Les Mills AIM2 – An Aspie’s Virtual Mindf**k

DISCLAIMER: Before I begin this piece, it is important to note and stress that these are only my personal opinions and observations from having done a number of AIM2s now, and do not necessarily represent the views of Les Mills as an organisation. Also, I would strongly recommend that if you have not done AIM2 yet, please keep an open mind as you read this as this will go somewhat in-depth into how AIM2 works. Or better yet, experience AIM2 yourself first and you will see the below with a better appreciation and understanding of what I am about to write…

The very first time I did AIM2 in Australia was in May 2014 for BODYPUMP. At that one, I was given the feedback that I wasn’t making enough eye contact with people and not forming individual connection during my track. Furthermore, I was told that because I wasn’t making eye contact with people, they would not believe anything I would say. Essentially I was fake – and it drove a dagger right through my heart.

That AIM2 was the catalyst that drove me to ask my mother later that night about why I had so much trouble with eye contact and connecting with people. It was through that conversation with my mother that I first learnt about Aspergers. The rest of the journey you can read about in my other posts.

I realised sometime later (after I confirmed for myself that I was on the spectrum) that my adverse reaction to the feedback was because that fake is a word that I as an Aspie totally despise. We are probably the people most incapable of being fake. To use a Superman reference, the word is like our Kryptonite. It provokes the strongest of emotions inside of us when used by others to describe us. And to be essentially described as such at an AIM2 was heart-breaking, as I give BODYPUMP my total all everytime I teach.

Fast forward to July this year. I had been pretty much confirmed by that point by my psychologist as being on the Autism Spectrum, and now had the unique opportunity to do AIM2 again for both BODYSTEP and BODYPUMP with a much better understanding of myself and my limitations. The observations I took away from the experience left many more questions in my mind than they did answers (the Aspie in me likes to look at the inner workings of things like this). This post represents my attempts to outline those thoughts.

As most Les Mills instructors would appreciate, Les Mills love applying methodology to everything that they do, whether it be the Initial Module Training process for new instructors or the Filming Week process for presenters who are about to represent their country on an upcoming DVD. This standardised approach to everything is an Aspie’s dream – our brains love, no, CRAVE structure and discrete building-block processes.

Except for one thing. The Les Mills methodologies have been developed around the model of the general population, ie. those who are considered neurotypical. The brains of neurotypical people are much more versatile and malleable, and can adapt rather quickly to change around them. Not so much for the neurodiverse population out there – and there are a large number of us in the world. And this is where things start to get murky…

But first, a bit of background for the non-instructors reading this. Back in 2010, Les Mills formalised a process for instructors wishing to progress to the next level of their teaching, via the following:

  • Firstly, experienced instructors would expand and solidify their program technique and coaching skills and learn more about the “essence” of their chosen program, and
  • Secondly, they would then learn more general techniques to bring in the other teaching elements of connection and performance.

These were then separated into two training modules: Advanced Instructor Module 1 and 2, respectively (or AIM1 and AIM2 for short). AIM1 is program-specific and covers off advanced technique, coaching and essence of that program. AIM2 is the generic (ie. non program specific) module that builds upon what is learnt and applied in AIM1, and adds in that final layer of advanced connection and performance.

AIM1 in its purest form does not have an outcome at the end of it, but rather lays the expectation on instructors to take on board feedback and apply it to their future teaching. The exception to this, however, is in the Les Mills Asia Pacific (LMAP) region, where AIM1 is now considered the primary way to gain certification in their program, and thus you would receive an outcome of Certified or Not Certified (other Les Mills agencies require that you are already certified in your program via video certification before you can do AIM1).

AIM2, on the other hand, has THREE outcomes:

  • Certified (competence in the first 3 Key Elements – Choreography, Technique, Coaching)
  • Advanced (Certified competence plus also competent in the final 2 Key Elements of Connection and Performance)
  • Elite (excellence in all 5 Key Elements)

Each of Advanced and Elite has its own specific criteria that have to be met, with the added condition that to gain an Elite outcome, you must meet ALL criteria in both Advanced and Elite. The irony of this is that they teach us in AIM2 not to think about ticking boxes and saying all the right things, however you still do need to tick boxes to conform to the top standard that Les Mills has outlined.

