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.