The easy part of being a fitness instructor or group trainer is welcoming regular participants into class each week. They’re familiar to us, and each other. We see them often enough to know a bit about them: perhaps their history with exercise/injury, their fitness goals, their occupations, etc. We’ve seen them perform exercises long enough to know
what they’re good at and what they need to modify.
The trickier side of teaching groups is managing those participants who attend infrequently or are stepping into class for the very first time. You don’t know anything about them. And your first impressions might not always be correct.
I teach a HIIT class once a week at an all-women’s gym in my neighborhood. Most of the women who come to my class are there every single week, representing a wide range of ages, body types, fitness levels and abilities. One morning, as I was setting up, I noticed someone new slip into the studio.
She positioned herself in a back corner of the room (basically, as far away as possible from my spot at the front). Visually, this woman would probably be described as having an obese body type. But I hesitate to make assumptions based on a participant’s appearance. Does she exercise regularly? I don’t know. Does she like exercise? I don’t know. Is she anxious about the class? I don't know. These questions apply to any new student.
Teaching to groups isn’t like personal training one individual at a time, where you can dig into a person’s history and mindset at your first meeting. When someone enters a group setting just minutes before class, you’ve got to “read” that person quickly and adjust your hello-welcome-to-class spiel accordingly.
As it happens, this new participant was obviously averting eye contact, giving me the distinct impression that she did not want me to fuss over her with a peppy, one-on-one introduction. As an introvert, I get that. Some people prefer to be anonymous or fly under the radar until they know the teacher and/or the exercise environment better. It’s their comfort zone. So I smiled, introduced myself, briefly advised her on what equipment she’d need for class and asked her name. (I’ll call her “Sarah” in this piece.)
During class, I was careful to provide lots of options for each exercise (as always). I observed that Sarah was doing well with the modifications. However, much to my disappointment, she left about halfway through the workout. Why? I don’t know. For the sake of argument, let’s say it was because she felt like she wasn’t keeping up.
I wanted to chase after her, encouraging her to please stay. But I still had a full class to manage and, of course, I didn’t want to embarrass her. Looking back, I realize I could have done more to help Sarah transition into the class as a newcomer.
Finessing Your Interactions with New Participants
Instructors and group trainers have limited time to set up for class and greet participants. Still, we must find ways to deftly and swiftly integrate new participants into the class while conveying the message that we want them to be there—it matters to us. However, when you're dealing with people who’d presumably rather be anywhere but your class, and might not want the instructor to draw attention to them, this task can be tricky indeed. Here are a few strategies.
1) Explain What to Expect
If a new participant has never tried your class before, they might be wondering what they’re getting themselves into and will they be able to “measure up.” First, it’s hard to define how a person is supposed to measure up in group fitness. There’s no such thing. Everyone has different challenges and abilities. Still, a new participant might anticipate that everyone else will be miles ahead.
With that in mind, consider what you might say in your pre-workout introduction to the whole group. You could explain that you will be watching for people to go at their own pace and try out modifications when needed. Advising them that you actually expect them to tailor the workout to their needs can help take the pressure off. Key message: We don’t all have to be doing the workout in the exact same way.
2) Don’t Be a Stickler
Fitness pros can be pretty particular about which workouts are best for which clients. Is an advanced, high-intensity class the best place for a newbie exerciser to start? Probably not. But not everyone has to attempt full-on intensity.
In fact, an interval format—with its short challenges and frequent “breaks”—might be just what some people need to build up confidence. I’ve seen it happen multiple times in the HIIT class I teach. Besides, as the instructor, I’m not about to boot a new exerciser out of class because it’s labeled as advanced. When someone makes an earnest effort to show up, the last thing you want to do is tell them they made the wrong choice. Friendly reminder: Accept that some people will self-select your class even when it's not the ideal intensity for them; teach to a range of abilities.
3) Set the Stage for a “Next Time”
Some new students might naturally be a “flight risk,” meaning they could feel frustrated or embarrassed and leave before the end of class. You can’t force them to stay. But you could say something like the following in your pre-workout intro, making sure to address the whole class so you avoid calling out any one individual:
“If you must leave early today or are unable to stay for the whole class, please take a few minutes to cool down before leaving the facility. And please be sure to come back again next time. I want you to be here, so just know I’ll be looking for you next week! We’re here to support each other.”
Regrets: I wish I'd given this little pre-class speech on the day Sarah left my class early.
4) Personalize the Experience
Another misstep I took with Sarah was to make our initial interaction a little too business-like. I sensed she was uncomfortable and so I didn’t want to pry. Truth is, I had planned to approach her again after class. I would have asked her how the workout went for her and told her I looked forward to seeing her again the following week. But I didn’t get the chance. And guess what? She still hasn’t returned to my class. Sometimes you only get one opportunity to reach out to someone new.
Lesson learned: Take advantage of the time you have before and during class to establish some sort of personal connection right off the bat.
These are just a few ways that group trainers and instructors can encourage brand-new students to feel comfortable in class and come back next time. Do you have a tip you'd like to share on this topic? Tell us in the comments section here.