PT on the Net Research

Reflective Practices

What is it that keeps us developing and evolving as trainers? Is it taking part in training courses? Or maybe reading books? And if that’s the case, what makes us pick up the book in the first place?

As the industry we work in evolves and the job description of a personal trainer diversifies to incorporate many skills, we have to evolve with it. Sure, you could argue that a personal trainer’s job doesn’t include assessments or corrective exercise. However, as more and more people realize the value of exercise to prevent illness, speed recovery from injury and alleviate stress, trainers need a bigger bag of tricks than ever before.

If we are to maintain existing skills alongside the development of new ones, then the way we work has to change as well. So how do we keep our skills current and identify exactly what we need to improve on?

Surely practice makes perfection right? Wrong. Being experienced at something doesn’t always guarantee proficiency. Without stopping to reflect on the way we teach, act and lead our sessions, we risk getting trapped in a cycle of repetition. Practice doesn’t always make for perfection. Consider someone who has been a personal trainer for 10 years. Have they got 10 years of experience? Or have they simply repeated the same year 10 times over, never really developing? Now, this may be oversimplifying things, but the point is that if we don’t take time to reflect, analyze and learn from our experiences (good or bad), we risk never developing as trainers or indeed as individuals.

In recent years, the approach to coaching and teaching has advanced considerably. Coaches are moving from more extrinsic approaches to measure performance to include the use of intrinsic feedback. Donald Schön suggested that the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning was one of the defining characteristics of professional practice. Perhaps we could add to that notion by suggesting that reflective practice is one of the defining characteristics of professional development.

For personal trainers to perform their roles with any degree of competence, reflective practice is a necessary skill that needs to be developed alongside other important technical abilities. The art of how to teach is all too often overlooked during a personal trainer’s initial development, in favor of what to teach. In a similar way the ability to move and walk is often assumed natural rather than trainable, likewise the ability to teach and reflect is often overlooked. When a mechanical fault is overlooked in gait, it can inhibit continued development in movement. Simply by overlooking or choosing to ignore the way we teach, we are in danger of inhibiting our own personal development.

The ability to reflect effectively is not without challenges. There are many factors that can distort or confound a successful attempt at reflection. Early in the career of a trainer, a lack of knowledge may mean that the aid of a mentor is needed to specifically identify technical competencies. Wilkinson states that a key function of reflective practice is the acquisition of knowledge and understanding. He further highlights the difference between technical rationality (associated with empirical knowledge that we gain from training and study) and tacit knowledge (a way of knowing and understanding which guides practice and is linked to experience and expertise). Tacit knowledge forms an implicit part of a personal trainer's approach to dealing with clients and interpreting their actions.

A mentor can help highlight areas of strength and good performance as the tendency may be for the new trainer to focus on negative aspects. In a similar way, more experienced and skilled trainers may be reluctant to admit a “weakness” in performance and may focus more on their strengths. There is also an important distinction between true reflection and the act of rationalizing one’s practice.

In reality, many coaches and trainers are already employing the use of reflective practice, both in action and on action. By recognizing and formalizing that process (where applicable), trainers can learn to identify successful as well as less successful strategies used with their clients. The ability of trainers to reflect, particularly in action, is possibly the most important tool in the “toolbox.” Being able to appraise the effectiveness of any given exercise or drill is essential and will involve the analysis (in action) of many different variables (this was primarily the area Donald Schön focused on). Effective reflection in action will involve cognitive and affective factors as well as the more outwardly obvious psychomotor performance of a given task.

The role of personal trainer involves many different facets of the genre. Van Manen highlights differences between retrospective reflection (past experiences), anticipatory reflection (future experiences) and contemporaneous reflection (situational). All of these are important aspects of personal training; however, both anticipatory and contemporaneous reflection require previous experience in that situation to become anything more than misguided assumptions. Temporary factors also play a part in assessing performance. In his excellent text on motor performance and learning, Schmidt states that the level of a person’s performance is susceptible to fluctuations in temporary factors such as motivation, arousal, fatigue and physical condition.

The application of an experimental approach to teaching therefore becomes necessary if the trainer is to grow beyond existing limits. In doing so, reflection may only be as effective as that individual’s ability to act on that reflection if practice is to change.

