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08 Jan 2020 246
Inactive people Improving Physical Ability

The Pentland Approach to Coaching: Instilling an Undefeatable Mindset

As part of the We Are Undefeatable campaign, UK Coaching's Craig Blain interviews tai chi coach Debbie Pentland about the benefits of coaching, despite having a long-term health condition

The We Are Undefeatable campaign aims to help people with long-term health conditions build physical activity into their lives, in a way that their condition allows, and to celebrate every victory big or small.

Great coaching can positively impact on a person’s experience of physical activity and sport, helping them to develop positive relationships with moving more. However, for some coaches, coaching a person living with a long term health condition or disability may conjure up images of someone with complex needs, where any kind of activity brings with it a risk of health related repercussions. 

But coaching someone who has a long-term health condition or disability doesn’t have to be a scary prospect. Moving more and getting active improves physical and mental health and happiness, for those with and without long-term health conditions.

UK Coaching's Policy and Partnership Manager Craig Blain spoke with Debbie Pentland, a coach who is passionate about helping people get, and stay, active. Despite facing her own challenges with a long-term health condition, Debbie wants others to see that exercise improves their quality of life and has made it her mission to help them discover it for themselves. 

Why do you coach?

Now there’s a question. Lots of reasons, but I suppose the main reason is because I love to see people lift themselves higher. For me, there is no better reward than hearing people telling me that their doctor is really pleased with them because their balance or blood pressure has improved, or a simple thing like they managed some everyday task that they previously found too much for them. 

I know only too well from personal experience that exercise improves quality of life, and helping others discover this for themselves is truly inspiring.

What led you to where you are now? 

It’s a long story but everything started when I was 32, when I was diagnosed with my first illness, Lupus. It’s an incurable autoimmune disease, in simple terms the body mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. It can affect the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs making it a real challenge in many ways, but the overwhelming fatigue was always the worst. It came as a tremendous shock. The doctor looked so concerned delivering the diagnosis that I asked 'how long have I got?' to which he replied 'oh, it’s not that bad you might make 50 with medication but you will have to modify your lifestyle'.

It took a long time to get my head around the news. With no internet or social media to find out more or speak to others with the health condition, I felt very alone. Lupus at that time was considered quite rare. I was referred to a rheumatologist and after much trial and error a cocktail of drugs became my daily lifeline, although it was not much of a life.

I used to come in from work and go straight to bed. Bob - my husband - would wake me for dinner and I would go straight back to bed again.

After this routine for months, I decided this was not going to be my life anymore. I decided to do my own research. I scoured the library, jumble sales, charity shops for any books I could find on healthy eating, forms of exercise and alternative therapies. I knew I had to make some changes in my life to take back control. Slowly, I changed my routine and I could see definite improvements. I knew I had found the answer when Bob said to me one day, 'you are not going for your shutdowns these days'. That is how he referred to me sleeping all the time. I had found more energy because I was exercising and eating healthier. With approval from my doctor, I was slowly able to decrease the medication I was taking too.

When did coaching become part of your life?

One of my exercise teachers, who had seen the difference in me over the months I had been attending their sessions, suggested to me that I train to coach. It’s funny how people seem to pop into your life at the very moment you need them and help you to your next goal. It happens a lot. I had never thought about teaching before. I thought, 'me teach?!'. But then I thought, 'why not?'. So, I went for it. I heard about a year long part-time course run by the Keep Fit Association and enrolled myself.

To be honest, my main reason for coaching was to learn the best kind of exercises that would help me fight my condition.

Where do you coach? 

Nowadays, I only coach two classes a week. I used to do nine and work part-time too but I have just turned 60 and have decided to take more me time and see what new challenges I can take on. I coach a Tai Chi class in a church hall and a general exercise class on the beach all year around (weather permitting). I love doing the exercises outside and I now have some of the class joining me in the sea for a post-class dip.

What is the Debbie Pentland approach to coaching? 

