I meant to write this article a while back, but then we all heard of the tragedy in Connecticut and I had a hard time dealing with the overwhelming emotions spawned that day. You see, above all other things, I am a mother. My children are 6, 8, and 10 and are wonderful, frustrating, creative, difficult, funny, and loving children, usually all at the same time. Because I’m interested in their physical health, I spent every Monday this past Fall teaching a strength class at their elementary school for about 40 other wonderful, frustrating, difficult, funny, and loving third and fourth graders. We had a great time (most of the time, I admit there were some challenges) and I certainly learned a lot not only about teaching children, but teaching in general. We finished up the class with a “deadlift meet” on December 10th. On December 14th, I attended the PE fitness awards for all three of my children and saw many of my students there. They wanted to show me their bracelets, introduce me to their moms and dads, and ask if they could do the class again in the Spring. My favorite was one of my third graders who just ran up waving his presidential fitness badge and gave my legs a huge bear hug. All in all, a great morning.
But, then, I went out to my car, turned on the radio, and began to hear of a horrible tragedy unfolding. I thought of my kids, and the kids I taught, and how completely senseless and awful it was. I thought of parents returning home to presents under their Christmas trees that would never be unwrapped. I thought of terrified children who could never be comforted. I also thought repeatedly about how little there was I could do to make it all better. Ultimately, that is my first instinct in situations like this, as it is for most parents: Just make it better. Only I couldn’t. Empathy is a powerful emotion and it stopped me completely in my tracks for a few days.
However, Hope springs eternal and on Monday, my son Francis came home with a big stack of thank-you notes from my third grade class. He was also grumbling a bit because most of the kids were boasting about how much they had lifted during the deadlift meet and saying that they were “the strongest kid in the world”. I tried to remind him that my goal was exactly that: to show these kids how strong they could be. He was not amused as he had felt that he had earned that title for himself with his 121 lb deadlift back in September, but 8 year olds aren’t particularly easy to reason with when emotions are involved. Regardless, the notes I got from these children showed me that they did feel strong and felt good about themselves and their abilities. And they should, more than half of the third grade class lifted 76 lbs with great ease and perfect form. Those who lifted less than that were my smaller students and all of those students lifted at least their own body weight. I felt a sense of relief in some small way. The notes had lifted my spirits a bit and brought my focus back around to the present. I began to think again about what my goals were not only as a strength coach, but as a teacher.
Tuesday, I was in for another surprise. Our track and field club was planning on hosting a Christmas party for the children at the Durham Rescue Mission, one of the local homeless shelters. My entire family went and we helped the children make crafts that they could wrap up and give to their moms as gifts. I sat at the wrapping table and had a crowd of children around me who were overwhelmed by the idea of having their presents wrapped in pretty paper and ribbons. I was a bit overwhelmed by their excitement and it resurrected for me a glimpse of my own childhood excitement about Christmas and all the magic that comes with it. As adults, some crafts, wrapping paper, cookies, and juice boxes may not seem like much. But for children, they might as well be in Santa’s workshop. And for children in a homeless shelter, the experience was profound. Driving home that night, I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me. I knew I couldn’t make anything better in Connecticut, but I could make things better in my own community.
And I had. Every Monday for about twelve weeks, I taught two classes to the third and fourth graders. We started with basic strength movements: a squat, a press, a pushup, and an assisted pulllup. We practiced broad jumps, did walking lunges, learned to support weight overhead, learned to deadlift a kettlebell, and pushed bumper plates across the carpeted floor. We warmed up with agility drills, obstacle courses, and at the end of the strength session, had some fun playing games or doing relay races. They thought it was play, but they were learning. I saw posture and coordination improve, I saw consistency develop in their movements, and when I asked them what their feet, backs, shoulders should look like for each exercise, they could tell me right off the bat. During the last four weeks, I decided that they were ready for me to bring in some barbells and learn how to deadlift. We kept the weight light, emphasized good form, and did multiple reps and sets with adequate rest periods. They were pretty excited about this as most 8 and 9 year olds don’t get to lift barbells.
On our “meet” day, I had everyone warm up with lighter weight and then one by one, I had each of them go to the bar and lift it one time. If they did it quickly, and with good form, they got to advance to the next round. I started with 36 lbs on the bar and added five lbs each round. I let some of the stronger kids skip a round or two as to not wear them out. They not only had big smiles on their faces, but cheered each other on as well. Even when most of the fourth graders had already been taken out of the running, they continued to cheer for the boy and girl who would go on to pull 91 lbs. It was fun and exciting and I gave each of the kids a sticker with the amount of weight he or she lifted that day. All of them were proud of their stickers. I also gave each of them a bracelet that simply said “strong!”. Because I wanted them to know that I know they are strong.
I often see fitness trainers and coaches saying they want to inspire people. They want to inspire us to get off the couch, get a six-pack, train for a race, put down that cookie and work on getting a pull-up. And this is great, we all need inspiration. In fact, I love working with folks who have a long way to go, but all the cheerleader stuff only goes so far. If you want to inspire a change, you have to be willing to not only set a good example, but be willing to teach, adjust your methods as needed, and never forget that you are training a unique individual. Most of all, you have to be patient. Its not all that difficult, you simply have to care. And the truth is, being inspirational can be rather easy when you take that approach. However, when you work with kids, its not only easier, it can have a more profound effect on a person for the remainder of his or her life.
There is an obesity epidemic going on right now. There is also a sports injury epidemic on the rise. Our schools lack the resources to deal with a lot of these problems and many of the solutions are too expensive for the majority of our youth. Many of our children who do not excel at sports are uninspired to be active in other ways and may lack the opportunity to do so. I challenge those of you who want to be inspiring to get into our schools and youth organizations and offer your help as a volunteer. Teach a strength class, teach an exercise class, teach a nutrition class. Work with the unathletic, the uncoordinated, the unmotivated. Start an after school club, set up a training challenge, volunteer with a local athletic club. But, most of all TEACH. We can all get better, we simply need to learn how. Teach our children to be fit and healthy, teach them to love physical activity, and most of all, show them that they are capable of far more than they imagined.