Starting out: Creating an empowering environment

Recently, a situation arose wherein well-meaning and big-hearted women (unintentionally) ostracized another group of women due to a lack of understanding and empathy. It’s a fairly routine occurrence when “we” try to “encourage” someone to engage in an activity that we love. Two things tend to happen.

  1. What constituted as big & scary or difficult for you was wiped from memory. You forget how difficult something was.
  2. “The encourager” is assuming their experience and improvement trajectory is “normal” and, therefore, everyone should be able to do what they did that first time.

I get it. You are excited and want to share your joy with others. That’s fantastic but you have to remember that your experience is not the same as another’s. We all experience and interpret things differently, which means, you cannot assume that what you have accomplished and saw as “fun” will be the same as your friend. We have different goals and reasons for wanting to engage in something new and we do a huge disservice to our newbie sisters when we don’t ask them what their reasons are.

With outdoor activity, there are inherent risks involved that are just not the same as other hobbies (e.g. music, knitting, or indoor fitness classes). Being outside is absolutely wonderful but part of that wonder is the element of the unknown and uncontrollable conditions that exist.

On a treadmill, you can set your pace and incline and know the exact result. Outside, on the same route you run every single day, the experiences may be constantly different. The elements are different; not only day-to-day but they can change, seemingly instantaneously, on you. You may encounter a dog chasing you, or a squirrel darting out, or what about a bear or cougar? Even a rock dislodging in your path requires some counter move or change in stride. And, in this example as I compare it to the treadmill, I’m not even speaking about long- and ultra-distance runs where backcountry safety comes into play.

Some of us love that element of surprise but, for others, it can equal fear. And we may interpret it as an irrational fear (that rock isn’t that big! 5 km isn’t that far!) or maybe it’s a fear based in a previous experience (a friend injured themselves on that slope) Guess what? It doesn’t matter. The fact remains that a fear exists. This fear can be wide-ranging and express itself in a variety of manners. It could be a fear of injury (or death). It could be rooted in confidence and not wanting to “look stupid”. It could be a fitness level concern and not wanting to hold people back. What about clothing? Many fitness brands only offer up to a size 12 or 14…what if you literally have no clothes to participate? The point is, you actually need to speak with her and help identify those concerns. More importantly, do not assume that you know what those concerns are.

Similarly, by simply proclaiming “you can do it!” can come off as condescending. It can be heard as belittling and discouraging because it you have not listened to them. You have not addressed an element – maybe you never even asked – what is holding them back. Some of us are naturally inclined towards adventure and risk; some of us are more tentative. Neither one is right. The idea is to create a supportive, trustworthy, and FUN environment. We are not (at least, I’m not) professional athletes getting paid to constantly push my extreme limits. I go outside because it makes me feel better and smile. As we improve, there is a generally tendency to increase some particular area (speed, power, skill) but if we aren’t having fun to start with – and if we don’t make it fun for our friends – than…what’s the point? 

I learned a great lesson on my first backpacking trip. We were debating on the length of either a 2-night or 4-night route. We settled for the (very practical) decision of 2 nights. What if I hated it or some experience made it terrible for me? I’d likely never try it again. This attitude has served me well. I left that 2-night trip absolutely loving it and wanting to do it again.

This is my lesson for you when trying to introduce someone to a new sport: finish the activity and leave them wanting more. Make it so much fun they can’t wait to try it again. The length, difficulty, pace, and incentives (candy?) are all individualized. This means you are doing something that is beneath your level. Yes, it is a different style or a lot slower than you would normally do. The joy of these experiences is found in sharing your passion with someone else. It is feeding off of their fun but it is impossible to give you a single formula for figuring out what is suitable. You have to take the time and ask people by creating a non-threatening environment that truly allows them to addresses their concerns, in a non-judgemental community. 

We were all beginners once. Try not to forget that.

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