Gym Partners, Group Classes, Semi-Private Training, Tribes.
Each of these satisfy the human need for relatedness through socialization.
As humans we have a fundamental need to be connected with or able to relate to other humans. Relatedness, how connected and secure we feel in our environment, is dictated by our personal relationships and past experiences to help to regulate and guide our behavior. So, if we lack the sense of connection and security to our environment, we as humans may lose our motivation to act and dysregulated behavior may ensue.1 This can take form as an elevation in heart rate, poor sleep quality, reduced work efficiency, or even social seclusion. We have to have strategies to help us self-regulate.
A logical first step in regulating behavior in a new environment is to develop relationships to allow any threat perceived to be dampened. Coaches are positioned to have a pivotal role in helping regulate their clients behavior. However, it requires well-developed soft skills (communication, listening, empathy, etc) so that a coach can be ‘socially agile”. Social agility is the ability to recognize the differences between people and knowing how to adapt in every situation.2 This ensures coaches provide a secure environment that fosters learning, enhanced experiences, as well as high achievement.
Some form of specific achievement is often the initial driver (external motivation) for a client attending a gym regularly, but they tend to have high levels of uncertainty in their approach causing them to struggle to accomplishment their goals. Uncertainty can be extremely stressful on the human system. This stressed system becomes rigid and lacks control because of forebrain (neocortex) inhibition.3 This means decision making becomes increasingly difficult as forebrain inhibition shifts decision making to the reptilian and limbic brains (this is the Jacksonian-Dissolution Theory in a nutshell).4 This level of the human operating system is built on making predictions based on the stored memories of past experiences and helps to shape our future behaviors. But if there are few to no past experiences to pull from, our brain makes a decision and then retrospectively analyzes the result. This can quickly lead to a dysregulated system. Dysregulation, in this sense, tends to bias the human system towards increased sympathetic activity making behavioral decision-making even more difficult (more reptilian).3
By clouding the decision making process, the brain becomes uncertain about how to ensure organism safety.3 This is evident in clients who lack “relatedness” or gym (social) relationships. These individuals tend to seek peer-imitation as safe-to-fail experiments during their workouts. This is inefficient and dangerous as well as a clear indicator that they WANT help but may not know it yet. When help is needed there becomes an innate desire to seek out comfort, assistance, and support of close friends and family. This concept of relatedness is rooted in our biology.
From infancy, humans learn to securely attach to caregivers.5 A secure attachment fosters intrinsic motivation to use exploratory behavior in order to connect with the environment.4 However, given an infant cannot navigate the environment, they have to use nonverbal social cues such as: facial expressions, vocalizations, feeding, etc; to communicate needs. 6 In comparison, new clients tend to struggle navigating their environments and create a similar need response, but their nonverbal social cues manifest as alterations in body language. Both examples use the social engagement system (SES) as a means to convey this NEED message. The purpose of the SES is to close a physical distance between two beings so they can relate. 4,6 The only difference between these two examples is context.
So what context has changed from infancy to adulthood? When distressed, the infant has learned to send a need signal to their secure base: parent/caregiver. This keeps them socially rooted. The adult, on the other hand, is more likely to use body language to create an impermeable boundary to prevent others from knowing of their insecurities. As a result, they turn inwards, reducing social engagement. This is because the human nervous system has emerged with specific features that react to distress aimed to maintain visceral homeostasis (regulated physiology to promote health growth and restoration).4 Letting others perceive vulnerability would be a threat to survival and results in a signal to stay away. This comes at a cost because these reactions will limit sensory awareness, motor behaviors, and cognitive potentials.4 The resolution to this matter appears to rely on our ability to develop relationships (build a tribe), as the socialization process needs to be bidirectionally regulated.
Socialization is a part of who we are as humans and we need to be socially engaged. We used to form tribes to help decipher between friend and foe, danger and safety, as well as create modes of communication to ensure survival and a sense of belonging.7 Our tribes were, and still are, built on shared beliefs, attitudes, and intentions in life. We, humans, are social-seeking animals.8
So underlying a client’s quest to achieve their goals is their desire to belong to a tribe and have well-developed relationships that work to co-regulate each other’s systems when in distress. A coach’s role is to help make this a reality by creating an environment that supports learning to allow for improved impulse control, facilitate role acceptance, and establish meaning amongst members.9
The ability to self-regulate and express conscious control of decision-making allows one to begin to succeed with process-oriented goals. Initially a client will rely solely on a coach’s decision-making for their programming, but as they grow and adopt the beliefs and customs of their tribe they will begin to be able to make their own decisions. For example, a coach programs a squat, but the client is competent enough to select the variation. By becoming a part of the process the client can develop a level of autonomy in their own health and wellness as well as help others grow within the tribe. Furthermore, by emphasizing “a process” it teaches delayed gratification and mandates impulse control.9 Clients come in with expectations that are often unrealistic and must be managed to ensure motivation is sustained long term. This is particularly important with regards to the result-laiden member. It must be known that results are not immediate, but there is power in consistent hard work. This shifts one’s mindset to the process rather than the end-game, allowing for principle learning and solidified behavior change.
