The Protocol Incident

I have been thinking a great deal about protocol lately. It began with a conversation with Fletcher Pilates Program Director Kyria Sabin where I realized that what I call my “rules” are actually a well thought out set of protocol.

The rules of engagement within my practice include how clients speak about themselves, no cell phones in class, and a set of safety rules.Some of these rules might seem obnoxious to my clients, but they come from a decade of teaching. They are, in fact, my protocol.

Last week I had the opportunity to experience a break in protocol and it scared the snot out of me! I was teaching a client I’ve been working with since January. Let’s call him Poppet. Now our little Poppet, a 6’ tall, 21-year-old college student, has been a great client thus far. He listens, he does his homework, he has gained strength, and his alignment is improving. Coming back from an injury, he is focused on changing patterns and gaining body awareness. I wouldn’t call Poppet the most patient human on the planet, but that has something to do with being young and driven. Still, he plays by the rules and accepts my “Rome wasn’t built in a day” philosophy. Poppet has been doing great work, holding alignment and making me proud. And then last week…

Poppet was on the reformer in a supine position, legs in tabletop (which he hates with a passion he voices easily), and arms in straps. He is one of those clients who has a penchant for the dramatic (don’t they all) and frequently tries to shake me off at some point during a set. I tend to ignore this because, as those of you who teach know, we learn client bodies pretty quickly. We can see when a body we know is reaching failure and when its owner just doesn’t want to work that hard. At this particular moment, our little Poppet decided he was done. I was standing next to him, but because I trusted him and his body was showing me it had more to give, I didn’t have a foot ready to catch the carriage should something go wrong. He has been instructed, per protocol, to hold the straps in tension, extend his legs until they touch the bar, and then bring the carriage to the bar carefully.

In a heartbeat, Poppet dropped his feet into the well at the same time he started to release his arms. But he wasn’t reaching his legs toward the bar, he was dipping bare feet into closing springs.

My ensuing hissy fit included taking a spring off and having him both pull on each end and then place his fingers inside the spring while I let it close a little. I then went over the rules again, finishing with stories of clients who I’ve fired for breaking protocol. Including the 6’1” 250 pound woman who had a habit of “letting go” with one leg in straps after handing me the opposite strap, causing all her weight to transfer to me as she flailed. I also mentioned Bob, the guy who used to kick me in the face when I changed springs (I fired him after my third black eye.).  Poppet, who was on vocal rest at the time, mouthed he understood. He now possesses the fear of God and a clear understanding of protocol.

It is my responsibility to be my absolute best teacher possible. I believe I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and have experience in what can go wrong in a class or a private session. One of my jobs is to make sure my clients are as safe as possible while doing Pilates and I am the only person who can decide what I’m comfortable with relative to that. Yes, some of my protocol might be fashioned out of respect for the commitment my clients make to the program, but in reality, even those “rules” lead back to my ability to teach safely and to move students forward. And protocol will always include methods to allow both the client (and me) to be focused during the work.

The bottom line is that in my room, I make the rules. I get to set the protocol because I am taking responsibility, and any liability associated with teaching.

A few months after a major car accident, I was driving to work on an icy morning. Sitting at a red light, the man in the car behind me used his horn to inform me that he would prefer I turn right on red. Now I could see the speed of oncoming traffic and was aware of how my car performed, but the genius behind me felt he knew best. I considered leaving my car, walking back to his and telling him that I hadn’t received the call that morning informing me he had been assigned to make all my decisions that day and take all associated responsibility.

I often hear of fellow teachers dealing with the struggle between good customer service and their own comfort level, resulting in them questioning what feels right in their guts versus losing a client. I believe that we should be doing our absolute best for our clients and remembering that they are our clients. But I also believe that the best customer service in a teaching situation requires we make good decisions for our clients and ourselves. In other words, we can’t let the guy behind us at the light make our decisions for us just because he lays on the horn. He does not have all the information we have. He is not taking responsibility should something go wrong.

Have clients challenged me on what I will or won’t allow in the room? You bet. Have I lost clients because I wouldn’t allow something I wasn’t comfortable with? Afraid so, but as long as those clients are my responsibility, well… my room, my rules. Protocol.

[P.S. Poppet has had two great (rule following) sessions since “the incident” and encouraged I share this story.]

Post Author: Marcia Polas

Pilates teacher and movement analyst Marcia Polas specializes in occupational-based work, she studies the physical requirements of a student’s job, and builds curriculum in support of it. In addition to her private practice, she teaches integrative workshops to actors, dancers, bartenders, and chefs throughout the US and abroad. Wanting to share her love of Pilates and what it teaches her, she created the fairy tale character Piper the Petite Pilates Princess. In 2012, mp3s of Piper’s first two adventures, How Piper Became the Petite Pilates Princess and How Piper the Petite Pilates Princess Learned About Courage became available for download via her website, www.polaspilates .com. Follow her on twitter @polaspilates and find her on Facebook via both her polaspilates and Piper The Petite Pilates Princess page.