“This is why I don’t usually train women.”
I was seething. As an empath and teacher this is not the response I had expected from my then personal trainer and so-called friend.
At this point, Raul had been training me for a couple of weeks and his attitude sucked. Had I actually been paying for his sessions (instead of trading them for English classes) I would have “broken up” with him far earlier, but fear of failure, and hope that constructive feedback would help, prevailed.
For some context, I’ve been overweight for most of my life. This is something that despite outward appearances has bothered me for a long time. As a child, I remember overhearing conversations in hushed tones about my weight, and at age 13 I was signed up for the school rowing team and put on a strict diet with weight loss as the end goal. Needless to say, I’ve not had a great relationship with food and exercise over the years.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve 2017 as I squeezed myself into a dress that once fit comfortably. I was living in Panama at the time and my relationship with food and exercise had improved considerably. I was bouldering regularly, going for long walks with girlfriends, and getting in a lot of incidental exercise, but I still didn’t feel happy with my body. That night, I told myself, that in 2018 I would step up, lose some weight, build some muscle mass, and improve my bouldering game.
Little did I know then that my first setback on that journey would be dealing with my trainer, whose macho drill sergeant style and total lack of empathy turned out to be a trigger for old emotional wounds. Raul came from a martial arts background, and was used to that old school hyper-masculine tough love attitude. The expectation was: push yourself until you physically cannot go any further. I work hard, am fairly competitive, and am very agreeable, so was willing to give this way a go. I didn’t realise it would be so bad.
From the get-go there were red flags. Instead of starting out slow and building up, the expectation was that I go all in – cardio 6 days, resistance training 3 days, and my regular bouldering sessions 2-3 days a week. Diet recommendations were strict too – no salt, no sugar, and no carbs after lunch. When I chatted to Raul about it, I was made to feel like my attitude was bad and I didn’t really want to effect positive change. The implication was that I should suck it up and tough it out.
Our conversations left me feeling frustrated, like I wasn’t being listened to, and my good intentions were going completely unnoticed. It was disheartening. On one hand, I was seeing results; on the other hand, I didn’t feel positive about the process.
More problems ensued when an old shoulder injury started to flare up and my training program began to affect my climbing. The whole point of this was to feel strong and climb harder, not to take time off.
I had come to dread our training sessions and my motivation was wavering. Each time I tried to have an open conversation about communication style or what I enjoyed/disliked in our sessions, I was met with resistance. At the end of our sessions I would message a friend to vent.
One day, near to tears, I finally voiced my fears to said friend. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to hold myself accountable.” I had never said those words out loud before and somehow, that empowered me.
Fast forward 6 months: I’m still working out regularly. I’ve lost some weight and kept it off. I’m stronger than I used to be. I’m feeling good but my bouldering progress has plateaued and I’m kind of bored with climbing. So, I decide to work with a coach, Javier, to create an individualised training program. I chose Javier because I’d known him for a while, he seemed like a good person, and he had a wealth of experience both competing and coaching at state and national levels in his home country.
Javier, like Raul, took his training seriously and expectations were high. We set a night to get started with some testing and got stuck in. The testing was thorough and involved a combination of different elements like trying to onsight problems Javier set for me, and memorising and completing a long traverse. It took us close to 2 hours to get it all done.
I could feel eyes on me at the bouldering wall and my response to social pressure kicking in. I was one of maybe 3 or 4 girls who climbed regularly at that wall (which is, to this day, still the only indoor bouldering wall in Panama City) and I could tell the guys were curious. During the final traverse, I took a fall and rolled my ankle. We paused, iced it, and then kept going. I didn’t want to look weak. Here I was again, pushing myself to the point of injury, buying into the macho mentality that it’s better to push through the pain than look weak. Not smart.
When we finished the testing, Javier and I sat and chatted about how it all went and what I wanted to get out of my program. I had 2 particular goals in mind – improving my endurance for an upcoming trip to El Potrero Chico in Mexico, and learning to plan my own sessions. Those were the things that motivated me at the time. Obviously, I also wanted to get stronger and improve specific technique (footwork, body positioning etc.) but I didn’t really have the language to express those goals and I hadn’t thought about it a lot.
We talked about all this and then Javier wrote down a series of completely arbitrary goals on his piece of paper.
They weren’t my goals.
They didn’t inspire me.
As I walked home, I called that same friend. “He just didn’t get it,” I told her. He didn’t have the soft skills to help me turn my ideas into relevant, meaningful goals for me. I was beginning to realise finding a coach shared some serious parallels to my experiences dating. Without good communication skills and empathy, you’re lost.
I never did fully follow through with the training program Javier set me. I definitely took ideas from it, and in the end, it did help me learn to plan my own training sessions better, but it felt like a program aimed at someone wanting to push themselves harder than I was prepared to at that point in time. You could tell that Javier had worked with more elite athletes than everyday climbers.
I can look back at these experiences now in a much more emotionally detached way. Yeah, I felt pretty shitty at the time. However, they led me down the path to where I am now – back at school, studying to become a personal trainer, so that I can write my own exercise programs and so that fewer people have to deal with the same toxic “go hard or go home” culture.
Name: Claire Ayling
Location: Sydney, Australia