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Zen of Teaching Pilates – working through a negative mindset

Zen of Teaching PilatesThere is a reason Pilates is called “mind-body” work.  Not only does the mind work in conjunction with the body to create flowing movements and firing specific muscles, it also sets the tone for how a session proceeds.  But what happens when your client’s mind is:

  • Dead set on being negative
  • Insistent upon speaking, through complaints or otherwise, throughout an entire class
  • Convinced he or she does not or will not move beyond the comfort zone of familiarity

Any of the above situations can set the tone for a long 55 minutes. Running out the door isn’t an option when a client comes in with a huff and a, “I guess I’m ready for you to torture me now.”  This is where the instructor’s mind-body work begins.

Even when I stick to modified movements built in to a fluid exercise plan, not a week goes by when a client doesn’t call me a name.  A name not fit for print.  It took some time for me to realize that there are people out there who could be lying down getting a massage for an hour in the studio and would still complain.  I just assumed that everyone loved doing Pilates just as I do.  Not true.

To counter trying clients, implement the 3 Ps – being present, prepared and positive.  Rather than fall in to the frustration trap the client falls in to with, “I can’t do that”, “I don’t want to do that” or even “I’m NOT going to do that”, take a breath and refocus those people on the task at hand.  It is not enough to take the body on a journey through Pilates, we have to also take the mind with it – the instructor’s mind, that is.  Here are the three ways to mentally tackle those students who tax us, even if we don’t want to admit to being mentally strained.

  1. Be present for each session. It’s easier to mentally check-out when a client’s complaining begins.  By staying focused you not only cue better, you may also change the atmosphere of the session.  When an instructor really is present, the opportunity arises to change a downbeat direction with positive reinforcement before the negativity starts. Praise the exercise performance before it’s delivered with a “You always do this one so nicely” to counteract the potential huff and sigh that usually accompanies the movement.
  2. Be prepared for class, but not too prepared.  While instructors should go in to a session with at least an idea of where the hour will go, it never fails that you’ll veer off what you had designed.  The idea is to be prepared but not stringent in the preparations. By being willing to have “teachable moments” you just might make a breakthrough with a student. The series you wanted to tackle before the hour is up can take a backseat if you are working through a particularly difficult exercise for that person.  Take the moment and be open to the joy of that one exercise.  Peel it back and, for instance, show the student how the bridge can assist in the roll up and then practice it for the last five minutes.  You’ll both feel like you made positive progress.  All that work will result in more pride, less protesting.
  3. Finally, share your excitement about movement with your clients and encourage them to find their own understanding of Pilates.  Use technical terms and invite the clients to own their workouts by using the “big words” themselves.  By fully understanding the exercise, why they are doing the exercise and how to perform it, students focus more on the why of the workout and less on the whine of the workout.  Be excited for them when they get past their sticking point in the Teaser and they will be more inclined to try harder and complain less.

By being present, prepared and positive, you’ll be more aware of what brings on the negativity and you’ll be able to stop it before it starts.  Here’s to positive Pilates!

By · Posted on July 7, 2009 · Topic Feature Articles

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10 Responses to “Zen of Teaching Pilates – working through a negative mindset”

  1. Carolyn Zaremba on July 7th, 2009 10:29 am

    This is a good article, but I am amazed that anyone would pay for Pilates training and then not want to fully engage in it! Training costs money and it seems a waste of money, particularly in this economy, to sign up for and attend training sessions and not make the most of them! I have certain physical limitations that necessitate adjustements in my routine, and sometimes movements are challenging, but tht is the whole point of Pilates, it seems to me. You have to go beyond your comfort zone to make any progress at all. Having studied classical ballet as a young person, I know that the seemingly impossible routine suddenly becomes possible after weeks of what can seem frustrating effort. These people who complain about the exercises have no idea of process. Good luck to teachers with the patience to carry these students past their resistance and on to a new level.

  2. Nadine Tyreman on July 7th, 2009 11:59 am

    These clients may be complaining and engulfed in negativity, but some motivation got them INTO the studio. That is the instructor’s true challenge – to discover that motivation and build on it. Now true, there are some individuals who are simply challenging to work with no matter what is said. I have also found that if those people focus on their breathing while they are moving they cannot speak and they end up feeling and acting more positive when they leave. That allows me to stay present with the individual, appreciate and express their accomplishments, and be rewarded with their, “Thanks, I feel so much better,” and continued business.