We are repeatedly told over the course of the two days that the outcome is not something to focus on, but rather the journey taken to get there. And that would be fine in itself if it weren’t for the fact that Les Mills agencies around the world (including Asia Pacific) are using the outcomes of AIM2 as part of the overall instructor career progression pathway through Les Mills.

To be more specific, you now have to achieve Elite in a program to be invited onto the LMAP Assessor Team for that program, and must have Elite in at least 2 programs to be considered for selection in the LMAP National Presenter Team. In other words, LMAP are setting the bar really high.

In AIM2, they talk about 4 key principles that advanced instructors supposedly use to pack out their classes and ensure that they communicate to the most number of people in the room:

  • Teaching With Purpose
  • Creating The Change Faster
  • Living The Les Mills Values
  • Teaching With Authenticity & Contrast

AIM2 is a two-day module, and we cover the first two topics on Day 1 and the other 2 on Day 2. You also get to present a track a total of 4 times over the course of the weekend, twice on Day 1 and twice on Day 2. And you receive feedback from the trainer after each presentation. I consider Day 1 to be the Tangible Day, and Day 2 to be the Intangible Day, for reasons that I will outline shortly. 

Day 1 for an Aspie like me is awesome, because we actually go through step-by-step processes on how to space out our coaching and develop cues specific to different personality types in the room (and as you know, Aspies LOVE well-defined processes that are relatively easy to follow). It is the day that one gets to apply the biggest tangible changes to their teaching. The coaching topics were the biggest takeout that I got from doing AIM2, and have helped me vastly in my instructor journey.

Day 2 (Intangible Day) is where the Aspie mindf**k begins. The start of the day is nice enough as we get taken through the 3 values of Les Mills (One Tribe, Be Brave, and Change The World) and dissect what these all mean for us individually. Very strong emotional stuff that forces us to think about why we do what we do and ensure that we are not being pulled too much in one direction. 

However, it is the principle of Authenticity & Contrast that screws around with your mind, particularly if you are neurodiverse. Remember at the beginning of this post I spoke about the brains of neurotypical vs neurodiverse people? Neurotypical brains are very versatile, and can generally handle a multiple of cognitive processes at once (regularly known as multi-tasking). Neurodiverse brains on the other hand, particularly those who reside on the Autism Spectrum (including Aspergers), are not wired the same way. These brains operate in much a way similar to a computer’s CPU – one instruction at a time. They see black and white – not shades of grey. They are very linear in the way they approach problems and process information, hence why we find more comfort in those step-by-step instructions.

The last topic in Authenticity & Contrast talks about linking music and emotion together, and using that to take your participants on a musical journey of highs and lows as you teach your class. This, for me, is my downfall as an Aspie instructor.

You see, my brain is trying to focus on the following things when I teach (I’ll use BODYPUMP as an example):

  • Ensuring that my members are moving to the right tempo
  • Ensuring that my members have safe technique
  • My new people are being accommodated
  • Knowing what the next move is going to be
  • Knowing what weights I’m going to put on my bar for the next track
  • Keeping track of the time to ensure that I don’t waffle on between tracks but still not sacrifice important track info…

And that is not an exhaustive list by any means. When you teach to a class of between 20-40 people and have to see everything that is happening in the room with everybody and respond to it, on top of knowing your choreography back-to-front, maintaining your perfect role-model technique, as well as being conscious of modulating your voice with the music as you teach a track, you can start to imagine the pressure that an Aspie’s brain goes through as it tries to linearly process all that information. It’s almost like an outdated CPU trying to throttle information at today’s speeds – you get the picture.

Going back to music and emotional connection for a moment though, we are also taught to convey feeling through our movements – as they say in AIM2, the DO comes from the FEEL. You may recall in one of my previous posts that people on the Autism Spectrum feel emotions rather strongly (and I dare say even stronger than neurotypical people). However, people on the spectrum do not have much capability of naturally and intuitively conveying those emotions, as their brains are not naturally wired that way to process them. As such, we have had to learn over the years to build neural pathways in our brains that allow us to mimic behaviour to “simulate” the outward emotional response.

