Strength and Support

A Personal Essay on Overcoming Gym Intimidation, Avoiding Clique Mentalities, and Developing Social Intelligence

by Ashley Avila

“What music do you want to listen to?” Officer Art Holecek of the Hinsdale Police Department asked me after our first 12-hour shift together, getting ready to max out my bench press. I was nervous, nearly shaking. I was the new police intern and eager to learn and grow – part of the new cadet process is passing the POWER test, a four-movement standard of fitness for law enforcement. I knew I could easily pass the sit & reach, 1-minute sit up, and the 1.5-mile run… However, I was dreading the bench press test. In my experience, the weight room was a brash, unfriendly place. A sense of intimidation was limiting my ability to improve.

Officer Holecek and the rest of the department were always open-minded, patient, and understanding with me, but in my experience, gym-goers seemed entitled, condescending, and unwelcoming. I was too afraid and insecure to step foot in their territory. This was different. In the basement gym of the police station, I was welcomed and ultimately found confidence and a love for weightlifting. 

The confidence was not immediate, but during my time at the Hinsdale PD (and other weightroom moments throughout the years), I noticed a few key components to the creation of a welcoming, safe space for all. I call upon that previous reluctance in my current position as a strength coach, where I work to empower young people and educate other coaches in three key areas: battling gym intimidation, avoiding clique mentalities, and developing social intelligence.

For those new to weightlifting, especially in the adolescent population I work with, the weightroom can be an intimidating place. It is new, can be uncomfortable, loud, and can seem unfriendly (at least at first glance). The setting could scare someone away for good. As coaches, I believe it’s important to lose the intimidation factor. Be the first person to acknowledge that new face… they might be too nervous or shy to ask for help. Congratulate them on their achievements, and sympathize with their losses. I believe being approachable and relatable are the quintessential ways to start earning the trust of your athletes.

Earning trust is both the responsibility of the coaches as well as the team in general. As teammates, it’s important to remember that we all started out as beginners. Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feeling of another, is key here. Practicing this trait is a great way of ensuring your weight room is a welcoming place. Dig deep into that memory; you’ll understand how your new teammate feels and that empathy will most likely be the reason they keep coming back.

On the other hand, there are a handful of reasons your new teammate may not return and as coaches, it’s important to recognize that clique mentalities are one of them. This culture is seemingly toxic and could make people feel left out, belittled, and unworthy. Remind your new athletes that they are allowed to come into their weightlifting journey as they are. Athletes of all backgrounds and experiences deserve to be there. I believe tackling this is a win-win: encouragement will create personal happiness all the while helping to create a supportive culture that will keep everyone focused on the task at hand.

Assimilating to an established weight room culture seems to be an essential part of a successful weightlifting journey, and yet how this is accomplished is tricky. Chances are that your teammates are feeling pressure to belong in other parts of their lives; they shouldn’t need to worry about whether they belong in the weight room. When your coach breaks everyone into groups, try to connect with different people every time. Acknowledging your teammates’ presence will make them feel valued and important. This will help to discard any formations of cliques within your team.

Being supportive of your athletes (and fellow coaches) also requires becoming socially intelligent. According to Dr. Ross Honeywill, internationally recognized social scientist, social intelligence refers to the exclusive ability of humans to navigate, negotiate, and influence social relationships and environments. While this definition is clear-cut, it doesn’t allow us to gain an understanding of how social intelligence plays a role in developing relationships. Authors Todd Kashdan & Robert Biswas-Diener use the term “social agility”, which they define as the ability to recognize how one situation differs from another, and how to adjust our behavior to match these changing scenarios. 

I believe this trait is incredibly important for both coaches and athletes to have. Social intelligence is not about being the smartest person in the room, but the person who is the most capable of reading the room, and then doing meaningful work with the information you gathered. This could mean speaking to your athletes or teammates in ways they can understand and relate to. It also can include reflective listening, open body language, humor, etc. I believe this will benefit all parties involved. It will make your environment a more supportive and ultimately, attractive one.

That day at the Hinsdale Police department, I felt confident and ready. Officer Holecek gave me a piece of advice that I’d never forget: “Before you touch this barbell,” he said, so seriously that I wanted to laugh, “close your eyes and picture yourself completing the lift, start to finish. I know you can do it, do you?” It wasn’t pretty, but I did it. I wouldn’t have been able to finally hit a PR and max out my bench press if it wasn’t for the supportive people in my life at that time. 

When your athletes and teammates feel listened to and acknowledged, they’ll feel more relaxed and connected to the group. And when they feel more connected to the group, they will be more receptive towards your message. Don’t forget that you were a beginner once, too – make the effort to be understanding, patient, and welcoming. It’s easy to get lost in the comfort of your familiar friend group but try to branch out occasionally. If you want to make others in your space feel supported and make yourself feel great, little adjustments to attitude and communication will go a long way.


Bartholomew, B. (2017). Conscious Coaching: The Art and Science of Building Buy-In. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Honeywill, R. (2015). The Man Problem: Destructive Masculinity in Western Culture. New York, NY: Palvgrace Macmillan.

Kashdan,T, and Biswas-Diener,R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark-Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good” Self – Drives Success and Fulfillment. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.

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