We Are All Beginners at Some Things

Christine Nielsen was recently diagnosed with cancer. She is graciously writing a series of articles as she goes through her treatments and has an uncanny way of drawing parallels from life to what we do as indoor cycling instructors. This article on being a “newbie” cancer patient might inspire you to contemplate a little more deeply about the challenges our brand-new students face. Sure, it may not be cancer, but some of them fear that first day on a bike more than they probably should. But they don’t know that, and how you treat them as a coach can help set them up for success.

It is the day of a meeting with a new doctor and a novel procedure. The date has been on the calendar for a while and I have been looking forward to the answers it will provide. But now it is here and the thought of it seems too much to bear. It would be easy to let anxiety take over and rule the day. But I know another way.

This day will actually be composed of a series of events, not one horrible experience. I need to break it down, set some goals, and get on with it. When I look at it that way the day doesn’t seem so daunting. I know how to dress myself. I know how to drive. I have methods for dealing with the stress of the waiting room and even the procedure itself. So I begin. Here’s a peek at my thoughts through the day.

Get dressed. Check.

Drive to the health centre. Check. Nope—not quite. The anxiety is bubbling up. Work on something. Become mindful of your breath. Establish a pattern and stay with it. Your goal is to keep your heart rate low.

At the front desk. Put a smile on your face. It will make a difference to me and them. Keep smiling. Don’t worry about the fact that you are the most cheerful person in the waiting room. You are doing what works for you.

Waiting. You know how to sit in a chair. Focus on your spine. Keep it straight but relaxed. Sit deep into the chair—don’t perch; you aren’t going to fly away any time soon. Good. Deep breaths, long slow exhales. Read your book—you brought the tools so use them.

Meet the nurses. Smile. Walk tall, drop your shoulder blades. Form matters. Talk less, breathe more.

Doctor enters. Not so bad. You have this thing.

Procedure begins. Here it is—the steepest part of the climb today. Breathe. Relax—tension will get you nowhere. How about a tiny smile? Time slows down. Slow your heart rate with it. Focus on your breaths. Count. Just one more and then another and then another. What will help me sink into this? A babbling brook, hemlock trees, a picnic, a child—I’ll go there. It’s over. Really? That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Results. Bad news. Not so scary though. Just another hill to climb.

The rest of the day. This feels like riding downhill after a hard climb. Everything is a bit blurry and feels rushed, but maybe it is just that time has returned to normal.

I survived that day and could almost say that I thrived. On reflection I have two sets of observations relevant to coaching indoor cycling and other activities. First, over the course of a couple of hours I used almost all of the body and mind management techniques that I coach (and which were highlighted in many of the recent ICA summit sessions). If you feel awkward discussing some of those topics or it isn’t part of the culture where you teach, please consider my example. Do you want to deny your students access to information and techniques that are truly life skills and have application to so much more than just cycling?

Secondly, every activity or behaviour can be broken down into component parts. Those steps seem much less daunting in isolation. On my difficult day, success at each step set me up for the next. We know this in the abstract but do we do it in our classes? Are we consistent? Do we treat every one of those steps as equally important and celebrate success as each is achieved? Do we focus too much on the outcome or final step and neglect to acknowledge all its precursors?

Perhaps you are thinking, “Yes, I do that for the novices or newbies in my classes.” My message for you, based on my experience in the last few weeks, is that everyone is a novice or unskilled at something; everyone struggles with at least one aspect of his or her performance. You won’t always know which aspect is most problematic for any individual. I don’t think I look or act like a novice cancer patient but that doesn’t make any of the steps I am taking less difficult or less worthy of celebration. For that reason you should not make assumptions and skip steps or fail to reinforce small achievements. As an instructor/leader/coach in your classes that’s one of your most vital roles—to identify and describe the steps and mark your students’ progress as they climb them.


  1. All too easily we forget our coping tools in times of stress. It is work stress that unbalances me.
    Although not on a par with you, Christine, I recently had to deal with the healthcare system here in Ontario.
    I find I tend to deal with new experiences as an adventure. It is all new and exciting. Yes, I’m afraid but I know the staff have my best interests at heart.
    Chin up Christine!

    1. Robert – Thanks for your comment. The coping/life skills really do have general applicability. So does treating this time as an ‘adventure’ as you describe it. That helps me, at least, keep a smile on my face and use confident body language. Both of those approaches helps reduce my stress and also clearly affects my caregivers. I have had a fantastic experience so far in the health care system. I have received timely, warm and professional care from the very first day. There was just one night nurse who was a little grumpy …. but that gave me something to do while I tried to modify her behaviour.

  2. Beautifully written, as always, Chris!

    Over the last year I have gone through the severe illness and the eventual passing of a parent, one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with. It really was like climbing a hill, almost out of breath, reaching the top and sometimes realizing there’s a bigger hill that awaits. But, we made it up the last hill, it’s ok, we’ll make it up the next, one pedal stroke at a time.

    Your commitment to your passion shines through in everything you do! Thank you for being such an inspiration!

  3. We are pulling for you Christine!!!!

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