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A Path With Heart

The winner of the 2004 IDEA Fitness Inspiration Award offers his advice on staying passionate over the long haul.

Editor’s Note: James MacLaren has survived two would-be fatal accidents. The first, at age 22, resulted in the loss of his left leg. The second, 10 years later, left Jim a quadriplegic. Each time, Jim used sheer force of will and awe-inspiring courage to come back. We asked him to give us his views on how fitness professionals can stay motivated and avoid burnout.

Neil Young sings, “Don’t let it bring you down; it’s only castles burning.” As a fitness professional, you might sing it differently: “Don’t let it bring you down; it’s only clients complaining” or perhaps, “Don’t let it bring you down; it’s only clients taking you for granted.”

Fortunately for Neil, he has a creative outlet in singing! For those of us in the fitness industry, dealing with griping clients and being taken for granted are part of our reality. Just one session with a client who whines or is unappreciative can be maddening. Months and even years of dealing with such clients can take a more serious toll. So how do you stay motivated through the trying times and avoid “burning out your own castle”?

When Things Fall Apart

Let me tell you a little bit about my story and the fitness trainer who helped me win back my life. When I broke my neck—in the second of two severe accidents—all I could think about was starting physical rehabilitation. I couldn’t move or feel from the neck down. Yet, as a professional athlete, I knew what days of lying around would do to my overall fitness and I wanted to get to work. Where was my physical therapist? Where was my trainer? Doctors and nurses looked at me as though I were crazy! As far as they were concerned, I would never again be able to move or feel anything from my upper chest to my toes. I was impatient to start some weight-bearing exercise, but as I lay in my hospital bed, the nearest I was going to get to that goal was the 5-pound weight dangling to the floor from a wire screwed into my skull so my neck wouldn’t move. The truth was, I was not going anywhere for a while.

These were very scary times for me. My entire life seemed to be in chaos. I had been in complete control of my body, and now it didn’t move. My blood pressure had always been very low as a professional triathlete, but after my spinal-cord injury it dropped so low that I would pass out all the time merely sitting in my wheelchair. I could do nothing on my own.

Passion: The Key Ingredient

After a month in the intensive-care unit, I was flown to a rehabilitation center in Denver, where I finally had the chance to work with trainers and therapists. That first day when I was wheeled into the rehab gym, I picked out the one trainer I knew I wanted to work hard for. I chose him for a single reason: his passion. I mean his passionate energy for helping and caring about people. His dedication was overwhelming, and I sensed it immediately.

At the end of the gym was a standing frame that allowed a patient to stand up and bear weight after being strapped in. I knew that if I fainted while sitting all day, it was a given that I would pass out while standing. I would stare at this machine with the fear of a first-time climber gazing up at Mount Everest. But my fitness trainer (who is also a physical therapy assistant and certified masseuse) worked with me and stayed there next to me, helping me stand, inch by inch, without fainting.

I am convinced to this day that my effort and his motivation to help are the reasons I am able to walk a few steps and pedal a stationary bike.

This person embodied the very best of what it means to be a fitness trainer, a coach and, in fact, a human being. He encouraged me with a balance of mental, physical and psychological support. Eleven years later, he still works out with me. Sure our relationship has fluctuated, but the simple fact is, he has stayed motivated. And during times when I’ve sensed that he was feeling burned out, I’ve spoken with him honestly—making a conscious effort to remind him that thanks to his help, I am not only getting stronger but also enjoying a better life.

Rekindling the Fire

I am aware that many of your clients don’t remind you how vital you are to their well-being. And yet you must wake up each day and motivate yourselves. Because at the end of the day, all we really have are our truth and our passion. When you feel frustrated or bored or are questioning what difference you make, there is only one thing to do: Go deeper. Look to the reasons that first inspired you to become a part of this amazing industry. Maybe it was a book you read; reread it. Visit with a current or past mentor. Take a new workshop or attend an industry event to rekindle that deep place in yourself that wants to go out and help the world. Then bring your fire, your passion, back to your clients.

In a way, complaining and even condescending clients who take you for granted are a gift. They are like a mirror staring back at you, urging you to regroup and reframe yourself. Start to look at what you do through a different lens. Look in your own mirror each morning and realize that you are changing people’s lives. Whether they acknowledge it or not is unimportant. Look deep into the well of knowledge, creativity and passion you have within you and rediscover it on a whole new level.

Tell Us What You Are Doing

Are your clients obese, disabled or just starting to exercise after years of sedentary living? We want to hear how you are motivating, challenging and retaining clients on a long-term basis. In 200 words or less, detail the specifics of your program and client[s], along with your name and contact information. If your success story is compelling and unique, we may use it in a future issue or on the Inspire the World to Fitness™ section of the website.

E-mail: [email protected]

Mail: Sandy Todd Webster

10455 Pacific Center Court

San Diego, CA 92121-4339

Fax: (858) 535-8234


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