Why Therapy is like Running a Marathon

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If you want to get me talking about something, ask me about running. I guarantee that my eyes will light up, a huge smile will come across my face, and I will begin talking about everything from shoes to socks to hair ties to training plans to body glide to blisters to energy goo to proper breathing technique. I have spent years of my adult life deeply devoted to learning about this sport that I love, culminating in completing two marathons, a half-iron triathlon, and a few handfuls of shorter races. I have studied and trained, bled, cried (both happy tears and tears of pain), and have learned countless lessons along the way. As you can imagine, spending hours and hours in training gives me lots of time to ponder, and recently I have been processing and thinking through this subject about how approaching therapy, specifically music therapy in our case, could be looked at similarly to training for a marathon. 

When I first began running, I couldn’t make it around the track once. I am serious! I was a pretty sedentary kid and teenager, and started very slowly gaining ground in my fitness journey at the end of high school. I would start running at the park after school, and I felt my body changing and getting stronger and gaining more confidence and more endurance. I was hooked! I loved the feeling of being able to run a mile, then a few miles, and relatively shortly after that I could run for hours, so I signed up for my first half marathon when I was 19. Training for that first race gave me direction and purpose for my fitness goals, and forced me to have discipline in training that trickled down into all areas of my life. I just couldn’t get enough of it! 

Let’s think about the first race I signed up for. If I would have gone out there and tried to run 13 miles with no training, I would have probably collapsed, or sustained a major injury, or at the very least have had to quit and seriously hurt my pride. Training for a race is based on small steps (pun intended) and small victories as your muscles strengthen, as your lungs gain capacity, as your O2 volume increases, as you literally grow more blood vessels in order to handle the increased cardiovascular load (I told you I could talk about this for hours!). Any good training plan is going to have you SLOWLY gain traction and gain endurance… too much, too soon will have you sidelined. 

When we have the privilege of working with a client in music therapy, we do what any good coach does. We carefully evaluate the current levels of ability across all domains and in all areas, and build our knowledge of their family, friends, schooling, other hobbies, and so forth. We assess their unique strengths and abilities via a comprehensive assessment, and based on consultation with their parents and themselves if appropriate, we develop a treatment plan for them- our own version of a training plan. We have the ultimate goal of helping our clients reach their full potential, and gain as much independence in their lives as possible. However, just as someone who has the dream of running a marathon, we must as therapists start where our client is when they come to us and build from there in order to reach these goals. 

What does this look like in therapy? It means building a strong foundation. For example, in order for a client to gain the ability to speak in functional sentences, we may need to begin with exercises to build lung strength in order to sustain the air pressure needed to get through a word or two, and build from there. We may need to build abdominal strength to support increased airflow. After that, perhaps we practice singing one word in a familiar song, and then perhaps a whole phrase. See how these are baby steps? It is also very important to remember that progress for any major goal is SLOW and one skill must be mastered before moving on to the next. If we as therapists try to go to fast, and miss steps along the way in helping our clients grow and learn, we may end up building skills on shaky foundations… which will not lead to the lasting and sustainable change that we know is possible with music therapy.  

In running, you can’t skip a step in your training, or neglect the rest of the body as you train. If you spend hours and hours pounding the pavement, your legs and lungs will get stronger, but you may still get injured because your abdominal muscles aren’t getting stronger to support the massive amount of stress on your lower back that comes with running. Also, if your diet is bad as you train, your body won’t be able to rebuild torn muscles with healthy nutrients you get from eating. Did you know that the way you gain muscle is actually through tearing them? Similarly, in therapy, attempting to go too far too soon will lead to frustration at the very least for our clients, and in some cases could be painful or even traumatic. If we need to, we must take a step back when we realize we may be trying something too quickly for our client or something that is beyond their ability level at the moment, and re-evaluate where they are and adjust our approach accordingly.

As therapists, I hope that we can keep this always in mind. We have the capability to take our clients on an incredible journey! The feeling of accomplishing something you have worked hard for is absolutely exhilarating, and I hope to be able to allow my clients to experience that feeling as we work towards their goals and dreams together.