I came across this term at a conference recently – a term I hadn’t encountered before. Sure, I recognised its meaning and valued the concept, but I hadn’t thought about it in exactly those terms. Whatever your work is as an exercise professional, relationships are a crucial part of practice whether you deliberately notice of them or not. If you are not reflecting on how you develop, nurture and progress relationships, you risk your relationships quietly working against you and your future endeavours. Reflecting on my (brief) time as an exercise professional (and a large chunk of my time as a lecturer), I think I was probably doing the relationship thing all wrong.
Like a lot of people, I got seriously caught up with the ‘knowledge thing’, and my quest to acquire more. Knowledge was power and transmitting that knowledge to others was powerful. Those on the receiving end of my knowledge were simply vessels to pour knowledge into. I never thought too much about how it was received and whether it was actually needed. Another term I recently encountered seems apt here – ‘being obese on knowledge’ – meaning trying to soak up far more knowledge than is actually needed or that can be practically useful! Knowledge and knowing are two quite different things, and it’s taken me a long while to recognise that knowledge might be a head/brain thing, but you need to have experience and care to really know stuff. Anyway, I was obese on knowledge and had the ‘power’ thing all wrong!
Searching, I came across a great publication on the pedagogy of relationships, that I’m sharing here by attempting to put it into exercise professional contexts. Whether you are a fitness instructor, strength coach or some other iteration of exercise professional, I think it’s good professional development to contemplate these concepts. Research has shown that connecting with others and providing a safe and comfortable working environment is one of the most important things that we do in our lives (Bowne, 2018). ‘The Search Institute’ is a US-based non-profit organisation that focuses on youth development and relationships. They’ve produced a Developmental Relationships Framework (DRF; Roehlkepartain et al, 2017), with a core objective of valuing positive relationships. I felt that this framework provided some great touchstones for exercise professionals and our work.
I’ve worked with and observed numerous exercise professionals in many settings. Many of those professionals have clearly mastered elements of relationship pedagogy, while others have sailed on blissfully unaware and with little apparent insight. As you read, I’d recommend drawing on your experiences with other professionals and your recollections of how they developed and nurtured relationships. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on your own practice.
The DRF identifies five elements that they believe are critical to establishing positive relationships: Expressing care, Challenging growth, Providing support, Sharing the power and Expanding possibilities.
1. Expressing Care
It seems so obvious – an exercise professional (EP) needs to get to know each individual as a person, and not just treat them as simply another hamstring strain or weight training session. I see a big part of our role as helping people to successfully transition into new environments that they may be entering with some trepidation; it might be a team, a gym setting, or a fitness class. The individual needs to feel that their EP is making an effort to get to know, understand and value them. They need to be able to trust that EP’s knowledge and be confident that their EP will always have their best interests at heart. Clearly, communication is important and the ability to actively listen and really hear what a client is expressing helps build that trust. Too many times, I feel as though I simply didn’t ask enough of the right questions, or didn’t bother to listen closely. Too much was merely idle chit-chat and pleasantries!
I’ve overseen exercise professionals where a session had been all about the planned workout, the programme or the latest exercise technique they wanted to try. Somehow they were so caught up with delivering a programme and demonstrating their expertise, that they’d effectively ignored the person and failed to consider what they might be getting out of the exercise relationship. That might work for some professionals and their clients, but I’m not sure that those kinds of ‘role-playing’ relationships are sustainable! I’ve also observed settings where the caring is obvious. Both parties benefit from those caring relationships and seem to be mutually motivated to share more, and put more effort into the preparation and execution of exercise sessions, rehab exercises or conditioning routines. A good EP is able to relate to each client, take a genuine interest in them and make them feel cared for.
2. Challenging Growth
As exercise professionals we kind of expect clients to do their best and work towards achieving their potential. We expect them to want to do everything possible to recover from that injury, to lose weight, or to improve their speed off the mark. However, that can’t always be taken for granted. Clients need to be challenged to give their full effort and to extend themselves in exercise routines. Finding the appropriate level of challenge seems to be an art that requires both knowledge (principles of exercise) and knowing ( about the client’s abilities and background). Exercise and physical activity are far from passive undertakings, so clients have to be accountable in some way for fulfilling their part of this relationship. I’m thinking here of my previous work in exercise rehabilitation and how often I was left disappointed as yet another client dropped out of their exercise sessions and returned prematurely to sport. Looking back, I’d not taken the time to outline the likely rehabilitation process and set targets and expectations. I hadn’t put the responsibility back on those individuals to reach for targets and transition safely back to activity – I hadn’t made them responsible for their side of the relationship. So no surprise really that they simply wandered off when they started feeling a bit better!