Roles are structural components of groups and represent the patterns of behavior expected of an individual within a specific social context.9 The development of role acceptance is the first step in gaining competence and autonomy, the two other fundamental human needs.1 The ability to demonstrate behavioral competence and autonomy in an environment will immediately enhance the experience, drive motivation, and increase behavioral adherence. This will optimize not only learning, but results.
All humans must develop sources of meaning to provide structure to guide behavior and allow an individual to discover what is important, what is to be valued, and what is to be lived for.9 Initially, most clients are extrinsically motivated and have arbitrary extrinsic goals. Extrinsic motivation tends to be regulated through the use of incentives, consequences, and rewards, but lacks true meaning and value associated with achievement.1 Without a “why”, purposeful action cannot be sustained. Humans are only truly motivated for activities that hold intrinsic interest by having the appeal of novelty, challenge, or present with an aesthetic value.7 As coaches we aim to cultivate a culture that moves a client towards intrinsic motivation in order to better self-regulate within the environment.
Although coaches strive for socialization through impulse control, role acceptance, and added meaning; caution is warranted in not creating a dependent environment in the process. A dependent culture lacks accountability and responsibility for clients making it difficult for them to move into a more intrinsically and self-regulated state. Coaches must create a social atmosphere, but in the end, it is essential to practice the principles of “detached caring.” “Detached caring” promotes client learning by allowing them to take responsibility for their actions and apply the principles and processes taught, while respecting the environmental boundaries. As coaches, we have the compulsion to overcorrect and hyper-analyze our clients’ movements, but this is ineffective and demeaning to our clients.2 We have to respect our clients’ abilities and trust our coaching process to ensure we are empowering our clients towards their goals. Without this aspect of detached caring from a coach, the process of socialization will never be solidified and growth of the tribe will become increasingly difficult.
A tribe is only as good as the sum of its part. The collective will move together, but requires each member to adhere to their role. The more developed each individual becomes, the stronger the tribe becomes. In turn, the Coach’s goal should be to guide each individual to gain strength through competence and autonomy to allow the tribe to become more resilient as a whole.
In conclusion, the importance of our ability to socialize with others has been strongly depicted throughout our evolutionary history, and it is not by chance that tribes continue to be formed. It is our human nature to be connected to others whom we can relate to and communicate with on a regular basis because socialization is a part of who we are. In the end, in order to create an experience worth sharing and developing, coaches must detach themselves and allow their clients to grow into their own as they pursue their personal “why.”
About The Author
Keaton Worland is a Doctor of Physical Therapy as well as a performance coach in Saint Louis, MO. He has a special interest in human behavior as it relates to pain, learning, and human performance. To learn more about Keaton you can follow him on Instagram @keaton.worland.dpt
- O’Connor, E. (2018). The Psychology of Performance: How To Be Your Best In Life. https://thegreatcourses.com.
- Bartholomew B. Conscious Coaching, The Art and Science of Building Buy-In. 2017.
- Collins NL, Feeney BC. A safe haven: an attachment theory perspective on support seeking and caregiving in intimate relationships. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2000;78(6):1053-73.
- Porges SW. The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. Int J Psychophysiol. 2001;42(2):123-46.
- Hong YR, Park JS. Impact of attachment, temperament and parenting on human development. Korean J Pediatr. 2012;55(12):449-54.
- Porges, Stephen. (2003). Social Engagement and Attachment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1008. 31-47. 10.1196/annals.1301.004.
- Ryan RM, Deci EL. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. Am Psychol. 2000;55(1):68-78.
- Clear J. Atomic Habits, An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery; 2018.
- Arnett, Jeffrey. (1995). Broad and Narrow Socialization: The Family in the Context of a Cultural Theory. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 57. 617. 10.2307/353917.