Yesterday was a first for me, I was invited to give a small talk to a room full of youth workers, a couple of student teachers and some other exercise professionals on the subject of Encouraging Exercise in Young Adults. Now why they chose me is simple, there was no one else available. But I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, since I was going to the same building to coach some kids anyway, and when another speaker pulled out due to illness, I got a phone call to fill in.
I speak in front of people all of the time of course thanks to my job, but this was a little bit different as here I was being essentially asked for my opinion rather than being asked to coach a movement or an exercise. I was a little nervous. The short notice didn’t help either. I jotted down some notes on what I wanted to say, but in the end I hardly needed them as it’s pretty much what I say almost all the time whenever the subject of getting teenagers involved in exercise comes up.
I arrived in time to hear the end of the first speaker’s talk. Now I don’t want to be over critical, and it’s hard to squeeze your opinion into 15 minutes, but this was dreadful material. I don’t consider myself an authority on these matters but some of the things this guy was suggesting for getting kids in just won’t work for any number of reasons. He advocated basically using a weight-watchers type programme for both girls and boys. Calorie counting, weigh ins, the works. Now I can see how for an endangered segment of the population- the clinically obese- that this might be necessary, but for the vast majority of young people, this would be actually detrimental. What we definitely don’t want to do is link health and exercise with punishment or associate it with a sort of humdrum routine of checking and weighing and counting. And that was one of the tenets of my talk. I was very careful not to tread on his toes however, so I danced around a few issues.
Here’s basically what I said. After being introduced as an “expert” on youth coaching (I resisted the temptation to play that down) I began with a little history of how I came to coach and what I currently do. The first thing that I said was that if I knew how to get kids away from the couch and the Xbox and into sports, then I wouldn’t be standing in front of them, I’d be selling it for millions to governments and living in Aruba. But I have a few ideas and here they are.
Firstly, stop telling kids how unhealthy they are, and then selling sport and exercise as a solution to that. Kids don’t give a damn about their health, they don’t care about heart disease, they don’t know or want to know about type-2 diabetes and they certainly couldn’t care less about childhood obesity. Exercise as preventative medicine might work for aging populations, but when your priority is trying to get served in an off licence or getting a feel of a girl’s bum, you are not going to see some long term goal of living until you’re a hundred as a reason to exercise. I actually used the girl’s bum line. It got a laugh.
My solution? Speak honestly to them about what they care about. We all exercise to look good, it’s one of the main benefits of exercise. Why do we preach health and heart attack prevention to kids and then suddenly decide it’s fair game to tell them it’s about looking good when they hit 18? Granted, it’s NOT all about looking good, but a healthy looking body goes hand in hand with a healthy lifestyle. I think we’re far too afraid of pushing our kids towards dysmorphia when magazines, TV and celebrities are already doing this for us. For me, promoting an athletic physique through athletic training is positive, since it involves good food choices, good meals and pushes kids in the direction of sports over health clubs. Why not appeal to their vanity just a little bit? We don’t have to have pictures of Brad Pitt all over the walls in sports clubs, but we can point out that being involved in sport and exercise just-so-happens to have some benefits in this regard.
Secondly, I spoke about sports and their role. Sport, for me, is the only show in town. Exercising for exercise’s sake is good, but I don’t think it is a good idea to direct kids towards the idea that exercise must be paid for, and I think any exercise for young people should be as social as possible. Recently I’ve noticed that a lot of the kids I’m coaching are members of gyms. We’re talking about 16 year old kids here. I hate gyms. I can’t stand walking into them, I can’t stand being in them, and I don’t even like walking out of them because usually when I do I discover that my wallet is lighter. The only exception to this are certain coached gyms which tend to be owner-operated and smaller. If we push kids towards the idea that a gym is necessary for fitness, I think we’re creating a problem, as the implication there is that if you can’t afford a gym, then you can’t afford to be fit. Secondly, gyms are solo flights. Despite advertising to the contrary by the gym chains, people do not stand around the water cooler in their lycra with giant, frozen smiles on their faces, meeting each other and getting along just fine. Gyms are more like lifts or urinals. You’re aware of the presence of other people but eye contact can be awkward. Sports on the other hand, are extremely social. You actually can’t help but talk to people, even in individual sports. You’re going to receive coaching and gain new team mates, so you’re automatically going to have both instruction and motivation to exercise. And nothing beats the satisfaction and confidence gained from learning a new skill.