The feedback that I received from the trainers on both my BODYSTEP and BODYPUMP AIM2s was that I was not being authentic enough on stage when trying to project the emotion of the song. And this is where my logical Aspie brain comes across a conundrum…

If you were to ask me to convey an emotion of a song naturally through action, you would get nothing from me. Nothing whatsoever. None. Nada. Zilch. Remember, I can feel the emotion of a song rather strongly, but I cannot naturally translate that into an action. My brain can try to think of something that might resemble it, but it is never neurotypically natural.

So if I were to teach authentically as myself on the stage, you would just get me being my logical self going through the step-by-step processes that make my coaching spaced out and land with the right people on the floor. The conundrum here is that projection of a song’s emotion in a natural way is actually one of the criteria required to achieve an Elite outcome

“Uh oh”, my Aspie brain says, “does that mean that Les Mills has inadvertently excluded someone from ever getting Elite (and thus blocking any chance they have of career progression) due to a pre-existing neurological condition?”. I will let you ponder that for a few moments.

To get someone like myself to a point where they can even begin to attempt projecting emotion in even a semi-natural way would require years and years of cognitive behaviour therapy. And the danger with that is actually losing the qualities that make you a person in the first place, which is counter-intuitive to the idea of being authentic.

Now I could choose to be angry about the fact that I will never be an Elite instructor in the eyes of Les Mills (after all, I have worked damn hard to get where I am today), but that would be submitting and feeding into negativity, which is not who I am as a person. And just as importantly, it goes against the Les Mills Values. I would rather focus that energy on educating my peers (instructors and trainers alike) and the broader audience about Aspergers (and the Autism Spectrum in general), in the hope that they will gain a better appreciation for what I and other Aspie instructors go through on a class-by-class basis.

At the end of the day, we as part of the Les Mills family are TR1BE (leet speak for One Tribe). We are here to support each other and enable the potential in ourselves and each other to be unlocked. Just because I can never be Elite does not mean I cannot progress as an instructor in other ways. We all have other strengths that we can draw on, myself included.

I strongly recommend that if you are a Les Mills instructors and have done AIM1 but have not done AIM2 yet, please do so, as it does give you tools to help better your teaching regardless of the outcome. If there are any other Aspie instructors like myself out there, I would love to connect with you and share experiences. I also welcome any feedback, questions and comments about this post.

Lastly, despite the limitations, I cannot stress enough that Les Mills has changed my life for the better. It has made me passionate in so many ways, and it thrills me to share that passion with my members everytime I teach. And that for me is an emotion that I can convey naturally.

Can one reside on the Autism Spectrum AND become a Les Mills instructor?

Ever since I made the discovery about my autism, I have had many chats with people about the inherent difficulties associated with teaching group fitness whilst residing on the Autism Spectrum. However, it is my opinion that the Les Mills system goes some way to help counter those difficulties.

I am trained in 8 Les Mills programs, namely the following (in order of being trained):

  • BODYJAM
  • BODYVIVE
  • BODYSTEP
  • BODYPUMP
  • SH’BAM
  • CXWORX
  • BODYATTACK
  • BODYBALANCE

Each program has its own set of “rules” and nuances for teaching, referred to in Les Mills language as “essence”. They serve the purpose of giving each program a unique identity, and with that, certain qualities that need to be exhibited by instructors teaching that program. For example, the essence of BODYBALANCE is “calm and centred”, while BODYPUMP is “strong and grounded”. You kinda get my drift here…

So what does this mean for someone like myself who most likely has Aspergers? Well, one of the key elements of teaching a Les Mills program is connection. Now connection can take many forms – connection to the music, to the workout, and just as importantly, to the members in front of you.

For someone with any form of autism, just the very idea of having to say hello to someone you don’t know can send waves of fear through the body. Having to connect with virtual strangers is the LAST thing that any autism sufferer wants to go through. They generally lack the social skills needed to naturally connect with people (unless it is someone that they really trust).