In order to provide a basis for a reflective approach to personal training, trainers will need to draw upon the evidence with which they are confronted. There are many sources upon which decisions for certain approaches can be based. There are also several options by which a trainer will measure the effectiveness of a chosen intervention. These may include the use of quantitative measures of performance or physical variables, such as testing for body composition or recording the weights lifted. Alternatively a more subjective approach might be taken based on observation or feedback from a particular task. It is more likely that “in action” reflections will be based on subjective evidence and those reflections will combine the use of objective and subjective techniques.

I have found that the concept of experiential learning is particularly relevant to personal training. Though this model is rarely applied in this context, it can be contextualized to explain how a trainer observes, evaluates and improves upon exercises, programs and approaches for each client. Many approaches have been suggested to describe experiential learning. These models are commonly derived from the original work by David Kolb. Kolb draws on an all-star set of interdisciplinary influences – John Dewey from educational philosophy, Jean Piaget from developmental psychology and Kurt Lewin from social psychology.

I have adapted this model to describe the process a trainer may go through when working with a client.

Figure 1. Cycle of reflection in action during personal training session.

I find this model to be very effective, particularly during reflection in action, which forms the sum of any reflection on action. The trainer is working in a role that demands a high amount of “in action” reflection. This is not simply for their own benefit but also to enable them to accurately provide feedback for their clients on exercise performance.

If you think back on a recent session, you will become aware of the amount of reflection in action that takes place. Without the ability to reflect in action, and sometimes prior to action, it is impossible to make the subtle changes that can greatly enhance the athlete’s learning experience. This has led me to think that reflection in action is only as effective as the ability, knowledge and confidence of the practitioner. Without those qualities, personal trainers are simply reduced to the stereotypical role of “counting reps” for their clients.

Reflective practice is not only an excellent way to improve the learning experience of our clients and athletes, it is also an excellent indicator as to the ability, knowledge and confidence of a practitioner, coach or trainer. The open nature of reflection leaves plenty of scope for both objective and subjective reasoning. In personal training, it is usually a case of comparing tacit knowledge to empirical or technical rationality in order to gauge the success of an exercise and to progress or alter it as necessary.

The science and practice of reflection still causes much discussion among theorists and academics. The literature shows a predominance for its application in the teaching and nursing environments, and as yet, there is very little research in a sports context.

Reflective practice is an un-researched concept in the genre of personal fitness training, yet it is an inherent part of the professional practice and essential for safety, accountability and client success. Wilkinson highlights that reflection is often under-researched and that reflective practitioners should consider developing their own investigations. He also states that reflection does not always occur simply by knowing about it – it depends on active strategies such as reflective writing in diaries or portfolios and/or clinical supervision.

In the context of personal training, little emphasis is currently placed on reflective practice. Instead it is often limited to a trainer’s appraisal of exercise performance. This process is rarely ever formalized to the extent of a reflective diary or journal. What personal training and nursing do share is the meagre recommendations for statutory post-registration/qualification. The voluntary regulatory bodies in the fitness industry do have requirements for attending training for which continuing professional development (CPD) points are awarded. To the author’s knowledge, very few of these courses require an instructor to show peer reviewed evidence of competence or require an instructor to appraise their own workplace performance. Often, those courses that encourage evidence-based approaches to proving competence are bypassed in favor of quicker, more “intense” training options. By formalizing how we coach and develop an athlete, we can discover how enlightening it can be to take a reflective approach to our training. It can highlight where our performance and knowledge is strong and where we need to develop. It is conceivable that the standard for personal training could be greatly enhanced if this practice was encouraged further within the industry. Although it can be frustrating and is not without limitations, done correctly it can greatly improve trainer performance.

So, how can you go about improving your practice through reflection? Well, there are many choices, but what is important to remember is that reflection is about your performance, not that of your client. By keeping a regular journal or even taking a few minutes after a session to reflect on it, you can greatly enhance your own learning experience as well as that of your client. There is a saying that good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement. Perhaps that is because all too often, we only reflect on something when it goes wrong. By making reflection a matter of course in your daily work life, you will become a better trainer and avoid making that bad judgement in the first place.


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