When we first interact with a person, we notice a lot of things – how they speak, the strength of their handshake, what they’re wearing, how they walk – and we take in all of these details and make assumptions about that person like their age, whether they seem confident or shy, or how much money they make. It may not be something you are consciously aware of, but our past experiences play a huge role in shaping our opinions and biases, which then cause us to make generalizations about people; initially we judge them based on what we think we know about them rather than from actual knowledge about the person. This type of inference isn’t limited to human interaction. For example, if you see a flat piece of wood balancing on four legs, you probably make the assumption that you’re looking at a table. While assumptions like this are necessary and vital to our daily lives – imagine if you had to ask someone to explain what every.single.thing is in your day to day life – our assumptions and the resulting generalizations we make with people are not as easy to verify as in the table example above.
As coaches, we deal with people every day and – hopefully – meet a lot of new people who are interested in our services. From a professional standpoint, I think it’s obvious that you need to ignore any established biases you have in your head about any type of person when you meet them. I know it can be difficult to be objective, but it’s crucial to not be quick to judge and to allow yourself to learn as much as you can about a potential new client and their situation. This post isn’t about that. This is about when the judgement comes in the other direction: from the client. Have you ever been judged and deemed unsuitable by a client before that person even had a chance to work with you? Perhaps they spoke to you on the phone, and you sounded inexperienced – read: young – to them. Or they want their programming to come from a high level athlete because they assume that person “knows more” about how to program for that type of person. Maybe it’s just the simple fact that you’re a woman – or man…I know it could go both ways. How do you deal with that type of situation?
The Becky from three years ago would have PLENTY to say on this topic. She was a gym owner for pete’s sake. The thought of why anyone would assume she’s unqualified – or someone else is better – would get her so fired up, she’d rant about it for a few days. And be depressed and hard on herself for much longer. I will always remember two specific instances where potential programming clients did not want to work with me, and both situations involved them making assumptions about me without knowing much about me at all. One involved an older man who decided he would rather have “a guy” do his programming, and the other was a girl who wanted to make Regionals and sought out a Regionals athlete for programming instead. My initial reaction in both situations went something like this: disbelief —> anger —> frustration —> insecurity —> more insecurity. It caused me to question what I was even doing in this business if someone was going to immediately judge me over things that were and are completely out of my control. I will never be a Regionals level athlete, does that mean I should never coach Regionals level athletes? And since i’m not “a guy”, well there goes half the population as far as potential clients. I spent entirely too much time fretting over the decisions of other people and how I could change myself to train harder or sound more authoritative or look smarter. But what does that even mean? My definition of smart or experienced is different than yours. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was fighting a never ending battle: trying to control other people’s thoughts and assumptions about me.
Fast forward three years – and many clients – later. This Becky is more experienced, with programming and dealing with people. I’m more confident in myself and what I’m capable of, but at the same time I realize that I could possess every perfect quality of a great coach and that still may not be enough for a potential athlete to choose to work with me. And you know what? That’s THEIR problem, not mine. If you take away any message from this post, it should be that you cannot control someone’s perception of you, and it is a waste of time and energy and emotions to allow the assumptions of others affect your own confidence in your abilities. Of course we all need to be continuously learning and refining our methods to produce the best results for our clients, but looking “young” or sounding “inexperienced” or not being “a guy” has no bearing whatsoever on your ability to be a great coach. This is especially the case when it comes to athletic ability. Your unique genetic makeup and athletic potential is something you’re basically stuck with. Almost everyone reading this post will not be a CrossFit Games athlete, a major league baseball player, or a champion MMA fighter, but you are 100% capable of coaching someone to that level with the right combination of confidence and education.
I will admit, I often fall into a different type of perception trap, and that is the pressure I place on myself to “look the part” of a fitness coach. It’s not something I do in order to gain a positive reaction from other people; it’s all a product of my own thoughts/desires/insecurities/etc. On one hand, I know that appearances are deceiving, and just because someone is dressed head to toe in Lululemon with 17% body fat, doesn’t mean they know a split squat from an overhead squat. On the other hand, it’s a feeling that’s a bit too ingrained in me to dismiss it completely. We spend years and years of our lives developing these thought patterns and generalizations, and I think rather than trying to completely dismantle that process, it’s best to practice awareness around it. This awareness comes from two places – understanding that the people you meet are thinking and assuming things about you and those assumptions have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them and their past experiences; and also an observation of how your own thoughts and experiences shape the way you view yourself. It takes a bit of practice in objectivity to balance the voices in your head that pull you in one direction – “I need to be LEAN for people to take me seriously!” – versus the tiny voice of reason that reminds you of the many other aspects it takes to be a great coach (like passion, confidence, determination, empathy, creativity, caring, just to name a few).
Realizing you can’t control another person’s perception of you SHOULD feel a bit freeing…once you can wrap your head around the concept. I hope you see it as a way to focus your attention on the clients who want to be there with you, rather than focus on the ones who got away. Building awareness around the entire concept of initial assumptions and the generalizations people make will make you a better coach. In the end, the results of your clients will speak for themselves.