Lessons from the YMCA
by Steven M. Ledbetter
5 minute read
This week, I was honored to be a keynote speaker for the YMCA of Canada’s annual summit. When the head office asked me in August if I’d be interested in, “talking to the Managers and owners from YMCAs across Canada about organizing, supporting, and training health coaches,” I felt like Renee Zellweger.
“You had me at ‘Y.’”
The Y is special to me. I learned to swim at a YMCA. I got scuba-certified in a YMCA-designed course. But more important to me than how the Y has impacted me personally, is the YMCA’s history of impacting underserved communities.
In the opening chapter of, We Make Communities, I begin by lamenting the state of health coaching as preaching to the converted. That we need to “break into the 95.3% of people who aren’t active gym members and the 98% who don’t hire coaches… We need to figure how to help the most people, not just help the same people.”
The YMCA has had a 172-year, global mission of helping those people that the mainstream business of health coaching does not help. Poor people. Rural people. People who are “too fat” or “too out of shape” to join a gym. People who think that gyms are, “where rich white people go to show off their Lululemon and judge each other.” And yes, that’s in quotes because it was said by someone I know who does not have a gym membership. She has a Y membership.
The Habitry Mission is, “help the most people help the most people” and I’d like to thank the YMCA of Canada for inviting us to get a little closer to achieving it by involving us in their mission. In fact, I think Omar and I learned as much from working with the participants as the managers learned from us and we wanted to share some of those notes:
Deci et al (1982) and subsequent reviews (Reeve, 2009) have shown that one of the biggest barriers to autonomy-supportive (aka “effective”) teaching styles is a lack of autonomy-supportive communities of teachers. Put another way by my Master Sergeant at the Berkeley Marine Corps Officer Selection Office, “shit flows downhill.” The managers of local YMCAs praised the non-controlling, decentralized aspects of the YMCA organization that allowed them the freedom to support their individual communities’ needs. They didn’t feel pressure to do things certain ways, so they didn’t put that pressure on their coaches who in turn did not force it onto their community participants.
If you notice you’re struggling to get your clients to do take ownership over the process, look around you. How well are you being supported in your own journey as a coach?
In order to meet all the needs of the wide geographic swaths of Canada, local YMCAs have a lot of member options. This extraordinary breadth of features, classes, products, and memberships means the Y can help a lot more people, but the immediate reaction of most participants is to look at the membership pamphlet with utter terror in their eyes. So the managers of the Y place a high priority on actively probing and listening to potential members to narrow that selection down to 1 or 2 suggestions. Managers train staff to make a single suggestion after much listening and to communicate that suggestion in as an autonomy-supportive way as possible. So it’s not, “here are your options,” but rather, “here is the option that I think will work best for you based on what I have learned about what you value.”
So the next time you see that look of confusion on someone’s face, remember that alleviating it starts with listening.
When I began researching and working with health coaches to create “intentional communities,” Dan John, my mentor and the O.G. Motivator, reminded me to help people not just connect with their “Horizontal Communities,” peers with whom they are sharing the journey, but the “Vertical Community,” the people that have come before and passed the wisdom down to us and the people who will be coming after us. Of course, Dan was a Fulbright Scholar studying history and storytelling, so that advice just makes sense. And the mangers of the YMCA have a 172 year old history to connect to, of which they make effective use. The YMCA has clearly articulated values their health coaches and staff can point to on the wall with generations of integrity backing those values up with action and community investment. This is beyond social proof. It’s history. It’s cannon. It’s a legacy. And most importantly, members are invited to connect with that legacy by actively participating in the governance of their YMCA to live up to those values via Y committees and boards. They have actual power in how their Y is run and the legacy that they will leave for their children and grandchildren.
Even if you aren’t in an organization with a multi-century history to reference, you can still use the “Vertical Community” to empower your own participants and health coaching staff by giving them a voice and real power to effect their environment. Give them ways to give anonymous feedback. Let them organize their own parties, meetings, and agendas. Or if that’s too scary, tell them the story of your favorite teacher and what you learned from them. After all, I learned this technique from Dan. And he learned it from… You get the idea.