Movement Instructor Counting Disorder: Why Pilates Teachers Are So Susceptible, And How They Can Beat The Odds
Nothing... and I mean NOTHING... is more annoying than a fitness instructor who can't count. (Full disclosure: I can't count.)
A recent yoga obsession brought me to studios all over my city and it opened my eyes, as an instructor, to how annoying it is, as a student, to take instruction from a teacher who stinks at counting. It can throw off your entire movement experience.
And let me tell you, this is not just a yoga class problem. It is a wide-spread fitness instructor problem, and the Pilates community is not immune.
What I have found interesting, however, through my unofficial field research, is Movement Instructor Counting Disorder is far more complex than I originally thought.
Here are the various strains of this disorder I have recently encountered:
Slow counters: These are the counters who can take 30 seconds to count from 5 during a pose or hold. What are we counting here? minutes? breaths? Would you just hurry up already, I am dying here!
Lazy counters: "10, 9, 8, 7, 6... (distraction) 8..." You know who is NOT a bad counter? The rest of the class. You're not fooling anyone. Wake up!
A counter who cues between numbers: "10 -- 9 -- 8 now scoop your belly in more and push the ground away from you. Nice! 7 ---..." Wait, what? No, I don't think so. No one is focusing on your beautifully articulated cue when they are two counts to completion (allegedly) of a 60-second single leg plank.
A non-committal counter: A counter who stops counting to correct others, leaving the class hanging, sometimes literally... and then picks up where they left off... or just stops counting altogether.
A serial counter: Everything must be counted. Everything. For an entire hour, counting is the only “cue” given. Like, dude. Silence would be more useful.
This made me think about counting as a Pilates teacher. Certainly my own clients get just as frustrated with me on third, “one more.”
In our defense, we didn't major in math. Well, scratch that. Some of us did major in math.
Just kidding. The truth is, we CAN count.
Pilates is technical and scientific and requires equal parts creativity and analytical intelligence to teach well. Pilates instructors can count.
But, the fact is, the amount of times a Pilates student is asked to perform a particular exercise, and the special number stated by the Pilates teacher do not always add up. And as a student, that can be very frustrating.
If you don't think numbers are important, just ask Joe. Joe Pilates was very specific about the number of times each exercise should be performed.
Pilates teachers in particular face unique challenges when it comes to counting:
First of all, Pilates is focused on muscular balance and alignment, and we do have unilateral work where an even count on both sides is really important. Screwing up the count in the Side Kick Series is completely counterproductive if you are trying to balance the left and right. Even if you are working 2:1 to strengthen a side, you’ve got to have an accurate count for it to work.
We are also focused on precision, which we achieve through thoughtful cueing. Whether you are using a metaphorical or tactile cue to achieve change in your clients, it requires complete focus away from simply counting down reps.
Taking the time to make alignment corrections, cue an exercise or assist a client can disrupt the count and throw you off a bit.
If you are using the prescribed amount of repetitions, the rule of thumb is generally that you don’t start counting until the exercise is properly executed. This can be particularly challenging in a group class where you are working with varying levels.
In group classes, everyone is at a different level. Teachers can either stick to the specific, prescribed number of repetitions, and accept that some students will execute only a portion of those properly, or they can take more time to teach the exercise… but even then, some students will end up doing way too many, while others will barely get it.
However, as a Pilates student, it can be really frustrating when you're promised "one more" multiple times.
So how can a Pilates teacher keep students engaged and encouraged?
1. Positive reinforcement: There are many times that students surprise me by really improving an exercise on the last one, and I know with a few more tries, they can really get it right. But, I have already pushed the envelope in terms of the repeated "one more." To avoid losing them, I say, "That was perfect! One more, for muscle memory!"
2. Use your fingers (discreetly): Sometimes we do lose count while cueing or correcting, and a discreet finger count is all you need to stay on track. Whenever I find myself throwing a number out there, I discreetly tuck the amount of fingers away. That way, when I inevitably get distracted with cueing, I know what I said and what the clients expectations are, and can pick up where I left off.
3. Use it as tool. Not as the rule: There is a time and a place for counting. It is a time stamp that provides structure so that students know what to expect. It ensures consistency on both sides of the body for unilateral work. It can motivate students to finish strong ("ten more seconds!" or "just three more lifts!"). But there is a such thing as too much (see serial counter, above.)
Use counting strategically, and be purposeful, consistent and accurate. It should enhance the student's experience.
4. Commit to the count: You don't have to count all the time, particularly when introducing a new exercise in group classes. But when you do start the count, commit. Count at a consistent speed, in some numerical order. Once you've introduced a count, the class begins counting in their heads. Counting is not relative or up for interpretation. So when you abandon the count, it is like a bait and switch and your students will not trust your instruction. Be dependable. Commit to the count.
5. Pick up in real time: If you need to stop counting to correct or cue, learn to pick up the count where it would have been had you kept counting and not where you left off 30 seconds ago. It's called multitasking, and it gets easier with practice.
6. Have the class count on their own. Use the honor system. Added bonus: it encourages students to take responsibility for their workout.
7. Time the exercise. Use the second hand in the clock to stay consistent with unilateral work, while still being able to correct and cue.
8. Motivate to finish strong: Monitor the classes progress and exhaustion and when you can see that they are losing form, give them a motivational "three more!" so they push themselves to finish strong.
What are some of your tips and tricks for keeping a successful count? Please comment below. And don’t forget to subscribe for more news and tips.