  3. Kerrie Ann Frey Kerrie Ann Frey on July 7th, 2009 1:57 pm

    Thank you for your comments! Clearly not all clients are “challenging”. This article is geared towards those – few and far between – clients who allow us to engage in the practice of patience. And, yes, it may see strange that in this economy people would come in to not work their hardest, but it does occur – at least in my neck of the woods. :) Pilates is, indeed, a process that fully engages the mind and the body.
    It is joy when a client is always mindfully engaged and motivated; however, even the most focused student can have a down day. In an effort to keep the entire small group present and positive, these options worked for me. I would love to hear additional methods other instructors implement to keep the air positive!

  4. Russ Lane on July 7th, 2009 2:44 pm

    It’s funny, I’m working on how personal trainers deal with “difficult clients” for my Web site and I came across this.

    The subject interests me because, for a long time, I was one of those difficult clients. When I dropped from 350-165 I was determined to see my weight loss through,so I picked up a trainer. Knowing full and well that focusing on weight lifting/intense exercise also freaked me out. Yep, I intentionally threw myself between a rock and a hard place and counted on the “coal under pressure makes diamonds” cliche. It paid off, and I learned far more about myself than my ability to do pushups.

    I train on my own now (with a trainer I ask for advice when I hit a problem), and looking back at my time with my trainers, Half the time I was conflicted: as much as I wanted to see my weight loss through, I didn’t think I was capable of half of what they asked and would panic. And when I’m nervous, nervous = chatty.

    Other times Real Life was so chaotic that the trainer time was the only way I could be sure I’d make it into the gym. This was on top of training my muscles (some of which had never seen much action) and avoiding injury.

    With any fitness routine, I think it gets overlooked that the weight loss process is a confronting experience. It’s not exactly as simple as waking up one day and deciding to do get in shape/lose weight/etc. That’s how it looks on TV competitions; real life is a little more complication. The decision to lose weight (and implicitly, change your life) is a decision you have to make over and over, every day, and some days that’s more successful than others.

    That doesn’t make inappropriate behavior excusable; rather, I think it’s just as important to teach clients *how* not to make excuses or dodge doing the work as it is to teach how to move their arms and legs.

    Wonderful post. Thank you!

    Russ Lane
    Second Helping

  5. jo on July 7th, 2009 9:38 pm

    loved your comments about clients that just complain. Ideas please,how do you politely get a client to a quiet space when they don’t want to go. This i find difficult and they just don’t want to.

  6. Sharon Evans on July 8th, 2009 1:03 pm

    Great article and so true! I have heard some of these same comments being made to instructors, who seem to handle it in a positive way.

    By the way, my husband also read this article and thinks you are a very talented writer.

  7. Robin Koocher on July 16th, 2009 6:34 am

    Thank you for this great article – I read it while I was waiting for a new client. I practice & agree with everything that you wrote; but it made me feel more confident in my approach. I felt totally prepared to face my new client; having no idea what type of attitude she would have. As it turned out; she was the most focused positive person I have ever trained. Now I can use her attitude & your article for the negative types!

    Thanks again.

  8. j on February 21st, 2010 1:03 pm

    Hi I love the post , this is one of the challenge i think all instructors face in the business, having client who tried to get into my personal life was my biggest challenge but i must say that this has make me a stronger and more committed instructor the way i handle it now is, whenever i get ask a question now i answer good and not get carried into their conversation and move to the other exercise , i use to give them my full attention to their stories and feel sorry towards their story , i stay very friendly to them but i do not let them overtake the session and yes staying present help me take control. I also think us a instructor needs to draw the line between being an instructor and too friendly , and if somebody wants to only socialize with you they will leave if you keep your ground and earn the respect that you are an instructor not a psychologist ,they will soon come to that realization and the conversation will dissipate.I hope that this will be helpful.

  9. Andrea Cousins on March 24th, 2011 9:03 pm

    It continues to surprise me how my attitude can direct a session. If I can visualize a positive experience or just be open to whatever follows, even difficult clients can be pleasant. And yes, those that pay are not always invested mentally into the full idea of Pilates. I see that where I work every week.

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    […] range of themes is endless. The extent to which a topic is explored depends on the instructor and the client as well as the client’s goals set up in the initial sessions. How many classes […]

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