I mainly coach the over 50s, some of them, like me, are living with a long-term health condition. However, sometimes if my people are on grandparent duty they bring the children along to join in; that or they sit quietly in a corner with their tablet or colouring books - the kids that is (haha). It is important to understand the needs of the people in the class and try to work out solutions to keep them from missing sessions. I have had three generations (of one family) all taking part in the class in the past, and the youngest was amazed about how well the mum and grandma did.

You must put yourself in their shoes, empathy not sympathy is what you’re trying to find. Whether that’s understanding age, health issues, family issues etc. It is important to know their individual needs. Everyone is different. I don’t have any special qualifications to help me do this/support people with health conditions or disabilities. In my experience, people are people and connecting with the person first is so important.

I never judge by appearance as my own experience has taught me 'you cannot always see illness'. It can be unnerving trying to figure out people’s needs when you first meet them, but you need to keep in mind that this is exactly what people need from you if you are going to make your session something they benefit from. Take time to start a conversation and create the opportunity for you to listen.

I always take a few minutes with each new participant to ask them what brought him or her to the class. Using open and easy to answer questions helps me to get a feeling of what they want from the class. It also gives people their first opportunity to succeed in my classes through being able to contribute to the conversation. It’s only a small thing, but lots of small things make a big impression.

I always make a point before class begins to introduce new members. This helps make people feel welcome and breaks the ice with the rest of the class, who during the social breaks come over to speak to the newbie and make them feel part of the group. I often find by making these connections that people will network with each other.

To further develop connections in class, I find it helps to ensure you have two or three options of the activities you do. That way no one feels left out or inferior if they struggle with one of them. If I find that the class is still not suitable for them, I will suggest another class in the local area. I often refer people to other sessions. Saying no for the right reasons is really empowering. For example, if I find someone just isn’t safe enough with their balance skills, I refer them to the fall prevention team, where they can get more tailored exercises to improve their balance and then come back to me when they feel they are ready. It’s such a simple thing but I don’t often hear about others doing this, I am sorry to say. Being able to support someone to find an alternative class/session is a nice thing to be able to do.

Many of the class members are members of other groups too. Don’t overlook the opportunity to listen to the work other coaches are doing, there is no better signpost than one that comes with a recommendation. I often find when new people start with me they quickly find themselves drawn into another new activity. The social element is very important. The class members love going for coffee or lunch after class.

Debbie's Top Tips for Helping People to Thrive in Class

  1. Communication. Voice projection is important. Find out if people can hear and see you, and suggest the best spot in class for them if they are struggling. I also find teaching a mirror image works well with most people, especially older people. Mirroring is a technique used in group exercise where the instructor stands facing the group and demonstrates activities opposite to everyone else.
  2. Tell people why. Explain why you are doing what you are doing. I also make it real by giving examples of where it may help in everyday tasks. A squat activity will help to improve strength in legs and challenge your balance, which can help make it easier to get in and out of chairs.
  3. Praise. Recognising people’s effort is so important. What they are doing might not be perfect but they are trying their best and that’s what counts.
  4. Set out the norms. Tell people it's okay to take a breather, have a drink or sit down for a moment if they need to, before joining in again when they're ready.
  5. Provide options. Many people seem to be a bit ashamed of their illness, disability or long-term health condition and don’t want to admit they find some things hard. Offering options or making adaptations to make things easier or more challenging is important.
  6. Social breaks. Break the class up into two or three sections. The main motivation for exercising for many older people is its social element, so adding in these breaks is not always about rest, it’s so people can chat. That’s what they want, so give it to them.
  7. Exercise to music. It is important to use appropriate music for your audience. Loud dance music in a class for over 50s is less likely to be a hit. Why not even ask people to choose their own playlist.
  8. Make it fun. Exercise should be fun. If they leave with a smile on their face they are more likely to return and make it a regular activity.

We Are Undefeatable

Take a look at our coaching guide to support the campaign for more resources to help you or your coaching workforce provide Great Coaching experiences for everyone


Related Resources

  • Promoting Good Mental Health through Coaching

  • Being a Mindful Coach

  • Nutrition and Hydration for Physical Activity


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