I am no exception to this. I very rarely open up personally to people whom I don’t know, and it’s not so much because I don’t want to – more so that I don’t know HOW. It is not something I was taught as a child, and it is certainly not something that one can apply logic to. My brain thinks like a machine – linearly and sequentially. It needs to analyse things in a certain way to understand what is going on, and when multiple sources of sensory input start to bombard the brain at once, it goes into meltdown (similar to a CPU overheating in a computer when too much information is being rammed down its throat).

One of the things I love about Les Mills is that they apply a methodology to just about EVERYTHING they produce, including how to teach their programs. And for Aspies like myself, we love order and structure as it fits well with our linear way of thinking.

Personally, the program where I feel the most natural and relaxed teaching is BODYPUMP. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The technique involved is rather fixed and structured, and does not vary a lot between each quarterly release.
  • The tempos we move to are consistent, and for someone like me (and other Aspies) who are musically minded, this is an awesome thing!
  • A lot of Aspies are direct and to the point in what they say (I am no exception). BODYPUMP requires you to be exactly that in the way that you teach (hallelujah!).
  • It is the program that inspires me the most to lead and be noticed and appreciated. In turn, I can inspire other people to work hard and help them get to where they need to go.

So for any Aspie out there who loves moving to music, inspiring and getting to know people, and gaining some new skills, I would strongly recommend trying a BODYPUMP class and maybe, just maybe, take that further step and become an instructor.

There will come a point where you have taught for a while and feel you will want more from your teaching. And when you do want more, there are courses run by Les Mills that can help you get to that new level. However, there are things you should know beforehand…

Remember what I was saying before about Les Mills having a methodology for everything? Well, their advanced courses are no exception, particularly when you get to a higher standard of teaching. Without going into too much detail here (I will be posting separately on this), I have one piece of advice – be yourself.

Sounds easy enough, yeah? Not for an Aspie. Our brains are virtual machines and do not operate the same way that neurotypical brains do. They cannot be fully present in the moment with all the information that their brain is trying to process (due to the linear nature of an Aspie’s thinking process, they can only go through so much at any one time).

If I was to be completely myself and let myself go, my brain would explode from all the information overload.

Now you’ve just read the above and thought “has Patrick just contradicted himelf there?”. The answer to that – yes and no. When I say to be yourself, I mean to be true to yourself. Do not let anybody try to change you or mould you into something that you are not. And that applies in both the Les Mills world or the outside world.

I fully embrace Les Mills and what it stands for. However, as an Aspie, there are also limits to what I can do and am capable of, which has been reassuring but at the same time rather heartbreaking, knowing that deep down, I would never get the recognition as an instructor that someone who was neurotypical might.

As an aside, one thing you should know about Aspies – we are like robots with emotions, and when we feel emotions, we FEEL emotions. We are the typical people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. When we are happy, we just want to burst with happiness. When we’re angry, we just want to literally explode. And when we have our hearts crushed, it is totally unbearable. We learn to build defence mechanisms around our hearts so that they can be protected from any potential source of heartbreak – but even they aren’t foolproof.

I have dedicated the last 6.5 years of my life to being a Les Mills instructor, and I have been through my fair share of emotional rollercoasters as a result. Looking back now, the Aspergers has amplified a lot of those experiences. I see my fellow instructor friends getting well-deserved recognition for their instructing efforts, and I am so truly happy for them. But on the other hand, it also stings me at the same time to know that I cannot be as “natural” as them and would realistically never achieve what they have, despite my love and passion for the programs that I teach. In other words, I feel inferior.

I had intended this post to be somewhat educational and straightforward, but along the way, it became something a lot more personal. Memories and experiences can have a profound effect on people in general, but particularly Aspies. And when you hope on board the ride known as the Les Mills instructor journey, there will be more of these to come.

Teaching Les Mills has had such a life-changing effect on me, not only through my enjoyment of their programs, but also the indirect effect of how I discovered my Aspergers in the first place. And thus, I do believe, YES, absolutely one can be an Aspie and also teach Les Mills.

To anyone reading this, I hope this has helped to inform you somewhat, if only just a little bit. As always, I am happy to answer any questions that you might have, whether about Les Mills or about the Autism Spectrum or both. Together we can educate more people.

The Truth Will Set Me Free, Part 2 – It’s Official!

