Coaching & Training: On Motivation and Critique

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a trainer or coach. In our current landscape it is an evolving role and there is so much to say about it all. And I’m not the only one that thinks so. I’ve read probably 8 or 10 write-ups in the last 3 months alone! It has given me enough ideas for at least four posts, but I’m starting here today.

A few months ago  I came across an article that caught my attention, gave me pause and I really wanted to write a response to it because I just had SO MUCH TO SAY. I think it only represents a small part of the fitness industry and I want to show you a broader spectrum. I want to show that there are a lot of ways to do this and a lot of ways to think about teaching group fitness that are, in my opinion, more beneficial to the people we serve.

The way my company teaches is different than group fitness in a gym, which is what I feel that this article is geared towards. Mostly I have the same people showing up day in and day out, only adding new people when a new session begins. And our groups are typically less than 12 participants. So yes, it’s a very different environment — one which I prefer! But that doesn’t mean that your standard gym classes aren’t good and can’t be better. They are and they can be!

Getting back to the above article, while I agree 100% that you should never shame or be condescending to a participant in a class, I think the article misses the mark on a few levels because the major take-away is that an instructor should be afraid to critique your form for fear of making you feel bad. That their role is to simply motivate you. (Yes, I’m summarizing and I mean no offense to the blogger, I simply want to offer a different perspective!) But let me give you a little sense of what is actually happening in these scenarios and why form critique is actually a good thing.



Firstly, when correcting form it is a safety issue. When an instructor is correcting your form, it’s not a critique of your character. They are not telling you are not good enough. They are actually really saying “Hey, I’m here to help you and it just so happens that I’m an expert in this movement. So, let’s fix this wrist, knee or ankle to keep you safe.” Doing so in private is absolutely preferred, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t corrected someone while other people could hear. Why? It’s most definitely not because I don’t care about my clients feelings — I care more than I can put in words. But I do it because at that moment I care more about their safety. Because it sometimes simply isn’t practical to wait — I would be too late if I waited.

The next problem is that the idea that your trainers only job is to motivate you is that it reduces your coach/trainer to a cheerleader. Don’t get me wrong:  I know many of us pay trainers or go to classes for the group and coaching motivation (and I ADORE being the cheerleader for my clients), but your trainer is more than a cheerleader. And, frankly, you should EXPECT more from them. When you are paying for a class, you deserve someone that has a background with so much knowledge that they are giddy to talk about exercise science and to help you understand why they want you to put your ankle here and your elbow there. Because it’s interesting to think about for us anatomy nerds. You are not simply paying for praise, you are paying for a movement expert.

side plank

This all sounds well and good, right? Like here I am on my soapbox about how things should be, but I know things aren’t always perfect. Trainers are humans, they have bad days, they might say the wrong thing and participants are humans too. But there is a lot we can all do on both sides to make this work:

What Participants Can Do:

1. You need to find your motivation inside. Ideally, you’ll know your “why” before you show up. If you don’t, I bet your trainer or other people in your life will help lead you to it. Maybe you are genuinely a fitness addict…but most of us need an internal reason to keep exercising once the honeymoon is over. Things like:  children, spouses, health reasons, mental health management and maybe like me, they are empowered by working out and sort of addicted to feeling like a #badass 😉

Because no matter how many times a trainer tells you what a good job you are doing or what a badass you are — if you don’t feel that way about yourself already and don’t know that to be true, it won’t matter what we say. The motivation a trainer gives you is fleeting. The motivation you create for yourself will last a lot longer, ideally a lifetime.

2. You need to be comfortable taking direction from someone. You need to be able to take the feedback. Remember, this is not a critique of your character. It’s okay that you don’t know how to do something correctly. This is why we are there. But respect the space you are entering is the trainers turf. I say this as a trainer that goes to other classes — you have to check your “expert” hat at the door. But do know this:   you are always the expert on your body — you need to let us know when something isn’t working for you. And at the end of the day if you truly aren’t in a space where you think this will work for you, consider doing one-on-one training, even if it’s for a short period of time to fix your form and have a plan crafted for you so you can workout solo. Don’t go to a class that you hate because it’s cheaper. Not worth it!

What Trainers/Coaches Can Do:

1. Cultivate an atmosphere in your classes where you know your members. You check-in with everyone at the start of class “How is your body feeling? Sore?” You need to know their injuries/weaknesses as much as possible. You let them know it’s okay to ask for help, that you want to know how things are feeling. This isn’t something you say once, you say it ALL THE TIME. A good trainer is always assessing by looking at their people for cues, but ask too.

2. Weigh costs and benefits of the timing. There are times when a clients safety is NOT at risk during a movement (use your best judgment here), but it can be tweaked for optimization. In these instances, I’ll wait and tell them what needs to change in their form when I have them off to the side so that they know for next time. Another pro-tip:  ask them to remind you the next time you do that movement in class if they are confused about what you mean or if they want further correction.

3. Cultivate an atmosphere in your classes with your members know each other. Do partner exercises. Do name games. Do game days. Offer social events, if practical for your organization.

Besides the million other benefits this has for you and your groups, in this context, you do all this so that your members are not surprised when you are correcting their form or offering advice, even if it’s not in private. Because they are in a group and they are in this together. They aren’t judging Sally because you are fixing Sally’s push-up. Sally doesn’t care because she wants to fix her push-up form and these are her workout buds that she knows and feels comfortable around.

4. And above all else, trainers, watch your tone and word choice when correcting form. Choose things like “I’d love to see your wrists like this…” and then show them how you want it, or “Let’s try it like this…”. I like to make it applicable to their lives — “I don’t want to injure your wrists — those are your money makers, right? The clickers and typers?” And give a smile. Yes, it’s a corny joke intended for all the folks making a living behind a computer screen, but it sure does resonate!



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