Jinja, Uganda and horse riding around the local area. I was sore to say the least. I had also just completed a seven-day camel ride across Tanzania. That summer I’d kayaked the icy and rather terrifying waters of the Arctic just off the coast of Iceland.
It would be fair to say that I’m pretty competent. Clumsy, yes, but competent. And, kindly, kinda fearless. I wanted to get better, so I decided to take a class to do just that, sore ribs and all.
I was 62 at the time. It would be fair to say that not a whole buncha folks do what I do in the first place. Even fewer women and damned few at my age.
Roll training was conducted in a free-standing pool in the store’s basement. I showed up with another couple. Young White Male was our instructor. We climbed into our play boats and followed his instructions.
The Young White Male (YWM) instructor immediately started paying much more attention to the younger couple, one of whom promptly mastered the roll. He ignored me, even when I asked for help. The only reason I can think of is that I was struggling. My ribs hadn’t quite healed and they were making the roll difficult. If you watched the kayak roll tape above, the moderator emphasizes technique, body position. ANY time you learn a new skill that is complex, the instructor needs to patiently show you what you’re doing right and wrong, and work with you. Not this asshole.
At one point, clearly righteously irritated at my request for instruction on technique, YWM spat at me:
“YOU CAN’T DO THIS. YOU DON’T BELONG HERE.”
Bet he voted for Trump, too.
I dismounted and never returned to the store. Because I liked the manager, I didn’t skewer them on Yelp, but it sure was tempting.
If you, like Beth, have ever been in a class where the instructor is, well, less than professional, please see this:
But wait, there’s more.
For fitness certifications, it’s a free-for-all, which can be just as confusing for those of us who hire them as those who own gyms who are trying to hire them.To that:
A certification earned on line, or even in person, by someone who wears his or her asshole squarely on their shoulders is dangerous. Not only to you, but to the business. First, as someone who has spent many, many years as a corporate trainer, you NEVER EVER EVER EVER shame or call someone out in public.
NEVER. Cardinal crime. Look, I realize that with social media this has become our national pastime but that does not legitimize it. It just means we’re showing our true colors as a nation.
Second, you keep people whole. Everyone deserves a shot. I’ll go back to Aaron at Genuine Fitness. One young man started training there a while back. Zack Childers has cerebral palsy. Told as a young man he would never walk.
This is what Zack looked like on stage two weeks ago:
People like Zack, and Beth, and myself as an injured athlete all are where we are. We began where we began. We have shown up, which is three-quarters of the battle. Being ignored, or barked at or publicly belittled speaks to the unspeakable lack of respect, courtesy and empathy on the part of an instructor.
For my training dollar, and forgive me but I have won awards for my training skills, you have no right to be in front of a group if that is how you treat people.
Zack was on stage in the kind of shape that makes most people look like schlubs because of trainers like the kind we both have at Genuine Fitness. People who see us as we are, but also as people who chose to show up. That alone puts them in a different category.
When a fitness instructor is carrying nascent racism, fat-hate, ageism or ableism or any combination of those or worse, they are dangerous. Not only can they do serious damage to someone’s psyche, but that person is hardly likely to want to try again. It’s no longer safe. For so many people, setting foot in the gym or any class in the first place is a monumental act of courage.
To that, please see:
Cynthia, above, far left, is in her forties. She has dropped One. Hundred. Pounds. She is baring it all on stage in front of God and everybody. Kindly, for my dollar, in so very many ways she won the competition hands-down, for the reasons I stated above. Just to show up and decide that you’re done having obesity ruin your health, hire a trainer, stick with it, and kindly, do this?
You do not get this far with abusive instructors.
We need people battling obesity, disability, age-related challenges in the gym, in the water, on the floor doing Pilates. We need people whose bodies are imperfect, whose lives are tattered, taking care of business. THEY do not need a jerk instructor belittling, abusing or barking at them.
The reason you and I and society at large need such people is that first, they are incredibly inspiring. Second, they show us what can be done with significant challenges and limitations. When you and I have all our limbs, our scruples (hell I don’t) and all the advantages of good basic health and we abuse it, when we lose it, and we will, we need to know that others staged a comeback. Overcame horrific circumstances.
Folks who overcome teach us how to live. We have no right to attack them for entering the field of play, when so many of us sit our fat butts on the sidelines and refuse to show up at all.
The YWM at the kayak shop was a lousy instructor. He had no idea, and didn’t care to find out, the injuries I was battling. He only wanted to coach the easy clients who, in my estimation, didn’t need him. Every class has someone for whom the trick or skill is effortless. Then there are those of us that the team doesn’t want to pick, who demand some investment from the instructor. Too many instructors want to take credit for the easy win when the real work is at the other end of the bell curve.
The role of professional instructor is sacred. Yet I see far too many examples of folks who utterly abuse the itty bitty power grab that a paper certification provides them. Just because someone blessed you with a rating doesn’t mean much. Respect is earned.
To that, there’s this:
(yes I know it’s behind a paywall)
HOW you treat people, HOW you accommodate people across the spectrum all speak to our humanity or lack thereof. More so it speaks to a bad instructor’s petty need to bully people rather than the sacred role they have to develop them. That speaks what those folks are growing in the cellars of their souls, not to the abilities of the people who showed up to try.
Whether it’s fat-shaming, age-shaming, shaming due to color or any other damned thing, bad instructors are dangerous. What’s worse, celebrity instructors who attack folks are even worse, for they legitimize the behavior. If I may:
For my fitness dollar, Jillian Michaels is the very personification of what I am pointing out. Celebrity status, in an ideal world, might invite a touch of humility rather than the compulsion to show your dirty laundry in public. Celebrity doesn’t convey agency, intelligence or human decency. It just means people listen, which is part of the problem in her case.
We are now faced with millions who were once healthy now dealing with long-Covid symptoms. Some, if not many, of those folks are likely to be finding their way to classes and courses in a heartfelt attempt to regain what they once had. Or at least some modicum of it. They aren’t likely to want to sign up for some barking butthole at the front of the room shaming them for bonking in the middle of the class.
We have no clue what’s really coming. Covid is just getting started with us, and for so very many, getting back on their feet physically may turn out to be damned difficult.
We need partners, not pugilists.
We are a nation of bullies. Half of us celebrated and voted for bullies, still do. Too many of us have no patience for those who are dealing with some kind of challenge and call them losers. A great many of those very people are coming down with Covid themselves at a horrifying rate. The way I see it, if they survive, and they suddenly discover what it’s like to need empathy, care, compassion and mercy, maybe, just maybe, they might grow a heart in the wretched, bitter cavities of their souls.
I dunno. I can hope.
In the meantime, this much I do know. Instructors who are humbled, as am I, by the dignity of effort, by the Zacks and the Cynthias and the Beths who show up, are the ones who rock. They are the ones who will help us sculpt a new self, a new sense of what’s possible, and help us create expanded options.
The dignity of effort.
Casual cruelty is effortless. The great and expansive courage of being inclusive, compassionate, engaged and genuinely motivated by those who are willing to do what it takes to improve are what make a true instructor.
But that’s just me.
With thanks to Beth for the inspiration.
*Please do not misread this as fat-shaming. I’ve been one, and there is nothing in this article whatsoever that should be perceived as insulting to big folks. Been there.