By AMANDA VOGEL, M.A.
Many of the clients who attend your classes, boot camps or group-training sessions probably recognize each other’s familiar faces. They might know a few people’s (or everyone’s) names. Perhaps friendships form. There are also the newcomers who might not know anyone at all.
Helping your new and regular clients meet each other is important because many people report that the support network, camaraderie and social atmosphere of groups are all key reasons for why they stick with an exercise program. Clients who feel as if they don’t fit in may be less motivated to come back. And from a financial standpoint for you, getting clients to bond means you benefit from repeat business and positive word of mouth.
With that in mind, make it your job to act as a “social bridge,” connecting clients to one another. Imagine that you’re hosting a party and that part of your role as the host is to help break the ice with guests (i.e., clients) so they can relax and mingle.
Of course, playing host sounds simple enough, but as group leader, you’re also concerned with everything from program design and equipment set-up to providing technique cues and coaching clients. It’s understandable that taking time out to ensure everyone knows each other can be a challenge when you’re busy organizing other things.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take before, during and after your classes to ensure that your clients become familiar with each other and feel part of the group. Here, four fitness pros share how they do it.
The first step in helping clients get to know each other is to have them learn each other’s names. This can be a fun icebreaker if you use a creative approach that suits your group’s demographics and size. For example, Mark Nutting, a master trainer at Saco Sport & Fitness in Saco, Maine, says he uses a game that puts his own memory to the test.
“Everyone stands in a circle and the first person states his or her name. I repeat the name. The second person says his or her name and I repeat the first person’s name and second person’s name, and so on,” he says.
Nutting says this system has been effective for breaking the ice in large groups because it makes people laugh, and even if some clients are shy, they aren’t being put on the spot. “It’s never a large social commitment on their part,” he says. “I do most of the work and they’re entertained by my ability (or inability) to remember their names. The kids in my kids’ classes will swap positions just to mess me up.”
Sean Millhouse is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Advanced Health & Fitness Specialist, and is co-owner of Northwest Personal Training Center in Houston, Texas. He also plays a name game in his Fitness 101 Boot Camps, but he uses a prop that gets people smiling. His prop? The Shake Weight®, a dumbbell-shaped device sold on TV and designed to be shaken back and forth for upper-body toning.
Many people have heard of the Shake Weight or seen it on TV, but might not have tried it. “When I have a few new people in my boot camps, I like to start off with some laughter,” says Millhouse. “We pass the Shake Weight around the group, and when you’re holding the weight, you say your name. It provides an incredible amount of fun!”
Jennifer Wick, a fitness instructor in Vancouver, B.C., takes a “sharing” approach in her circuit classes of 10 to 12 women. “Before each class, we get in a circle for a quick chat. I sometimes ask a question such as, ‘What was the highlight of your week?’ or ‘If I gave you $1,000 what would you buy today?’ In the first weeks we did more ‘get to know the team’ intros. After a few weeks, they feel comfortable sharing more private or funny info—they’ve discovered commonalities and made friends. Two people even realized they have mutual friends.”
The icebreaker chats have also helped Wick get to know her participants better, and she often uses info she’s learned about the women to motivate and cheer them on in class. “For example, I will use someone’s vacation to Vegas as motivation to pump them up in cardio or joke about letting out frustrations over family or renovations.”
Integrating Cliques into the Main Group
Helping clients form spontaneous friendships can be rewarding. You might also find that your group contains several “pockets” of pre-existing friends—people who already know each other well and joined the class together. Because they’re already friends, these cliques might tend to mingle separately from the rest of the group or form their own competitive alliances.
While coming to class with friends can help clients feel especially motivated and socially supported, avoiding too much “cliquey” or exclusive bonding in your sessions helps ensure that the entire group feels as cohesive as possible.
To that end, Millhouse and his trainers take the initiative when it’s time to form smaller groups within a larger boot camp. “We (not the clients) team people up in groups of two to four,” he says. “We try to match people’s abilities, personalities and socialization levels. This helps make the workout enjoyable and intense.”
Fun Ways to Assemble Sub-teams
A fast and easy way to organize clients into sub-teams is to assign numbers or letters to each group (i.e., teams 1, 2, 3 or teams A, B, C). Or you can get creative by matching up clients according to commonalities such as birthday months or by the color of shirts people are wearing. Just be sure that the common categories you select will yield similar group sizes and a fair, reasonably diverse cross-section of abilities, ages and fitness levels.
With a little planning, you could also use a fun exercise drill as a way to assign clients to sub-teams. Let’s say you wanted to break up the main group into four sub-teams. You might bring a shuffled deck of cards to class, placing several mini-stacks from the deck on one end of the gym or playing field.
From the other end of the gym or field, clients run (or do walking lunges or some other traveling exercise) until they reach one of the mini-stacks of cards. Instruct clients to select ONE card at random and run (or do another traveling exercise) back to the starting place. (Don’t forget to ensure a safe flow of client “traffic” to and from the mini-stacks.)
Arrange everyone into sub-teams according to what type of card they picked up: hearts, diamonds, clubs or spades. To ensure an equal number of players within each sub-team, put out only as many cards as you have clients in the main group. And when using less than a full deck, include a similar showing of each card type (e.g., seven hearts, seven clubs, and so on.). This drill also works with small, lightweight objects, such as Popsicle sticks, pennies and straws.
An alternative to creating sub-teams in your larger boot camps or classes is to ask clients to choose partners. This helps them learn names over time if it wouldn’t work to hold introductions as a larger group at the beginning of class. And because many partner exercises naturally foster interaction, clients get an instant dose of both socializing and friendly encouragement.
“I have my clients partner up, learn their partner’s name and work together with exercise drills,” says Caroline Jordan of Caroline Jordan Fitness in San Francisco, Calif. “For example, I ask partners to do push-ups facing each other. Each person does a push-up and high-fives their partner on the way up. They’re encouraged to use their partner’s name and cheer each other on during the exercise.”
Icebreakers Outside of Class
In addition to helping your clients meet each other in class, you can also play host outside of class using social media tools like Facebook. Interacting with someone on Facebook before you get to know him or her in person provides an instant icebreaker. And having clients share, “like” or comment on Facebook photos or status updates related to your sessions creates a preliminary social connection that clients can build on when working out face to face. In other words, extending your real-life group to a social-media community, and vice versa, helps clients become better acquainted with each other, on- and offline.
Of course, it’s too much to expect that all your clients will “friend” each other on Facebook. But it’s quite likely that many or all of them will join a Group or Like Page on the site that you set up for your boot camp, class or training sessions.
This is Nutting’s approach to creating closer connections between his class attendees. Similarly, Jordan issues a client newsletter with weekly challenges. Her clients can then complete the challenges together in class.
Creating Your Community
Whether you play name games, create sub-teams or partner drills, or set up a Facebook page, acting as social host to your clients benefits everyone. Clients who recognize that sense of connection will feel successful and motivated to come back for more of the services you provide (and possibly with their friends).
Amanda Vogel, M.A., holds a master’s degree in human kinetics and is a certified fitness pro in Vancouver, B.C. In addition to being an online marketing consultant for BOSU, Amanda owns Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. Her articles have appeared in Women’s Health, SELF and Prevention. You can reach her at www.ActiveVoice.ca, http://FitnessWriter.blogspot.com or www.twitter.com/amandavogel.