Ian William's success story of self-reflection and adaptation while coaching a "nightmare student".
When I started training Parkour, I did so begrudgingly. I was even less enthusiastic about coaching when I was first brought in as an assistant, and eventually left as the last man standing, fighting desperately to keep my local gyms and community all functioning cohesively. I continued to take coaching jobs because it loosely fit some half-baked dream I had of living a life where everything I did was about Parkour. Years of traveling and taking odd coaching jobs to survive along the way eventually relieved me of the burden of ever becoming a champion-level athlete. I thought I wanted that when I started, but several years passed and I came to realize that I didn’t flourish under that ideology with Parkour. I simply wanted to be competent in regard to moving my body. While that journey was coming full circle, I was unaware that a new one was already well underway. Coaching had become more than a means to pay bills and an excuse to go somewhere new. I wanted to be good at it. Not just competent; good.
I moved to Connecticut and ended up at Adaptive Movement Parkour, where I was allowed to work private lessons without the gym taking a big chunk of my income. There, I met a 5-year-old boy that we will call “Brian”.
Brian doesn’t like to sit still.
Brian is emotional.
Brian hates doing anything that isn’t the very first thing he wants to be doing at that moment.
Brian was also a little nervous to share or hand over stuff he wanted to play with.
The first class we had together was filled with temper tantrums, arguments, and irrational demands on his part. He was disruptive and endangered those around him by being erratic and unpredictable. My knee-jerk reaction was that I needed to instill gym etiquette and to teach him to be still and listen. I could have stepped down from being his coach, or suggested that maybe he needed to wait two more years before joining a program like this. That did not feel right to me. The first thing I had to change was myself.
I had to shed what I believed to be the best representation of what a coach is. I needed to better my understanding of child development. There simply was no controlling Brian for an entire hour happily, so I stopped trying to make him drill courses and work individual skills. The kid had the energy to spare and loved physical activity. I let him make his own decisions based on what he thought was fun. Turns out, Brian loves running laps around the outside of the gym. So guess what we did? We ran laps until he couldn’t run laps anymore.
During the running, I’d tell him to land on the ball of his foot. One tiny grain of knowledge. So he did it.
I soon discovered that he likes to punch and kick. For a lot of coaches, this would probably be a nightmare, but I took the time to show him how to put on boxing gloves and I let him punch and kick the pads we had lying around. During the boxing session, I told him to focus on keeping his hands up. One tiny grain of knowledge. So he did it.
I also learned that he enjoyed play-fighting with me. I’d get on my knees and he would test out his attacks while I blocked. I told him to focus on hitting my hands and nothing else. One tiny grain of knowledge. So he did it. Every so often I would let a single strike glance off my chest and I would tumble over feigning pain and death.
We spend half of every private lesson together going through this ritual. When it’s all said and done, I can ask for his gloves and he gives them back. No muss, no fuss…usually. He trusts me and through that trust, he has learned to share.
Once he has released his frantic energy, he happily accepts my demands for the rest of the class. At the beginning of our friendship, we would get 15 minutes of effective training done if we were lucky. Navigating temper tantrums and having serious discussions on following my commands would take up most of every class session. I did not look forward to our classes together. 15 minutes out of 60. This is not exactly an effective time frame to instill anything in anyone. Today, we get 60 out of 60. Is it my ideal lesson plan? No, but Brian is five and wants to be active and strong, and at that age, they just need a lightning rod for their excitement. Our classes were slow and at times frustrating, but as instructors we push forward, adding a single grain of knowledge where we can.
Now Brian can almost do climb ups, can vault and climb without placing his knees or elbows on the tops of objects and has regularly displayed safe problem solving when climbing down from something. With a little bit of patience, Brian is turning into a very smart mover at a very young age and I am extremely proud of the physical and emotional changes he has been able to make.
In the desperate attempt to advance our systems of coaching physical skills we cannot forget that we are not just here to create good athletes. It is imperative to the sport that we make good people as well.