So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad.* Instructional Systems Specialist. Runner. (Swim-challenged) Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) CRO/2, NTO/1. RRCA Rep., FL (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Leaving Siberia

How many of you cross-train? How much of that cross-training is in a group exercise class?

Ever notice what happens when you show up close(r) to the class start time, the only remaining spaces, or bikes, in the case of a spinning class, are near the instructor? The chance of getting a space at the rear of the class is slim or noexistent.

I am one of those persons who actually enjoy being in the front of the classroom.  I joke about having borderline attention deficit disorder (which, I know, is not as funny if you've had to deal with it...), but I do have a problem with focusing my attention if there is a student directly in front of me.  I also have found I pay closer attention if I can chat with the instructor; a learned behavior from my first years of college, when I would go to a class in the morning immediately following a midnight-to-eight shift.  Talking equals wakefulness, no?

(Instructors who have worked with me the past six or seven years are not surprised when Suzanne shows up for a class...she is almost the complete opposite of me. I'm gregarious to the point of garrulous; the missus is stable, steady, and doesn't change all that much. Like her running pace, she locks one steady effort in and doesn't slack until the end.)

Another reason for a bike near the front of the class, and continuous chatter:  If it's a spin class at a gym where I'm paying for the privilege (which it was for a time) I like to make the instructor earn their dollar; 'I came here to get exercised (exorcised?) and by golly, you're going to help me...' The gym where we spin now is on base, so it's one of those small (at no charge) benefits of my employment.  The instructors, whether they are a temporary hire, a substitute, or an auditioning instructor, eventually learn a little about my background.

Depending on how long they stick around the gym.

Last Wednesday an instructor was going through a audition workout with the mid-morning crew; eight students, ranging in age from the mid-40s to the early-60s, varying in fitness level from less-than-six months of steady training to years of "weekend warrior" event participation.

This young lady was enthusiastic and possessed basic knowledge, but I suspected this might have been her first group of students; right off the bat she questioned why the students were closer to the back of the workout room.

Okay. I'll give her a mulligan for that one.

College professor Ira Shor wrote in his 1996 book When Students Have Power: '...the students’ relationship to seating is a significant text revealing the power relations embedded in schooling, or the social power ‘circulating’ in the discipline of school...'

The rear/corner sections of the classroom, or the workout room (the meeting room and the church sanctuary, too, come to think of it) are the physical and emotional domains of the alienated and marginalized, places where, as Shor writes, '...students attempt to participate as thinly in a class as they possibly can...'

I've not only seen this, but heard it more than a few times. When I'm gasping for air, with a puddle (pool, more correctly) of sweat forming underneath the bike, it can be a little frustrating to hear fluent "Siberian" being spoken at the rear of the classroom.  I understand that a workout is a personal thing, but I'm encouraged to see folks working (hurting?) at the same level as I. Suzanne reminds me on many occasions that the folks who don't necessarily look like they are straining to complete the workout are often working as intensely as I...but if you are, at least don't chatter like a bunch of magpies...please?

Why do students occupy the "Siberian" corners of a classroom? Perhaps this has much to do with the attitude of instructors, trainers, and coaches. Put folks in a group with one person in the front on an elevated platform, or on a slightly more enhanced, or better-maintained piece of equipment (furniture) and it appears like Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's description of the "banking concept" of education.

Freire wrote in his most notable work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed that "banking" teachers assume their students know little or nothing and ultimately '...negate(s) education and knowledge as processes of inquiry. The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite....The students...accept their ignorance as justifying the teachers existence -- but unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher.'

About 25 minutes into the workout session the instructor had the group in an out-of-the-saddle climb, on the handlebars which extend from the front of the spinning bike - hand position three, for those of you who have done at least one spinning class. She mentioned, "if you want to make this more challenging, do this..." and took one hand off the handlebars, placing it at the small of her back.  That's where the ol' coaching red flag went up. I rarely lift my hand off the spin bike handlebars, and if I do it's to punch the button on my heart rate monitor. Most of the class did not engage in the move, one that would most likely have caused - if attempted on a road bicycle - injury to the student.  But this particular crowd is also one which places implicit trust and confidence in the person at the front.  Fortunately for us (and especially that there were no inexperienced participants) there were no accidents, incidents or bobbles.

Not surprisingly, there are parallels between what happens in some group ex classes and the world of run training/coaching. There's a fine, thin line drawn between people who show up to a track workout or a group run with the intent of doing their own thing and those who show up feeling a little less than optimal for the day and needing something a little different than the plan. Some folks, yes, all they want to do is show up and stay in the periphery, get their workout, and go home.

But there have been others who never seemed to get with the program: on a few occasions in the early years I felt the need to ask the occasional attendee "are you doing my workout, or your own?" Should the athlete tell me what's ailing them, and is honest about the situation, I can recommend an alternative to the original assignment or ask them, "what do you feel like you can do today?" This kind of exchange empowers the athlete and places responsibility as much in their own hands as in those of the coach.

Any coach can suggest what they believe is best for you, but the good coaches can help you find your way out of "Siberia" and discover along with you what's best.

Michael Bowen is a training specialist/running coach who lives and trains in the Pensacola, FL area.  He works with runners of all ability levels, both virtually and in-person.  His wife Suzanne and he travel occasionally to New Orleans to participate in and support running events and triathlons.  He also writes two blogs, "The Red Polo Diaries" and "...If I Were Your Coach."

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