Striving for a better coaching attitude

Recently there was an article in The Atlantic about Ido Portal. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s a great article.

Ido has floated on my training periphery for several years. I’ve heard some really enthusiastic support for him and his style, in equal measure with less-than-flattering stories about him. I listen to such things but try not to attach to them, because my only exposure to him has been random videos and secondhand reports. He does share some great movement tips, and I learned what would become one of my favorite movements from him — the diagonal stretch.

I had no opinion about Portal as a person or coach… up until reading this article.

Of all the things he said, one thing jumped out at me most of all — if only because it was repeated in various forms several times: Ido does not want to spend much (if any) time training people who are not already absolute die-hards about movement.

I can understand this. As a trainer myself, I would always rather have a client who is hardcore invested than a lukewarm one. Always. I would, in fact, rather be receiving a lower training rate with a client who is a hard-working, thoughtful, curious type than one who doesn’t really care all that much, but pays me well. It is more enriching for myself and my clients when this is the case.

But also, that’s so very much the easy way out. One of the coaches I used to work with was the same as Portal — he wanted to have athletes walk into the gym already hungry, already basically knowledgeable and clear in their understanding and intent.

That’s making a career out of doing the easy part. I don’t think most people need to know how to do a one-arm pull-up. Most people need help with basics. And many coaches avoid spending much time on the basics because the truth is that that part is harder to convey that the elite work.

Teaching the basics to a true newbie is frustrating. It’s hard. It feels impossible. And this is precisely why you’ll never see much in the way of a popular, widely-read feature piece about teaching squat mechanics to office workers. It’s challenging work. It can be monotonous. Which means it’s challenging to write about in any sort of way that people would want to read.

So, I get it. There is more visible glory in thinking like Portal and those like him. In turning life into a competition, in focusing on the “elites.” There’s good money there, for less frustrating work. I’m not making an ethical judgment on the choice.

What I personally would like to see in the “movement community” (or however one might think of it), though, is something more welcoming. Something compassionate without getting comically touchy-feely. All of my favorite teachers I’ve met in the fitness community — people like Dave Whitley, Dan John, Shawn Mozen and Sara-Clare at Agatsu, and of course Ryan Hurst and everyone at GMB — do indeed have great information. But more importantly, they really know how to teach. That is, they know how to deftly and cleverly speak the languages of all levels. They are smart and accessible and PATIENT.

These are the qualities I wish to emulate as a coach, and to refine and shape into my own style.

I mean honestly, do we really need more dudebros taking selfies of their deadlift PR, sneering at how little weight you’re benching, and mocking running/cardio? Do we really need MORE gyms and coaches who are not particularly welcoming?

Ido Portal has some fantastic things to teach us. And right now, he’s arguably the person with the tallest podium and loudest microphone within the movement community. So he’s getting the message out there, and that’s fantastic. But I don’t just want to talk to the athletes who are already “there.” I don’t want to make people feel bad for training differently, for needing a little more help and guidance, for only being able to show up one time a week (if that).

I don’t want to sneer at, mock, or belittle anybody. If I can help it, I don’t want anyone I encounter to feel “less than.”

I do understand that I can’t possibly reach literally everyone. Nor do I think I am talented/mature enough to perfectly succeed at the above stated goals. But I firmly believe I can reach more people if I put in the extra time to reach out to those people who are lukewarm, anxious, and/or confused about how to train well. I can practice communication and kindness in the exact same way that I train my handstand. I don’t want to just coach those who’ve already “got it.” That feels self-limiting to me. I want to reach as many people as I can, by being a better me — not just by expecting a better them.

Isn’t training for self-betterment really what all of this is about? The emotional and philosophical can and should be trained just like our physical bodies.

We need more teachers sharing the types of content that Ido is putting out there, absolutely. But the movement community — and gym culture as a whole — could use much less of an elitist attitude. The cocky, experienced person at the gym rolling their eyes at the newbies, telling them why they shouldn’t be there, making fun of overweight individuals (or even taking photos/videos to mock them with later), is such a cliche at this point. It has a chilling effect on we as a culture making forward progress in fitness. (The Atlantic article even starts with the word “bro.”)

I need work in this area, too. I’m not perfect. It starts with a coach being willing to say: I’m going to do my best to not be an asshole, and to patiently help anyone who comes to me no matter what level they’re at. If you want to work with me, I’ll give you my best. If I can’t do that for whatever reason, I’ll refer you to someone who can. But I’m pretty exhausted by the strutting and bullying and exclusion aspects of this industry. We should do better. I should do better.

I wrote all of the above pretty soon after the article came out. But then it’s just sat there. Something about my response didn’t feel right, and I think I know what it is.

Even though I am not a fan of the “only want to train die-hard athletes” mentality put forth in that article, I want to draw a clear line between the big-name teachers and the gyms that follow or borrow from the associated philosophy. The “face” of a particular method may be disagreeable in some ways, but gyms associated with that person can be fantastic.

I’ve been nothing but impressed by Ido Portal associated gyms. It all depends on who is running the gym, of course. I’ve also been blown away by some of his disciples. Roye Goldschmidt is a particular favorite of mine to follow, not least of which because he’s a tall guy and still doing all that impressive stuff. He’s an inspiration to me and my fellow tall guys. (Though I can’t speak to his teaching style, as I’m just an internet fanboy.)

So my comments are in no way meant to disparage the material or the gyms that teach it. On the contrary, I want more coaches and gyms to teach it to more people — not less! And definitely not just those with a ton of money and time. That slice of the population gets smaller all the time.