Virtual pedagogy: lessons from the world of sport

Today on the AC we are proud to share reflections by Cate Creede, a Toronto-based social scientist and core contributor at Fit is a Feminist Issue. Cate and Kim sweat it out together many mornings over Zoom, with a fantastic trainer and coach called Alex whom Cate works with IRL.

Below, Cate synthesizes the valuable, transferable lessons about student-centred online teaching that Alex models every day. For the AC team (Kim and Kelsey), these thoughts resonate deeply as we think about planning summer and fall classes online, and as we try to figure out how to empower and hold space for the young people in our lives in an inclusive, access-forward, feminist way.

Enjoy!

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Guest Author, Cate Creede

Like everyone else in the world, my life is suddenly filtered through a screen, including my work as a strategy facilitator, leadership and life coach and educator.  And like everyone who’s had to translate relational practice to a mediated environment, I’ve found it challenging – and a site of constant learning for myself.

One of my most fruitful sources about learning how to be a good online teacher and facilitator is my experience as a learner with my fitness coach.  Since the lockdown began, I’ve been working out almost every day with Alex Boross-Harmer, who was my real life coach and trainer in the Before Times.  She’s figured out how to translate her already-excellent teaching to an online environment – and in doing so, has reminded me again what good teaching is, both in one-on-one environments and in her classes.

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Cate, with her trainer Alex Boross-Harmer, in the background

A few months ago, I was trying to figure out why Alex is such a powerful presence, compared to so many other teachers and coaches I’ve had in my life. With other coaches in small group fitness classes, I often find myself feeling inept, or like I can’t quite get the form right, or I’m hopelessly clumsy. It’s hard to articulate, but with many other coaches, even when they do and say all the “right” things, I can feel held back in a way. It’s not something specific like being adjusted, or told I should stay at a lower weight to focus on form, or lack of encouragement. Other coaches can do all those things “right,” and it’s fine … I can get a good workout, have a fun class. But what Alex does makes me feel simultaneously supported, challenged, encouraged, and stronger than I’ve ever felt in my life.

As I’ve been a learner in her virtual space during the pandemic, I’ve identified a few of the specific things she does that generate this empowerment for me.

  • She creates safety by modeling vulnerability and authenticity herself;
  • She uses whatever technology is available (in person or virtual) to create a playful environment that is conducive to exploring;
  • She intuitively identifies our individual “zones of proximal development” (Vygotsky) and encourages us to work in those edges;
  • She demonstrates her extensive knowledge through practical application (she was in grad school for kinesiology before she turned to coaching);
  • She designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda.

What does this actually look like in practice?

A few months ago, Alex told me that her aspiration as a coach was to make a space so her clients feel that the hour spent working out is their best hour in the day. The most critical way she does this is by modeling vulnerability and authenticity. 

She does this by checking in about where we are before class starts – sometimes just with a thumbs up/side/down.  She has an honest, infectious, joyful energy – but she always makes it okay to dial back, be sad or anxious, or be tired.  She assumes we have no equipment, and makes that okay – our bodies and a mat are enough.

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Cate, doing a handstand.

She talks about being grateful to be in the space with us, and acknowledges how it improves her own mood.  She calls us a team, not a class, and then she does the workouts with us. She looks like a super fit person – and yet openly acknowledges being sweaty or out of breath.

Over the week, our daily “superhero virtual workouts” have a shape: mobility, strength, ramping up, rest, mobility, strength, etc.  Every workout has a shape too – mobility, strength, conditioning, stretching – with many options within it. She pays attention to what each of us is doing, watching us closely through the screen, offering modifications, reinforcing form, and encouraging.

As she does the workouts with us, she is honest about where she is tired, where her body is tight or painful, where she needs to cut back on reps or go for the lighter option. Her authenticity (in her genuine, spontaneous reactions and affect) models for us how we can find our own path, trust that we know our own bodies, and it ensures that we have permission to adjust and slow down.

Together, this creates trust and confidence: she holds the space and for us so that we can safely push our own edges.

Which is the second major thing she does:  she creates a playful environment that is conducive to exploring.

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Cate’s trusty workout companions, excelling at active rest between sets.

When I first met Alex as a teacher, hers was the first class I ever felt inspired to dance in – just because her joy at being in the gym is infectious. (Note: I am not a person naturally given to expressing joy). She talks about workouts as “adult playtime,” and since we’ve been home, she’s built things like handstands and crow pose, and variations on the same, into a more traditional “HIIT” workout format. She can’t help herself from dancing or strict pressing her dog between sets, and she calls attention to how delightful people look when working out with their kids, or playing with their pets.  Even though we are mostly on mute, Alex’ interactions and laughing at herself create a sense of playful community that feels mutually supportive.