Lastly I spoke a little bit about how I don’t understand girls. This actually unintentionally segwayed into the next speaker who spoke a lot about motivating young women. I told everyone how I could talk to lads all day and seemed to have a knack for getting them to buy into my programmes, but as for young girl’s groups, apart from a few who are generally sporty anyway, I never seem to get the same traction. I asked if anyone had any advice to pass it on! I also made an observation, that in co-ed or all girl groups, it seems to me to be the girls who have more weight difficulties than the boys. There is actually some hard evidence, recently published, to back up my observation, but as I said to the people in the room, I only have so much time to read studies, and I prefer to spend more time on the kids I’m given.
One of the problems I see with girls in exercise, and I don’t have the solution, is that formal exercise opportunities stop becoming free after they leave school. Yes there are a lot of sports teams out there who are literally crying out for girls to join, but there’s a huge cultural issue at play here. Now feel free to correct me if you have evidence to the contrary, but girls are far more likely to be involved in sport as young adults in more middle and upper class areas. Again, I have no evidence other than my own observations and experience, and the evidence of people I have spoken to on this subject, and I would be delighted to hear that I am wrong. I organised an experiment with a coach I know last year. We did a head count of our girl’s classes and asked some questions about their participation in sport. Then we sat down for coffee one day and we compared notes. Essentially we compared sports our groups of girls were involved in. Mine were: Camogie, Football, basketball, gymnastics, badminton and hockey (that I knew of). Hers were: camogie, gymnastics, hip-hop dancing, and football. Her rates of participation in sport were much lower too. In a class of 24 girls she had just under 50%. In a co-ed class that included 14 girls, I had a participation rate of just over 70%. Now look again at the list and see that in my group I had a list of 6 sports against her 4, and one of hers was hip hop dancing… which I’ll come back to in a minute. Not only did my girls have more choice, they were also participating in greater numbers, and many of them took part in more than one activity. This was all a bit ad hoc, but I do intend to run a more substantial survey in a school in early 2012. I’m sure you’ve guessed which one of us had the group in the middle class area.
Oh yes Hip hop dancing. Firstly, I’m all for things that get people off their backside and moving, and I don’t really want to pick on hip hop, but this is a bit of a bee in my bonnet. It seems to me that girls are constantly being sold bullshit exercise programmes. One week it’s aerobics, then step aerobics, then spinning, then Zumba, then it’s Circusise.* Yes yes I get it- we’re making exercise FUN! Whoopee now we’re on mini trampolines and so on. But really where do you go from there? Just on to the next fad probably. And it all starts with the likes of hip hop dancing, or as my sister likes to call it “That thing that empties my bank account once a month”. (she has 3 daughters) All we seem to do it reinforce the idea to young girls that sport isn’t fun, and to derive any enjoyment from exercise, they need to be in a studio with other women looking at someone who is there to motivate them and shout slogans. Girls also seem to have to pay more for their fitness, be it for a gym or for classes. One of my little sayings is that when they want to lose weight, men go playing 5-a-side and women hire a personal trainer. Why not send a message that you can enjoy exercise for exercise’s sake? I just think the whole social and cultural message for women’s exercise and sport is wrong.
Well that’s basically what I said, and thankfully, it seemed to go down well. At Q&A time I actually got asked what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was, so I got to talk about that a bit too. After that, I stayed on for the first few minutes of a girl’s talk on how to motivate young women to participate in sports, which was funny because I didn’t have a clue what she was going to talk about. I must have seemed like her warm-up act. I would have liked to have stayed for her whole talk as I think I would have learned something, but I had some coaching to go and do.
* that’s a gag from Black Books. Don’t go looking for a Circusise programme in your local gym.