Unsolicited Advice in Fitness

Fitness has its ugly side. As an individual becomes healthier, stronger, faster, or just slimmer, there is always the risk that this physical improvement will outpace related psychological improvement.

Something is injured or underdeveloped in the person’s view of themselves, such that their own accomplishments still don’t sate their hunger. They are muscular, but maybe not muscular “enough.” Feeling unable to advance one’s position independently, the urge becomes instead to push others down or otherwise make them feel less than.

That’s fertile soil for the sharing of unsolicited advice.

They see something, like an instagram video, and their brain can’t just witness it without judging. Eager to fill some void of insecurity, they presume:

  • They know more than the individual in the photo/video.
  • They would be doing a service to the other person and potential third parties by providing their input.
  • That anybody actually cares what they, a stranger, has to say.

It’s relatively unsubtle behavior. Yet it still ruffles feathers. Understanding the true nature of unsolicited advice does not shield you from its effects, because it’s just so aversive. It sucks the joy and feelings of accomplishment from a moment.

And for what, exactly? Mostly, just as a misguided attempt to display expertise. To strut. To play the alpha game. Unsolicited advice is condescending by nature, since it is compelled by the certainty that the speaker knows better to such a degree that it must be spoken.

Why I want to talk about this

Chiming in with advice seems to be a common part of human nature. We all have some degree of thinking we know what’s right for others, regardless of our personal experience in the field in question or our knowledge of the individual’s life. It makes us feel better.

For trainers, who are in the business of bringing these positive changes to the lives of others, it becomes especially important to guard against such temptations.

This is important in part because of the reality that it can make or break your business; people who feel talked down to will be less likely to stick around than those who feel lifted up. But also an indulgence in personal ego around fitness can hamper one’s ability to acquire new knowledge and skills.

I want to talk about this because [deep breath] …my name is Greg and I have offered unsolicited advice before and very likely will again, in weak moments. I want to talk about this topic because what little I’ve learned about it has helped me immensely. I want to get better still and help others (who ask) to get better at this, too.

My own violations

It goes beyond mere unsolicited advice, of course. That’s just a symptom. The source is an individual’s insecurity, and the ego they have built up as armor around that insecurity. They do not feel comfortable with the content/level of their knowledge, and so they seek out opportunities to prove it to themselves and others.

This can take many forms, and I thought I’d share a few of my own to provide an overview of the variations. (Also in the hopes of atoning for and improving my behavior.)

Most obvious is the internet comment. Someone posts about a physical activity, and amidst all the positive and supportive responses is “that guy.” The one who “helpfully” offers up a correction or two — even though nobody asked.

I did this to a neighbor who was also a Facebook “friend.” She posted a handstand photo that put her into a potentially dangerous spinal position from shoulder mobility limitations. I messaged her to offer advice, to which she responded nicely enough but also pointed out that she wasn’t looking for feedback. She was just excited to be able to do any version of it at all, after having lost a lot of weight in previous years. My comment created static around her joy, even if I thought I’d done it “nicely.”

It doesn’t have to be on the internet. Nor does it have to be in direct response to a particular statement or behavior. It can just be general blathering. Like how often I have picked on other forms of fitness. Over the years I’ve experimented with many forms of exercise. Some became boring, from others I extracted useful parts and deemphasized the rest, still others I’ve discarded completely. But a constant poor behavior of mine has been excessive judgment of those methodologies in which I am not participating. Sometimes I’ve vocalized that distaste, and on the worst occasions I’ve done so in front of clients.

The problem isn’t having an opinion or even speaking it aloud — it’s in the doing so unasked, without awareness of what those thoughts convey about you in a given situation. The exact same words can mean different things depending on the context.

A good friend brought this to my attention more than anyone else. She struggled with back pain that left her in tears, as well as concerns about weight loss and body image. Every time she mentioned something about exercise or physical limitations, I was quick to jump in with advice and offers of assistance. She humored me more often than I deserved, but she did eventually point out this tendency of mine. Being that I didn’t have the intellectual tools or experience to parse these ideas at the time, I was left feeling confused. I couldn’t understand why this was a problem — didn’t she want to feel better?

Here’s the thing, though: what she was saying through her actions was “All this physical pain I’m experiencing is better than the way your unsolicited advice makes me feel.”

That’s how bad unsolicited advice can really be. Not always, of course. But anyone with a shred of dignity is going to feel slighted by someone barging into their mental and emotional space uninvited.

The genesis of such behavior is not necessarily malicious. It can come from a sincere place. I’ve watched my mother go through various challenges as she gets older. I don’t want to see her relying on back braces or orthotics. I want her to get stronger. I don’t want to see her sitting all the time. I want to help her feel better. More than anything. I have a personal investment because she is my mom.

