Body Autonomy: A Coaching Perspective
If you’re a coach, how many clients have you had say to you “can you just tell me what to do”? I’m guessing that it is at least a dozen. It’s a common and understandable question. Clients come to coaches for their expertise and guidance, which can often look like coaches who hand out plans with “do this or else” type directions. Somewhere along the way, the focus of health and fitness as an endeavor for total self-betterment was forgotten. Instead, it became a process of checking off items on a list to meet some arbitrary requirements of what we think a health and fitness journey should look like. It became defaulting to “gurus” and coaches and trainers who pushed their own agenda on their clients without caring if their clients even wanted those goals to begin with. Instead of creating a process to help women take ownership of their bodies, it became a process of turning your body over to someone else’s agenda, wishes, and goals. The concept of autonomy has been lost. And quite frankly, that’s a fucking shame.
Body autonomy, or what I call the “your body, your goals” concept, has been glossed over in so many realms of health and fitness. We see a lack of autonomy on several different levels ranging from pressures to look a certain way to not having a say in competing or training. As a client, it may feel like you’re in a dictatorial relationship where the coach’s instructions are not to be questioned or that you must complete a task that aligns with their goals, not yours. You may feel like like you’re pressured into fitting in to some sort of box - whether that the box of being a powerlifter, being in a particular weight class, losing weight, not losing weight, etc. The point being that as a client, you perceive that a choice is being made for you instead of with you. While some of this may be done with malicious intent (we know that there are some coaches out there who systematically abuse their clients), a good portion of this is done by well-meaning coaches who take the “tell me what to do” demands at face value. If you’re a client who is experiencing this, it is worth it to have a conversation with your coach to discuss your concerns. Good coaches will welcome the conversation and work with you to create a stellar coaching experience. Others may tell you “too bad” and if that’s the case, I highly suggest taking your hard-earned dollars somewhere else.
The process of learning to stand in your power and build confidence is one that can be messy and difficult. I know it was,and still is, for me. In my short coaching career, I’ve had the honor of working with individuals from all different walks of life ranging from nationally competitive powerlifters to women trying coming back to lifting after serious injuries. Whether you coach in the digital or “real world” sphere, your clients come to you with their own stories and experiences. They may have had very negative coaching experiences in the past, they may have experienced traumatic events, and they may be slow to trust another person. As an athlete who has been in all of those positions, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing coaches. These experiences have been transformational for me as an athlete and instrumental in helping me become a better coach.
On the coaching side of things, helping clients stand in their power while also giving them direction and guidance can be complicated. This issue is even more complex when coaching women since women tend to be inundated with a significant amount of bullshit surrounding issues of body image, food, exercise, and appearance. There are so many mixed messages coming from every direction when it comes to women and their bodies. It seems like every day there is a new expectation associated with how women should exist in our bodies and what they should do with them. As a woman, it is an incredibly exhausting experience. As a coach, it is a difficult thing to see the clients you care about be weighed down by the baggage of these mixed messages.
You want to help your clients to embrace the potential that you see in them (even if they don’t see it in themselves, yet). You want the absolute best for the individuals that hire you. You believe in them and their abilities and want to see them also believe in themselves. So how do we, as coaches, encourage autonomy while providing the guidance and expertise that our clients are seeking from you?
Let them tell their own story: Women who have had negative coaching experiences, experienced domestic or sexual violence, or other traumatic incidents often do not get to tell their actual story. Stories are told about them to other people. Their stories may get told, but they often do not get to share their experiences in their own words. Allow your clients to share what they want, when they want, and how they want. It is THEIR story, not yours.
Promote decision making: A common theme for women who have undergone traumatic interpersonal relationships (whether domestic, coaching, or otherwise) is that their decision making power is systematically stripped away from them. Give your clients ample amounts of decision making power. Coach in a collaborative manner and ensure that they feel that they are an active participant in the process. This can mean that perhaps they choose some of their accessory work for their session or that you seek input about what they want to focus on in their next training cycle.
Focus on strength based progress: This is not limited to adding weight to the bar! Strength based wins can come in the form of rep PRs, volume PRs, or my personal favorite, mental PRs. Encourage clients to find at least one “win” from the session or week and focus on giving feedback on their strength, both mentally and physically.
Having a degree of autonomy in my own training is incredibly important to me and it is something I am adamant about for my athletes. Educating, facilitating growth, and confidence building are pillars of my coaching practice and making space for client autonomy is a big, BIG component of accomplishing those things. Women deserve to feel autonomous in their bodies wherever they are, whether that’s out in public, at home, or under a barbell. I know that it may be easier or more desirable to the client to tell them exactly what to do, no questions asked. But to me, that feels like a disservice. As coaches, I know we can do better for our clients. We can help them come into their autonomy and exercise it, unapologetically.