The gym: a surprising place to reflect on parenting.
Finding moments to move from manager to coach in parenting.
I go to the gym, and whilst I am there I can’t help but notice the personal trainers working with their clients. They have mastered the skill of supporting their clients through the pain of improving their health and fitness. They do an excellent job of guiding their clients, working out what their zone of tolerance is for different exercises so that they are doing work that is just hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard that they get injured or give up. They provide encouragement and support. Pay attention to what their client is doing and give valuable feedback, positively.
The personal trainer is not doing his or her own workout at the same time. But they take their health very seriously, with workouts in their own protected time. They want to represent good role models to their clients.
They don’t shout at their clients or berate them for how slow or weak they are. They encourage and motivate them, pushing them just hard enough. They up-regulate them: “Come on you can do this – just a bit faster” or if things are getting too much, they slow things down and down-regulate them: “Let’s take a break, let you get your breath back and do some stretching”. They also notice and validate how their client is feeling “Gosh, I can see this is hurting, but you are doing amazing; you are putting so much effort into this.” They are essentially the client’s guide and cheerleader. They are supporting them to tolerate the stress on their own body so that they can learn, build stronger muscles and grow in confidence. The more the client attends their sessions and participates, the stronger their health, muscles, confidence and skills will grow. Eventually, they won’t need their personal trainer anymore. They will have learned enough to workout on their own, and use the skills and positive self-talk they have experienced with their personal trainer.
I imagined a personal trainer who didn’t pay attention, perhaps got preoccupied with doing their own workout, who got cross with me when I wasn’t doing as well as they thought I should be, made me do exercises which were outside of my comfort zone and perhaps meant I injured a muscle. I would not progress and I would likely give up.
This analogy struck me because as parents we often forgot our role as coaches to our children. We may find ourselves getting stuck in the trap of disgruntled managers (organising family life, planning and keeping things on track). As I sat there sweating on the exercise bike, I reflected how often when my children are struggling with something, I am the terrible personal trainer – preoccupied, not paying attention, focused on what they are not getting right – telling them off. Typically, this happens because I am trying to juggle a million things, which means focusing on their needs at that moment becomes impossible.
Sadly, it is likely in precisely these moments of high distress or emotion, my children actually need my help most, my availability most; they need me as guide and cheerleader to help them tolerate their distress and get back in a zone where they can feel more contained.
Unlike a personal trainer, the challenge as a parent is the 24/7 nature of the role. We don’t get to spend an hour with a motivated client who has turned up at the gym to ‘improve’. And if we did, when they come to the session, the role is very clear and protected (unlike parenting where we essentially have to do the job of personal trainer whilst running the gym, doing a workout, cleaning the equipment, breaking up a fight over gym equipment, and running the café!)
So, rather compassionately, as I walked towards the water station to refill my bottle, I figured if I focus on giving my child my full undivided (personal trainer/coach) attention – at key important points for them – this might really help give my child the experience of feeling my full support with facing the things they find difficult and celebrating their success (no matter how small the goal).
I find the manager role hard as a parent. Finding more time to step out of manager role and into coach role, especially with my teenagers, could improve my experience of being a parent, as well as my children’s experience of me. I am going to try it when I get home.