Model Teacher: Dealing with expectations

I’m a registered yoga teacher and Crossfit coach, but I have a confession: I still can’t do a freestanding handstand.

For most people, that’s a “well, duh” moment. The handstand – especially without support – is an advanced skill. It requires balance, upper body strength, core strength, and a lot of trust in yourself.

But when I see other teachers who can do it, I often feel like I’ve failed. Coaches, teachers, instructors – these are the people who are supposed to “model” the movements, right? So, shouldn’t I be able to model all of the movements?

Photo by Form on Unsplash

The Perfect Coach

There’s an unspoken expectation that being an instructor means you have to be a perfect practitioner. But what does it mean to be perfect?

The expectation we place on ourselves is that perfection means being advanced which means being able to do challenging poses or movements. However, there’s an underlying assumption here that’s problematic. It assumes all bodies can, should, and want to do “advanced” movements.

As I’ve said before, fitness isn’t one size fits all. Just like coaches need to learn to modify for students of all skill-levels, body types, experiences, and goals, so too can students learn from a variety of coaches of different levels. It’s not about what your body can do. It’s about what you can teach.

I don’t believe that every movement can work for every single body. Sure, most of the time, with modification, it will – though sometimes it won’t, depending on history, injuries, movement health, etc. Me? I have a long torso in comparison to my legs, which meant I was always confused why I couldn’t “step through to a low-lunge” from a downward dog without awkwardly shifting and pulling my feet. It took a lot of practice and an insightful teacher to tell me, “That’s okay, maybe your body just doesn’t allow for that.”

Photo by Anupam Mahapatra on Unsplash

Modifications for Every Body

Does that mean some movements are totally unhealthy and we should teach everyone to avoid them? Well, no. (Though, probably there are some movements out there that would be better left out.)

The idea that a coach should be able to do everything perfectly kind of limits coaches to one type of body. Aside from not being representative of fitness in general, it’s also not representative of our students. Rather, the role of a coach is to know: a) what movements and modifications work for their own body so they can model this for their students, and b) how to coach their students into a healthy expression of a pose or movement. If I could do that perfect handstand but didn’t know how to correctly cue someone into the pose, I’d be failing.

In other words, there’s a difference between being a great athlete/yogi/dancer/pilates practitioner and being a great instructor. Typically, the expertise required to teach a sport goes hand-in-hand with experience in said activity, but they’re not the same thing. You can be a great athlete that’s terrible at explaining movements.

Should you go teach yoga without having a personal practice? Well, no. But having a solid, long-term yoga practice plus the expertise and experience required to teach asanas in a safe, mindful way is a good recipe for success – even if you’re still working on the perfect mayurasana.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Teaching, Not Doing

There’s no need to feel less than or bashful when you’re teaching a movement you don’t do. The key is to be honest. “I’m working towards muscle ups/handstands/flying pigeon pose/etc.” is a completely valid and legitimate statement, for you and your students.

If you can’t physically show the movement or pose, there are other resources to help others visualize what needs to be done.

  • Break it down into smaller movements that you can do.
  • Use the whiteboard to draw it.
  • Ask another student to demo for you.
  • Use a video demonstration.

If a student has never done the movement before but wants to try? Stay with them. Guide them through the cues and pivotal points. Keep things light or use props. Remind them to stop if it feels wrong at any point.

* * *

It’s okay to not be the “perfect” anything, even – or especially – if you’re a teacher. Good coaches have coaches, good teachers have teachers. If, as a student, it’s important to always be learning, it’s even more true for instructors.

There will always be new information, new tools to incorporate into your teaching. There will always be something to work towards, to further refine your own practice. Watching you get there is just another lesson you can teach your students.

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