With her, I am simultaneously fearless and 9 years old, and wise and strong and 55. I will hurl myself upside down in a handstand in the middle of the floor, and I will trust her when she tells me to slow it down. Sometimes we are leaping around, and sometimes we focus deeply on one tiny mobility movement.

It all feels enlivened: this playfulness creates an “enlivened safety” where we can push our own boundaries.  Every workout we do with Alex is designed to scaffold us to build confidence at the end of our current capacity and push it just a little further – and then she pays attention to each of us to mark and signal our progress.

As a coach, Alex has an innate understanding of how to work with Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.”  Where she push our edges with weight or equipment in “real life,” in covidspace, she designs workouts that always leave a little room for each of us, independently, to reach for an extra few reps. She finds new ways for us to use our bodies – like rowing movements using just our arms against the floor – that require no equipment but get the job done.

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Bags of books sub in for dumbbells as the team do bicep curls.

She notices and names the edge for each of us, intuits that precise moment where, with encouragement and detailed analysis and guidance for our particular bodies, we can take it one step further. She pays attention to the chat box on Zoom and offers a continual stream of modifications if needed.  Even while she is doing the movements herself, she is calling out individuals with encouragement or suggestions – “Serena, LOOK at that wall walk!” – and tracking when we’ve done something like a freestanding handstand for the first time (which we can then all celebrate together).

All of this playfulness and presence is backed up by Alex’ ability to translate expertise into practical application.  Alex, a trained kinesiologist, has designed our weeks to have a cycle, starting with mobility and strength on Monday, playfulness and strength on Tuesday, conditioning and strength on Wednesday, rest on Thursday, ramping up on Friday and “sweaty Saturday,” followed by another rest day. There is a lot of theory behind the design, but understanding it is less important than the lived experience of feeling that each day feels doable and like “the right thing for today.”

A screenshot of one of Alex’s Covid-19 online workouts

Alex’s workouts have always been shadowed by this kind of impeccable expertise, but in the covidtimes, she does an even more critical translation of theory into practice because she assumes we have zero workout equipment, and works from there. This in turn creates a sense of resourcefulness, in multiple ways – our bodies become our reliable tools, something to know and explore more than ever.  We use what’s at hand – like lululemon bags filled with books or cans of soup – to add new options to existing moves. We are all negotiating new existences right now – and the symbol of a bag of books (or, in Kim’s case, a summer tire from the basement!) as a weight reminds us that we have the capacity to mcgyver our lives, to deal with whatever comes, with a little creativity and a little joy.

What all of this adds up to, for me, is that Alex designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda. Clearly, she gets something out of this – she talks about the importance of this community and her gratitude for having the team alongside her – but it never feels like we are doing something because she thinks it would be a fun Instagram challenge or she wants to show off something she is good at.  She recognizes that in this extraordinary time, we are in need of movement, in need of care, in need of connection, in need of joy, and in need of reminders that we are strong and resourceful. We do squats and lunges and wallwalks and move our bodies – but the overarching experience is of feeling – for an hour – like we are superheroes who can handle whatever else comes.

Working out in covidtime means pets are part of the process!

Two months ago, I was in the gym lifting heavy things. Now, I can’t imagine trying to lift an actual barbell.  Deadlifting or back squats seem to belong to another type of person altogether — “but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead,” to retrieve a quote from my long ago undergrad in English. Yet there’s something fitting, RIGHT NOW, about working out by moving a towel around on a slippery floor with our feet, doing step-ups on a kitchen chair, lifting bags of books. “If this is too much, take some things out of your bags,” enjoined Alex as we moved from curls to flies.

That’s how I feel right now. I’m lifting unfamiliar things, every minute, and I need to take some things out of my bags. Integrating this literal metaphor into my workouts – and into my teaching and coaching, too – is reassuring me that I can adjust. I’m not in it alone.

We’re all looking for community. And we’ll all adjust.

Cate Creede, PhD, is a consultant, educator, and coach who lives in Toronto, working mostly in the space of academic healthcare and higher education.  She also runs a youth development project in Uganda and writes for the Fit is a Feminist Issue blog. She is aiming for a successful freestanding handstand by the end of the lockdown.

You can find out more about Alex at www.abhmovement.com

For more on Cate, see: https://www.potentialgroup.com/about-us/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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