It has been a while between posts (a few months in fact), and many events and achievements have happened in the meantime. For starters:

  • I was let go from my old job just before Easter (a shock at the time, but one I came to terms with pretty quickly),
  • I subsequently moved into teaching group fitness as my main profession (something that I’ve aspired to do for a number of years now, so this puts me in a happier place physically, mentally, and most of all emotionally),
  • I have now also commenced study for my Certificate 3 in Fitness, moving on to Certificate 4 in Personal Training once that is completed, and
  • I got certified in BODYBALANCE (my 8th Les MIlls program). I also did my AIM1 for BODYBALANCE as well as my AIM2s for BODYSTEP and BODYPUMP (I’ll actually be writing about these in more detail in a separate post).

Probably the biggest one (and the most life-changing one) is that I have now been officially diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum. Obviously from my previous post, this is something that I have been aware of in myself for the past year or so, but had been meaning to do something about it.

Well, I did. After I was let go from my job in April, I immediately went to my GP and told him about my Aspergers concerns. He then put me on what is called a Mental Health Care plan, which allows patients a number of sessions with a psychologist that can then be partially claimed back via Medicare. As an aside, I strongly recommend that if you suspect yourself of having any kind of mental health concerns, speak to your GP first as this might be a cost-effective option for you if you wish to have it investigated further (as psychologists can be rather expensive).

My first phone conversation with the referred psychologist was rather pleasant and she certainly seemed like someone who knew what she was talking about (always a good sign). In one of our later face-face consultations, she remarked that in that first conversation, it didn’t sound like I would be on the spectrum (probably attributed to the years and years of self-learned behaviour). However, once the consultations started, she could see signs right away…

The very first step in the diagnosis process of Aspergers is to do an official IQ test with the psychologist. This takes two hours and involves a number of cognitive and memory tests, as well as processing tests. There are a variety of IQ tests and scales that psychologists use, and in case you wish to read a little further on this, the one that was used for my test is the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, the current version being WAIS-IV. I had always known that I was smart throughout my life, but had never been tested previously. Which is why I was still surprised when I received an IQ score of… 132.

In case you are unsure of what this number represents, there are several IQ classification groupings. To cut a long story short though, any score of 130+ represents Very Superior intelligence. So yes, it confirmed what my family had always known as I was growing up.

One intriguing thing that came out of the IQ test was my Processing Speed Index (PSI). In all other indices, I had scored extremely high (at least high 120s), but my PSI was around 99, which is considered average. PSI essentially measures how fast your brain processes information compared to other similar people, and I know from growing up, it would take me forever to copy notes in primary school and high school. There were times where I didn’t complete exams as it would take me longer than usual to write out answers. Even taking notes at university lectures would be a struggle.

However, my psychologist did make the observation that a really high full-scale IQ with a low PSI is actually rather common in people who have Aspergers, so that helped to reassure me somewhat that this isn’t a major thing. It just means that I am a lot better typing something out on a computer than I am writing something out manually with a pen and paper.

The second part of the diagnosis process consists of two very lengthy (and sometimes laborious) questionnaires around behaviour and perceptions thereof, both as an adult and as a child. These can take up to 3-4 hours to complete, but at the same time I found that they helped me to understand facets of my behaviour that I hadn’t given much thought to previously. It was also rather therapeutic.

My psychologist had said on a number of occasions as each session went by that it would become clearer to her that I was definitely on the spectrum. And at the most recent one this week, she confirmed it for – for all intents and purposes, I am on the Autism Spectrum with the condition formerly known as Aspergers Syndrome.

So where to from here? Well, I will receive an official report from my psychologist outlining the diagnosis and the subsequent implications for my life moving forward, including any learning difficulties that would need to be addressed and advised to any facilitators of courses that I attend. Other than that, it is life as usual for me.

If you have any questions about any of the above or would like more information on Aspergers or the Autism Spectrum, please do not hesitate to ask me. The Internet also has a wealth of information that I can certainly point you to if you wish. My aim by writing this is to help educate other people on what life is like for Aspies such as myself (as there are a number of us out there), so I hope this serves to shine a light on some things that you may not have known or understood previously.

More than ever, the truth has set me free, and may it do the same for you in some way.