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What does a good trainer have in common with a good teacher?

 If you've been around here a bit, you'll probably know that I started out as a science teacher (and if you are new around here, welcome!), and I often get bemused reactions when I explain that I have been both a school teacher and a personal trainer (sometimes in the same day...).

Once in an interview for a part time teaching post, I was asked how I conflated the two sides of my working life.

I told them that I help people bring the best out of themselves. 

On reflection, I've realised that the best qualities of a teacher, and also a trainer, are the qualities of a good coach. 

The same head teacher who asked me that question, assured me that he was confident I could teach Maths instead of Science for a year, because I am a good teacher, and I have good maths skills, and the hardest part of teaching, is not the subject, but engaging the students for learning. The core skillset is universal, let me show you.

Old school schooling

Let's have a look at what we might see from non-coaching oriented trainers or teachers.

They might do stuff like this:

  • Gatekeep knowledge or information, keeping themselves in the position of "expert".
  • Make the decisions the student/client, and give authoritarian instructions.
  • Punishes for a misstep (lines or burpees).
  • Never admit that they might make a mistake, or not be all-knowing.
  • Expect each student/client to follow their example.
  • Assume that if a student/client can't achieve what they expected of them, that it is due to a fault with them or their attitude.
  • Fail to acknowledge diversity in experience, background or innate ability.
  • Assume that their lesson/training session is the most/only pressing issue for their student/client.
  • Label those who are not achieving as "lazy" or "difficult".
  • Expect one programme or scheme or work to be sufficient for all "worthy" individuals.
  • Judges everyone by the same standard.
It's well understood in both teaching and the fitness industry that this model doesn't work. It's OK for the upper-middle demographic who are motivated, able and have the right surroundings and influences to thrive - but those people were always going to do well. 

It doesn't serve those who are not blessed with "beneficial" genetics, a stress-free home life, parents who help with their homework, the time to prep perfect meals, neurotypical needs, good health, (assign any of these to either or both of the student/client groups as you please). It leads to trainers who "fire" clients who struggle to stay on plan, and kids who resent learning because they never got the chance to truly see what learning is.

The coaching mindset

So what happens if we update our approach, adding in what we know about human psychology, how we learn, how we form our habits etc. What does a good coach/teacher look like?

  • Puts the client/student in the position of expert, questions and adapts the process to work with them.
  • Focusses less on the information, and more on how to access and apply it, teaching them "how" rather than "what".
  • Has unconditional positive regard, respects each student/client as a potential-filled individual without judgement.
  • Turns "mistakes" into learning opportunities.
  • Has self awareness and is prepared to admit their own limitations or mistakes.
  • Understands that not all students/clients are willing/able to follow the coach's own path, and is excited to walk with them on their individual journey.
  • Recognise that for their learning/coaching to "stick" it has to be a pleasant experience that integrates into the student/client's interests and responsibilities.
  • Is curious about the barriers the student/client faces and supports the student/client in overcoming them.
  • Assumes that an individual is doing their best for their given circumstances, and works to adjust the circumstances, or the process, rather than blaming the student/client.
  • Sees each student/client as an individual and prepares multiple processes to accommodate them.
  • Has positive, but realistically achievable expectations.
  • Celebrates individual achievements as relative to each student/client's personal capabilities and goals.

    The results and reward of this approach speaks for itself. As a teacher, I've worked with some very "challenging" students, and found them to be my favourite class within a couple of months. As a trainer I work with a demographic which many trainers avoid (people with chronic pain and mobility dysfuction) and I love the magical mystery tour of discovering what they are capable of, while puzzling our way through some really "awkward" limitations.

    If I had one piece of advice for new trainers, looking to improve their skills, I'd say - don't get seduced by the highly technical stuff at first. Learn how to coach. Learn techniques like motivational interviewing. Learn to work alongside your clients as a guide, not perform at them as a guru. You can have all the information in the world, but it's useless until you can actually implement it to help real people.


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