Biggest Strength

“For the icebreaker activity, find a partner, and try to discover their biggest strength.”

Heaven help me. I’m here in the city, tongue-tied, at a meeting of the College of Organisational Psychologists. The theme is Coaching Skills. I’ve been a coach for twelve years, I tell myself in my head. I am a registered psychologist.  So how come, when Martin and I begin talking, I blurt out, “My biggest strength is I can do lots of push-ups.” I want to sink into the floor.
“How many?” he asks.
I pause. “I don’t know. I’ve not tested myself lately. Fifty, maybe?”
Where do we go from here? I wonder.
He says he’s not going to enter a push-up contest with me. We both smile.
I ask him of his work as an organisational psychologist, and I ponder the path I left in 1999. All around me, there is talk of selection tests, performance management, leadership. It is my world, yet it is not my world.

When the time comes for Martin to introduce me to the group, the first thing he mentions is I teach BodyPump. Heads turn, a murmur fills the room. They are surprised too. I smile and nod.

What I am really thinking is: I don’t belong here. Just like at the Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychologists meeting in Montreal when I was still in graduate school, pursuing a Ph.D. My claim to fame at that event was not my research, but the fact that I won the women’s 5k race. There weren’t many women psychologists who ran.

At this event here in Melbourne, I shift uncomfortably in my seat. How do I explain who I am, what I do, to this group? I stumble over the words in my head. I am an inspirer, my Facebook Page says. I’ve written books. I coach. I speak. And yes, I teach BodyPump, three times this week in fact. Because BodyPump allows me to say what I came here to say: you are more than you think you are. And I can prove it to you. Come, lift this barbell, do this push-up, yes, on your toes, prove it to yourself. This is not theory. This is not talking about exercise adherence or motivation. This is front-line stuff, sweat and guts and tears. How do I explain about adventure racing and the woods, and how they informed my writing, how my books take people into the dark to show them the way back to the light?

We sit in the room on Queens Street in Melbourne, and talk about motivation theory. Self-determination. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The speakers are passionate but their words don’t resonate in me. Not like the words scapular retraction and rotator cuff. Not like the words mountain biking, trail run, boogie board.  I listen, and wait, reflect on similar lectures back in New York City a lifetime ago.

Then we come to the coaching section, where I coach, with another participant observing. This frightens me, being observed. What if I am awful? What if I’ve forgotten how to coach? But when we begin, the person I am coaching somehow opens. The observer is there, but I’ve forgotten him. I become absolutely involved in this woman’s problem, in hearing her, in searching for the threads of her speech which contain her answer. She is effusive, hands waving, voice lifted, eyes shining. At one point, I stop her. “So this new work, this is like your dream, then?” Our eyes meet. I see tears in hers. “Yes, it is my dream.”

In that moment, I know I am in the right room, the right profession. Theory informs; I am here simply to gain some extra theory to underpin my work, to provide an extra scaffold on which to hang my questions.

But beneath that, I am here to remind myself who I am, what I do. Someone asks me later if I’ll be drawn more into work as an organisational psychologist. I look away. I will always be a maverick, wearing more than one hat, shifting and changing, hard to still. “No, I don’t think so”, I reply, after a long pause.  In my head, I’m realising that I’ve carved out an ideal path, the path that lines up perfectly with who I am.

At the end of the workshop, I tell the woman I have coached I’d like to continue to ponder her problem – it bothers me that we haven’t had time to fully address it tonight. She looks surprised. “You do this because you really love it.”
“Yes,” I say. “I do.”

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