A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book with an interesting subject matter: handwriting analysis. Little was I aware that there is a whole “science” behind the meaning of the flow, shapes, sizes and slants of people’s writing. Skeptical, I paged through, and as I read, it began to gain some credibility: how we move our bodies is a form of body language. Everyone would agree that body language – postures, positions and motions, everything from arms to eyebrows – is a substantial form of communication. As I paged my way through this text, it dawned on me that even something as innocuous as how we scribbled a pen on paper was a form of body language, an expression of our being at that time and place.
I bought that book and was astounded by what it told me about individual nature. Perhaps it was mere confirmation bias when I amateur-analyzed the handwriting samples of friends (fun game: have a friend write three true statements and one false one – of facts only they know. There will invariably be a difference in handwriting style!). But when I used it on brand-new, never-before-encountered clients in a clinical setting, it still held some truth about personality and behavior patterns.
Around this same time, as a coach and physiotherapist, I began to more confidently – and more aggressively – address clients’ running biomechanics. As a detached observer, the findings and goals were black and white: this is pathology; that is efficiency. But for the ailing runner, it was much more than that: how people run is as fundamental to their being is how they speak, and how they act. Running, like writing, is body language.
In retrospect, the sensitivity and resistance I have encountered when passing judgment on a client’s running began to make sense. Asking someone to make a drastic change in something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, can be experienced as actually asking them to make a major lifestyle change.
Moreover, to merely attempt to analyze a runner’s stride is, for some, to cast cold and brutal judgment on their being, slicing deeply to the core of the fundamental act that defines their very existence. For some, to judge one’s running is to make a blanket criticism (if not condemnation) of his or her fundamental being!
“No, no, no! That’s not what I’m saying! I meant… it’s just…” I tell them – and myself – as I go about dissecting the physics of how they run. To me, I’m just trying to help: to remove a major, self-destructing impediment, to prolong a runner’s life, to make it more successful and enjoyable, or at the very least, less dysfunctional!
But it’s a lot more than that.
What I’ve come to realize is that the job of a coach is to balance the roles of biomechanist with psychologist: identifying dysfunctional behavior, yet recognizing this behavior as representative of a person. Body language. As such, to coldly analyze and change with reckless abandon is akin to an existential slash and burn.
Thus, the empathetic coach must approach a dysfunctional runner with the same sensitivity as counselor:
- Identify obstacles toward greater success and happiness
- Establish small, but meaningful, objectives to address
- Make subtle, but powerful, adjustments gradually
- All the while identifying and emphasizing the strengths of their running (as an extension of their being)
- Providing consistent encouragement when changes are painful and difficult
- Identifying areas of growth, and rewarding and reinforcing positive changes
Acknowledging running as a form of body language balances the need to identify self-destructive behavior, yet have the sensitivity to make small and gradual changes with heavy doses of affirmation. After all, we all love running, and hold deep in our hearts that we’re the best runners – and people – that we can be.
And all I am trying to do is help! The best love is sometimes tough love, but – as I found out, peering at those new patient paperwork handwriting samples – a little sensitivity, understanding and nurturing can go a long way.