Wanting to share one’s knowledge is not a bad thing. It’s certainly understandable depending on the urgency (real or perceived) of the situation at hand. But no matter how sincere the desire, choosing to do so without the other party’s invitation and participation starts from a place of ego.

Our recent Instagram experience

We posted some pictures from one of our classes. This prompted someone to comment on the squat form of one of our members.

This guy.

Admittedly, I was more than a little irritated when I was responding to this guy. Because I care deeply about our members. I think anyone who has the courage and motivation to get themselves moving towards any form of self-betterment deserves nothing praise and support until they are ready for more. Notice I said when THEY are ready, not when YOU are.

While it is true that a practicing person will make even better progress by consulting professionals and other individuals with more experience than themselves, that is up to them to invite and be open to. No matter how intelligent, skilled, or talented a commenter is — they are not entitled to have their opinion considered or even heard in the first place.

Sometimes, the commenter is wrong. But that doesn’t really matter. Because right or wrong, there are very few people who will be receiving the advice with feelings of gratitude and positivity. The issue is not with the advice itself, it’s about the nature of the approach.

This commenter is technically correct, but he has no grace. Nobody asked him. But after seeing one photo, he had to comment. He was not aware of the work that member has done to get even that far, nor did he know about the member’s recently broken foot.

I learned a great word for this feeling recently:

That’s actually a made-up word referencing The Big Lebowski. But even so, we all know that feeling.

So how do we all do better?

I know some people think this meme is played out, but I still think we should start here:

Let. People. Enjoy. Things. People can do the same things differently or enjoy entirely different things without necessarily being “wrong.” If we just start with the assumption that people are different and that’s okay, it’ll save us all a lot of time and energy.

Further still, it’s an error to assume that something must be done perfectly to be done at all. Modern culture is so damn critical. We assume that if we don’t sing like Sinatra, we shouldn’t sing at all. We are exposed to so many people doing extraordinary things that it cows us, makes us hesitate. If we work up the nerve to try something new, we are often so very embarrassed at our own baby-deer-on-ice first attempts that we quickly give up.

This is an absurd and oppressive way to live one’s life. But people are so hesitant to make efforts at self-betterment in part because of the thoughtless people who just have to criticize, uninvited. People who are trying at something they are not yet good at are vulnerable and deserve support and respect above all else. Wait for them to come to you. At most, you can sometimes read the situation carefully and offer your services — but then at least you’ll be giving them the chance to say no to your advances.

Just as important as your message (or maybe more important) is your approach and what it implies about your assumptions. A self-proclaimed teacher who manages to repel people with their approach has failed, utterly.

When it comes to feedback, the questions that matter are:

  • Did they hire you to instruct them on the topic in question?
  • If not, did they directly ask you or the general public for feedback?
  • If not, are they in imminent danger and you have the vital information that will save their lives?
  • Barring all that, do you have anything SUPPORTIVE that is likely to improve them and leave them with no icky feelings?

If you answered no to all those, say nothing and move on.

Generally, if you are spending much time worrying about when, where, and how someone is working out (or not working out), you’re doing it wrong. Take care of yourself. Take care of those who have asked for your help and are ready for it. It’s not enough to just “be humble” — you have to actually practice it.

Extra point worth considering

From what I’ve seen, an overwhelming number of comments offering unsolicited advice are males commenting on female efforts.

What do you think this means?

It shows that there are some gender and power dynamics at play whenever one person is advising another.

If I ask someone for advice, I am showing that I am at least open to the possibility that they have useful ideas. If I do not ask someone for advice but they give it anyway, they are opening the conversation with their presumption of knowing more than me. That is no way to begin an exchange. It does not start from a place of good will. Men do this to women quite often. I certainly have.

I want to write more about this particular aspect, but I am incredibly unqualified to thoroughly comment on it. However, I did want to at least touch on the point because power dynamics are arguably the most important aspect of this whole thing.

The first step to solving a problem…

…is admitting you have one.

Unsolicited advice is an intrusive thing. It takes up someone else’s space instead of finding its own. It is the proverbial fly in the ointment, thorn in your side, rock in your shoe. 

Communication is about so much more than just being the “winner” of an exchange. Ideally, good communication works towards cooperation and resolution rather than conflict and victory. But this is also about an individual’s relationship with themselves.

As Walter Payton put it, “When you’re good at something, you’ll tell everyone. When you’re great at something, they’ll tell you.”

So next time you get that feeling like you need to say something, pause.

You don’t need to necessarily tack a judgement onto everything that you encounter. And even if you decide to judge, you don’t need to express every one of those opinions. It’s entirely possible to not judge in the first place, or to let a thought exist solely in your head.