The Well-Trod Problem

Sometime between 62-67 CE, a new bishop was setting up a new church in Ephesus. The bishop, Timothy was new as well and received a number of letters from his mentor Paul with advice about how best to establish the congregation there. Paul warned him against getting involved with the petty squabbles of local politics and to “keep fighting the good fight.” But perhaps Paul’s most remembered advice to Timothy was 1 Timothy 6:10: Radix malorum est cupiditas, “Money is the root of all evil.”

You might recognize the word radix from that quote. In Latin it means, “root,” but it’s also the word we get “radical” from in English and French. Radical means, “favoring fundamental change; change at the root cause of a matter” or, “pertaining to the basic or intrinsic nature of something.” In the late 18th century, British Whigs calling for voting rights to be expanded started referring to themselves as “Radicals” and writing lots of pamphlets. Some of those calls for radical change managed to make it all the way to a colony called “America” where they found favorable ears on people who were sick of no longer controlling their own political destiny. In his own letter to a younger man, John Adams answered journalist Hezekiah Niles’ question, “What do we mean by the ‘American Revolution?’” with this answer:

The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution. - John Adams, 13th Februrary, 1818.

A Radical Vocabulary

From the moment clients seek our help, we enter into a relationship with its own implicit trust and power dynamic. Clients come to us from a history of chronic failure to control their own body and are looking at us to teach them how to succeed, ostensibly because we have succeeded and have been trained how to teach others to do so. As coaches, we are dealing with fundamental relationships between people’s expectations about their bodies, what they put into their bodies and what they can do with them. These relationships are as old as time and influenced by more than hunger or vanity. When you are trying to get at the root of what people want from their bodies and why they want it, you’re digging deeper than most people have dug before. So dig kindly; changing lives is a radical profession.

Like anything so deeply rooted, the vocabulary we use to describe health and fitness shares a lot with religion and politics. Food, form, and posture are “good,” or “bad” and we organize ourselves into tribes based on tools and dogma. We use the same language because our relationships with our bodies is just as fundamental. Our sense of usefulness, power, and mortality are all wrapped in this fleshy meat-sack that we try to use with agency and grace for as long as we can. But both erode and we are faced with the consequences of that struggle written as a growing list of injuries, nagging pain, and things we just can’t do anymore. We are sold salvation by coaches, gurus, systems, and late night television for our money and our faith in their tools and their dogma. Instead, we buy more guilt, more shame, and more helplessness when it doesn’t work or stops working. We think we didn’t pay enough, believe enough, or worst of all, will ourselves enough for the system to work like it did for the other people in the commercial. But how can anything work if it doesn’t address the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of people before thrusting them into the breach? The words we use matter more than the weight, so choose them kindly. Coaching is a radical profession.

A Radical Journey

The unofficial slogan for my alma mater’s Sport Psychology department was, “we don’t work with athletes; we work with people who play sports.” We are all trying to make a living in a $6 billion industry that claims quick changes to the surface of people who claim that’s what they want, but delivers guilt and shame to the very people struggling the most. The best certifications and degrees in our profession don’t teach us how to listen, how to ask the right questions, and how to create a context in which people feel safe to motivate themselves. And when we happen upon new tools like habits, goal-setting, and self-efficacy, we thrust them onto our clients in the same old way: more crap for them to do. UNSEEN DEGREES is not more crap to throw at your clients. My goal is for this to be a radical change to the way you approach your clients’ journeys, one idea at a time. As Dan John has indirectly taught me, “it’s better to be kind than clever or good looking.” And kindness in this industry can be radical.

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