Shannon Fable by Shannon Fable

We all point to January as being the biggest season for newbies joining our classes, but September is another month ripe with opportunity. When school is back in session, moms (still our biggest fans) get back into the swing of things and pop into classes searching for the perfect workout schedule for the fall.

Whether the fresh face is new to fitness or just new to our time slot, we have a huge responsibility to foster the spark that made these people walk through the doors and then help them move toward their goals. Group fitness has an amazing capacity to offer enthusiasm, instruction, camaraderie and fun all in one place. But if we don’t approach new members in the right way, their first time might be their last.  

Let’s review a few simple ways to prepare for any new participant, whatever their ability level.

Be a Stellar Host

It’s easy to get comfortable with your regulars or concern yourself with getting the music, the mic and the equipment just right, and then turning on the charm with your first inhale. But for best results, remember that class starts the moment someone is in your presence, so you should be 100 percent ready to greet your participants by the time the FIRST person walks through the door. From there, start playing the “greet and pass” game. Say hello to person A, find another person you know, such as a ‘regular’ (Person B), and pass person A off to them. Person B can fill in the blanks about what’s going to happen, show Person A where to find the equipment, and chit chat until class starts.

If, for some reason, you can’t get into the room on time, the same can be done in the hallway while you’re waiting for the room to clear. Also consider giving attendees something to do right from the start by making an announcement such as, “Hey guys, we’ll get started in three minutes. Turn to a person nearby that you don’t know and tell them what you had for dinner last night.” It will give everyone something to do and can help facilitate a natural conversation.

Without having something to do, the newbie can get increasingly anxious with each passing moment, and it’s even worse if other people are standing around in cliques. Avoid getting cornered by your groupies or allowing groups to take over the room; be on the lookout for the loners, the shy ones, the scared ones and anyone else existing on the periphery. Draw them in and when it’s time to leave, make sure THESE are the folks you aim to connect with. Try asking questions like, “Did you enjoy your workout?”; “What could I have done to make your experience more enjoyable?”; “Can I answer any questions about the class we just did?” and “What was your favorite move/exercise/song?” Of course, always provide an invitation to return and make a big deal when you see them again!

Beginner’s Frame of Mind

Repeat after me: “We are a special population; not everyone enjoys exercise.” Somewhere along the way you demonstrated some aptitude for fitness if you found the courage to put on spandex, stand up in front of your peers and shout out orders! So how are you supposed to know what new folks need if you’ve never been in their shoes? It’s tough to think of that person who is a bit nervous about the new class, and feels shy and intimidated if that’s not your story.

So, what should you do to better understand them? Try something new yourself. Find a format you would rather die than teach, and take that class. Go to adult ballet classes if you never wore a tutu in elementary school. Do yoga if you can’t touch your toes. Take a mountain-biking clinic or a golf lesson. Anything that requires you to arrive a few minutes early, stand at the back of the group and fidget. It’s pretty uncomfortable.

You’ll likely find that there are many ways to make the experience “feel” better for someone giving it a shot for the first time. For starters, at the beginning of every class, we should be setting clear expectations about the experience that lies ahead. Not just how fun it’s going to be and how much it’s going to hurt, but what the goal is, how long it’s going to last and what it’s going to feel like. If you’re leading a step class, for example, you can let them know how many combinations there will be, which one is the least and most complicated, which will be the most physically challenging and how long they have to endure your antics!

Also, it’s important to provide an “out” at some point. These days, it’s easy to end up in a class that is SO not what you thought it was. You read the description on the back of the schedule and you THINK you know what it is, but then you get there, listen to the instructor’s pitch and start planning your escape route. I always provide the description and then say, “For some of you, this may not line up with your plan for the day. You have my permission to fake it until you feel it, do what you need to make the next hour feel like time well spent or…I’m going to turn my back for 30 seconds to get the music set. You are welcome to leave with absolutely no hard feelings. I’d rather you have a great workout today than be miserable for the next hour!”

Coach, Don’t Just Instruct

Group fitness instructorCoaching involves more than barking orders, providing modifications and increasing the intensity level to where you think someone should be or wants to be. Coaching is an art form and requires you to be armed with many different ways to achieve the end result. And that end result should be defined by the participant—not by you! A newbie in a group fitness class shouldn’t need to take a few classes to get used to the environment before enjoying a great experience. It’s our job to meet the participant where they are and make him or her feel successful from minute one.

One of my biggest observations with classes these days is the “air of expectancy” created through the cuing. For example, in many yoga classes I attend, it feels as if the instructors believe Sanskrit is a common language that you should already know if you choose to show up. We have certainly acquired unique language to explain what we’re doing in our classes, but there is always a way to explain things to make the experience all-inclusive. And just providing Beginner or 101 classes is not always the solution. After all, what if that class doesn’t fit in their schedule and they’re actually skilled or fit enough to hang, but they just don’t know what you call it at this studio?

Make sure to cue universally. People follow first by seeing, so show the move and describe what’s happening, whether it’s a previewed move or the move performed at a slower tempo. Then teach and anchor any specialized terms. For example, when leading a squat, perform the move slowly at first and describe the action: “Sit the hips back and bend the knees.” Next, call the exercise by its proper name, which will give the new participant a chance to perform the move and associate it with the word. Then, take a break; seriously—just be quiet! We talk so much when we cue that a new participant can get completely overwhelmed. Avoid going overboard with new folks, fearing that they will injure themselves, and instead trust that the cues will unfold as they’re ready to hear them. Describe key points succinctly to get everyone moving together, and then choose one focus for that section of class. Perhaps you concentrate on placing weight in the heels or on keeping the chest lifted. With one specific focus, the beginner has a better chance of getting it right, feeling successful and returning to master even more moves that you have in store.

When it comes to offering modifications, people will typically follow what they see. No one wants to look different than the rest of class, but sometimes they have no option if they can’t see it or can’t follow someone else who’s doing it. Think back to the last time you (or someone you were with) tried to stay with the first layer of a step combination as the instructor continued with the fun stuff. It’s hard to stay at the level you need to when go-getters surround you. To help new folks choose appropriate options, avoid simply listing modifications. Instead, fully explain your expectation and provide several ways to meet that goal.

For example, you might say, “We are getting ready to do 15 squats, and I want your legs to be toast by the time you’re done. You can do this (squat), this (squat to calf raise) or this (squat jump). Feel free to mix and match these choices, doing whatever will make your legs not want to do this any more at the end of the 15. Let’s go!” This strategy allows all your participants to self-select the best option for them.

You will always have fresh faces in your classes and it is time to decide if you’re going to go above and beyond to inspire every single one of them to make a life-changing leap or continue to level up for your “groupies” in the front row. Remember, your regulars will be there no matter what. While it’s important to keep this group stimulated, bear in mind that it’s easier for veterans to make a class challenging than it is for new folks to weed through the cues and have a good experience. We have a huge responsibility to strike a balance between empowering die-hards to do what they need to do and keeping beginners coming back and feeling successful. But if you put even a few minutes of thought into the three areas we’ve discussed, you’ll be well on your way to earn more raving fans than you could ever imagine.

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