Wednesday, 4 July 2012

It's Not What You Say...

Last week I took Edie to a gym.  I thought it was about time she learned to do dead lifts etc.  Seriously though folks, I mean I took her to a gymnastics centre.  We went with some friends and their babies who are all around Edie's age.  It was seriously cool in many ways.  Firstly, there was all the equipment that you'd hope for - bars, beams, spring boards, large mats... all the things that just make you want to go nuts and jump around like you're 7 years old.  Secondly, it was freezing.  Totally, bone-chillingly icy.  It was a cold day in Dunedin (I know, shock horror) and of course the gym was in this large warehouse space.  They had made a token attempt to heat it by putting in these tiny bar heaters.  Unfortunately, they were on the ceiling (apparently they had skipped the "heat rises" lesson at school) and there were about 4 of them for the entire cavernous space.  I stupidly didn't think about the fact that I would have to take my street shoes off inside and only wore stockings so my feet quickly lost all feeling and turned to ice.  I left Edie in her wooly hat and jacket the whole hour she played there and even then her little hands were purple.  This was just the beginning of the gymnastics experience for me.  Not all of it was cool.
As a stereotype, little girls seemed to do one of 3 activities when I was young.  All little girls may or may not have done other sports and extra-curricular activities, but these 3 were the staple: gym, ballet (or dance of some sort), and horse-riding.  The horse riders were the privileged few, the lucky ones whose parents had the money or the resources at hand to allow them to attend gymkhanas and brush manes.  To be honest, they seemed a bit 'horse mad' to me but perhaps this was because I was just jealous.  So the rest of the young female population fell into the other two categories: gym and dance.  These two did not seem to be activities that were able to be combined.  No one ever seemed to do both.  You could do dancing and soccer, or gym and brownies, but you could not do gym and dancing.  I have no idea why this was.  It was like the Sharks and the Jets.  Gym girls didn't mix with dance girls.  Anyway, I was a dance girl and so the closest I ever came to doing gymnastics was at PE, and watching Nikki Jenkins win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1987.  In fact, my whole perception of the gymnastics scene is founded on what I know from the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and 60 Minutes-type exposes of extreme coaching techniques employed in the sport.

So the fact that this gym was freezing cold encouraged my perception of hard-nosed training methods where you had to suck it up to survive.  This idea was only encouraged by what happened through the rest of Edie's hour of gymnastics.

We were greeted by the lady running the session in a friendly if slightly direct manner.  We let the kids loose on the age-appropriate equipment she had set up.  There were a few other kids of various ages and their Mums, all doing their own thing.  After about 5 minutes, some child-friendly music started.  After about 15 minutes a particular song started at which time the gym coach produced some colourful scarves to wave around at appropriate moments during the song.  She encouraged us to grab the scarves and our children and join in.
If you know me, you know I'm not a wall flower.  When I was about 14 I think I found my mother mortifyingly embarrassing (who didn't at that age?) because she would always jump up for "audience participation".  If someone needed a person to join in, clap along, read out loud etc., Mum would step up.  At 14, Edie is sure to be embarrassed by me because I am now exactly the same.  I am quite happy to save someone from being left in the lurch and join in where necessary.  I find that if you start, others will eventually join in and a better time is had by all.  It depends on the circumstances of course, but you get the general idea.
And so naturally I picked up a scarf and began waving it according to the directions of the song and the gym coach.  Happily, my friends were just as quick to scarf-wave as I so we were united in our lunacy.  Some of the other adults had struck up a conversation elsewhere and the gym lady encouraged them to join in.  Firstly, she just called out for them to come and get a scarf.  But the more they ignored her, the more insistent she became.  I think the words "Pick up your children and bring them over here!!" were uttered in what I thought was a oddly insistent tone.
At this stage, I was thinking the gym lady was beginning to fill some of my other ideas about going to gymnastics.  First freezing cold gymnasiums, now implacable coaches...  This idea was cemented when she turned her ire on me.
I had offered several scarves to Edie but she was happy just to watch Mummy lummox around.  I can't blame her.  Here I was waving my scarf up high, touching the ground, waving it left, waving it right, and other tuneful actions as per the ditty.  I was committed but I was not committed enough for Gym Lady.  She turns to me, waving her scarf at Edie and snaps, "PUT A SCARF IN HER HAND".  I don't take kindly to being snapped at so I promptly told her that I had tried but I couldn't force my 1 year old to hold onto something she didn't want to.  She didn't mention it again but it was clear I was not winning any Top Mum awards in her book.
From then on I thought of the the gym lady as the Gym Nazi.  I have to say, she tried hard with the kids, making her way round each of them and encouraging them to try out the equipment.  But she was bossy with the adults.  She treated us like we were also 7 years old and needed 'a good firm hand'.  I was left with mixed feelings about the experience.  I appreciate that when you are trying to get a group of adults, possibly strangers, to join in an activity, you need to be proactive and encourage people to get involved to make the experience they're paying for worth their while.  The message that she was trying to convey made perfect sense.  But it was how she said it that rubbed me up the wrong way.  And it wasn't just me getting a bit pouty for being told off, my friends noticed her tone as well.
I managed to force a stick into her hand though...

I seem to come across this a lot.  Not Gym Nazis, I haven't met many of those.  I mean people who are bemused that others don't see things their way or won't do what they say.  It would seem that the ability to couch questions or directions in an tactful way is rare.  When people go into a store and launch into a tirade of vitriol at a staff member, do they really think that the person they're yelling at is going to go out of their way to help correct any mistake that's been made?  When someone feels they have been promised something at work that they have not received, do they honestly think the best way to remedy this is to approach the powers that be with a barrage of aggressive questions?  Don't get me wrong, I am the first to say that there are times when you need to resort to more drastic measures, but going straight for the jugular is like shaving all your hair off just because you don't like your hair cut - it's probably not in your best interests and you've skipped about 5 steps between.

I think it comes down to empathy and the ability to see potential outcomes from one's actions.  People need to be able to see things from a variety of perspectives to be able to anticipate what the result of their actions might be.  If the Gym Nazi had understood that her tone and wording made her reasonable requests sound demanding and patronising, I'm sure she would have been mortified.  Conversely, if I had just understood that I needed to give my child the freaking scarf, she wouldn't have had to yell at me.

What I'm really saying is think about how you talk to other people as it effects the way they'll talk back to you.  I clearly need to look at this myself when I next meet the Gym Nazi.  I'll make sure I have an extra scarf and a friendly smile.


  1. That gym nazi sounds awful. I don't tolerate people talking to me that way and snap right back - which is not always helpful.

    I was a gym girl.
    In 1985 my mum started up a gym club that still exists today and I competed for 6 years (until my boobs got too big). I loved it and it certainly helped with balance and flexibility but the gyms were always cold. Thankfully as a gymnast it didn't take too long to warm up, but the poor parents were seen freezing on the sidelines. Not my mum of course, she was the head coach so was moving and shaking with the rest of us.

    Don't give up yet, maybe the nazi was having a bad day or maybe she was jealous because all the other mums were prettier than her?

  2. I was 100% gym girl - I was certain that because my first name was Nadia I was destined to be an olympic gold medallist. I also came across some special coaches, I remember being left on the high bar crying for about 20 mins - they wouldn't let me come down until I had completed a move that terrified me. I was 7 at the time.