Choose your Words Wisely
Words have been on my mind a lot lately. When teaching a workshop in Spanish in Madrid last month at Pilates Wellness & Energy, I become highly aware of the way we often use way too many words to give a command in English. “Take your feet off the bar” can be condensed to “remove your feet”, or “place your hand on the bar” can be more directly stated as “grab the bar”. When you translate into another language, you realize the most succinct ways to cue. (That said, I also created some of my own verbs – let’s call them Spanglish – much to the amusement of my Spanish colleagues, which I still to this day stubbornly insist would be useful terms…)
Working on my word choice – in English – is something I constantly reflect on and sometimes struggle with. Some find it surprising when I admit this since I’m known for my precision in my teaching. But to be honest, verbal cuing doesn’t come naturally to me. Maybe it’s from my dance background that I most easily express myself through movement, although I listen to my colleague and fellow former dancer Jennifer Kries with her eloquent teaching, and that theory goes out the window!
But given the choice, I would rather demonstrate a move than describe it any day. Unfortunately, saying “do THIS, not THAT” only goes so far and description becomes necessary. So I’ve trained myself to verbally explain directions. And the practice of doing that has improved my skills at directing movement and instructing others.
When writing my instructor training manual for the Pilates for Buff Bones® training program, I became hyper-aware of the terminology I was using in my teaching. When you spend hundreds of hours writing and editing and reviewing, and editing and reviewing more (and more), you’re bound to get caught up in verbiage and discover just how inconsistent you are. Not only did I discover a need for uniformity of words, I learned how I need to be as clear and precise as possible in my selection of them.
In editing my manual last year, I discovered that I’d written cues which were anatomically inaccurate like “bend your legs.” I rationalized it as, “But this is how I speak!” Still, I couldn’t remove from my head the voice of Mount Sinai Medical School’s anatomy department head, Dr. Jeffrey Laitman, M.D., proclaiming, ‘”Your leg is your lower limb below your knee! Your thigh is your femur!” And then his voice (insert Mel Brooks’ inflected New York accent) became mine nagging me, “How can you bend your LEG? What, you’re gonna break your tibia?? No! It’s your KNEE ya bend!”
I first met Mount Sinai’s beloved and revered Dr. Laitman in New York City two years ago at the FAMI course (Functional Anatomy for Movement and Injuries), run by my colleagues at Kinected. He brought to life gross anatomy in a way I had never experienced, making it entertaining and hysterically funny – the lecture hall is roaring in laughter when he presents. (He could best be described as a wonderful caricature of himself.) And he enraptured me with his passion for the human body and its evolution. With his colleague Dr. Joy Reichenberg, Ph.D. who is equally as engaging a lecturer and completely fascinating (she travels around the world to dissect whales on a moment’s notice), the lecture hall becomes a captivating theater where you eagerly await the next revelatory act. This formal anatomy training from a medical school faculty permanently altered my perception of the body and how I translate that information into my own teaching.
Sure, I still refer to the “biceps” rather than the “biceps brachii” as these arm muscles are technically termed. But I rely more now on specificity of joints that are moving (elbow) rather than generic regions (arm). And I feel that the general public benefits as a result if we instructors use more consistent and accurate word choices.
So I ask you instructors out there to consider the words you select. Record yourself and listen. You may be surprised at what you hear. As we tell our clients, awareness is the first step to change. What better way to improve our teaching than to become aware of what we’re saying?