3. Providing Support
As exercise professionals, we seem to be pretty good at supporting clients. It could be the nature of our work; exercise is tough for some people and they often need tons of motivation, encouragement, and guidance as they work through often hard and challenging situations. They need help navigating those unfamiliar situations and processes. Part of our role is helping to build people’s confidence (self-efficacy) that they have the ability to take charge of the exercise side of their lives.
One of my most memorable professional experiences was again in exercise rehabilitation, and working with a young mother, let’s call her Sally. Sally had a longstanding knee problem. I can’t recall the details of the injury – there were surgical scars and her knee was swollen and misshapen. She had a slight limp but the most noticeable thing (in hindsight) was that she seemed to be beaten down by her knee injury – the pain, the inconvenience and the appearance of her knee. We set a very basic leg strengthening plan in place for Sally. I’m sure I explained to her that it was likely going to feel uncomfortable, that there might be more pain initially, but that by strengthening the muscles around her knee and lower limb, that she should have a gradual improvement in function and the pain should gradually improve. I can remember emphasising that this was not going to suddenly get better; it would take time and effort. Something clearly ‘landed’ because Sally attended our clinic 3 times per week as suggested. She also seemed to be doing a few of the exercises I’d given her for homework. Her knee improved – again I can’t remember the details – but what stood out for me, was how much Sally had changed over the 3 or 4 months that I worked with her. We were now being visited by this confident young woman, who no longer limped. She’d lost a bit of weight, and her hair, her clothing, and demeanour all demonstrated more optimism and self-confidence. Exercise wise I’d not done anything special. But I’d cared, I’d gently challenged her , and I’d given her ongoing support and encouragement. I was also there to advocate for Sally and vouch for her efforts and progress for her visits to her orthopaedic surgeon and physiotherapist.
I was blown away by the extent and speed of her transformation, and this was great learning for me. By observing Sally’s progress, I understood a little more about the psycho-social impact of injury and how really simple things (with exercise) can solve complex problems. This was knowledge transitioning to knowing. An exercise professional can help an individual learn about those types of challenges, the likelihood of slips or setbacks, and we can contribute to building their resiliency. At the same time, we need to be true to our values and put in place limits and expectations to help keep individuals on track.
4. Sharing the power
One of the pitfalls of knowledge is that we can easily be lulled into thinking that knowledge gives us the key to solving every problem. In reality, it usually requires feedback and experience to arrive at unique solutions for each challenge encountered. If we want meaningful feedback it helps to take each client seriously and treat them fairly and with respect. Respect is including a client in the thinking and decision-making processes, collaborating with them to solve problems, and allowing them to set and reach their own goals. There is always space for an exercise professional to set aside their ‘power’ and nurture growth and confidence in the athlete/client so that they are able to take more responsibility and lead. By giving individuals the opportunity to learn why something is considered directly relevant to their physical conditioning, there is the potential to increase engagement. There are situations where a competent professional should be able to educate by demonstrating the transfer of theory to application, provide some support and then step aside and let the client assume more control of their exercise journey. I’m always a little concerned when I encounter EPs who feel that they have to retain the power – of course there are still some who simply want to be directed!
5. Expanding horizons
An exercise professional provides a service, but they can also educate and inspire their charges. This may involve introducing them to possibilities for their future physical development. I’m a huge fan of doing simple things, doing them well and doing them consistently. I believe that you can achieve a lot professionally using the basics with wisdom. However, there is nothing wrong with introducing clients to new ideas and methods and techniques, and demonstrating how those might replace or complement existing exercise routines. A competent exercise professional will have a well developed and curated network of professional contacts locally, and a confident professional should feel comfortable connecting clients with others who may be able to support them better with injuries, nutrition, equipment or anxieties.
Look, I realise that these five principles might just be common sense, and clearly, there’s a lot of overlap between principles and plenty of scope for different interpretations. There are always going to be situations where an exercise professional has to take charge, has to be directive. It seems to me that some of the successful exercise professionals that have a public profile are very autocratic and abrasive, and perhaps not great role models for aspiring exercise professionals. So I think it’s really useful to read about things like the pedagogy of relationships and continually reflect on our own practices – it helps me to realise that sometimes it is OK to just loosen the reins and give clients a push to find their own pathway forward.
- Bowne, M. (2018) “Development of One’s Teaching Philosophy: The Three “R’s” of Relationships, Relevancy, and Rigor,” Empowering Research for Educators: Vol. 2 : Iss. 1 , Article 1.
- Roehlkepartain, E.C., Pekel, K., Syvertsen, A.K., Sethi, J., Sullivan, T.K., Scales, P.C. (2017) Relationships First: Creating connections that help young people thrive. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute 1-20.