For new students walking into a group exercise class or group training session, intimidation can be brought on for a number of reasons. Feeling uncomfortable in the exercise setting, for any reason, can reduce the student’s enjoyment of the exercise, decrease the benefits of the exercise and can cause the student to become upset and even decide to leave the class or not return to the next class. It’s important for instructors and coaches to know why this intimidation may occur and be prepared with proactive strategies to combat it.
Intimidation and Behavior Change
Certified fitness professionals should be familiar with the transtheoretical model of behavior change and its phases of action. When a new client enters your class, they are likely in the action phase, where they are actively making behavior changes (for less than 6 months)*, and intimidation can be closely tied to the newness of, or the return to, the exercise environment.
Some key points of intimidation can be:
Being at a low level of physical fitness due to not exercising in the past or from taking a long pause from exercising
Recovering from an illness or injury that has left them feeling unsure about their physical capabilities
Not knowing how to exercise, or not knowing how to specifically perform the type of exercise featured in the class or group session
General anxiety: They are new to the facility/class, they don’t know anyone else, or are generally shy
Any of these reasons or a combination of them could be enough to make your new student look at the “regulars” around them and feel that they don’t measure up. Your job as an instructor or coach is to ease these fears and reinforce this positive action that they have taken. In other words, make them feel as if they are a part of the community. This can significantly improve your student retention and will help your students effectively move toward their fitness goals. Check out these tips and ask yourself: How many of these tactics am I currently using, and how can I improve on my use of these tactics?
Start before the class/session
Depending on the type of facility in with you teach/coach, you may or may not have access to a completed pre-participation screening form for your students ahead of the scheduled start time. Especially if you do not, making the time to seek out new students and have a brief conversation with them prior to hitting your “go” button will go a LONG way.
Say hello to new students when you see them enter the class, and thank them for joining you. Introduce yourself, ask them their name and ask what brought them to class today. Apply your active listening skills* to interpret and anticipate their needs. This can help you to gauge where this person may be on their fitness journey and what, if any, experience they have with the format you are teaching.
If you have not been able to review a pre-participation screening form, ask the student if they have any injuries or restrictions of which you should be aware before getting started. If they do mention anything, do a mental check of your class plan: Are there exercises or movements that will need to be modified for them? Depending on their response, you may need to follow up by asking for confirmation that they have received medical clearance to participate. (Moving forward from here, we will assume that they have been cleared to participate.) If they will require significant modifications or will need to use the assistance of equipment, let them know ahead of time when in the class to expect to look to you for modifications or assistance. You may even want to demonstrate those modifications for them ahead of the start of the class. Whether or not they mention any restrictions, assure them that they can look to you at any time during the class for modifications or assistance. Finally, direct them to collect any equipment they may need and where they can get set up for the start of the class.
Check out part two, Cueing for Confidence: How to Keep New and/or Struggling Students on Pace for a Successful Class for tips on cueing throughout a class or group sessions in a way that help new students feel comfortable and engaged. COMING SOON!
*You can learn more about behavior change and active listening skills in the ACSM premium resources found here and in ACSM’s Resources for the Personal Trainer, 6th edition, chapters 7 and 9.
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Caitlin Kinser, M.S., has been teaching group exercise classes since 2010. She’s taught in a variety of settings including fitness studios, large gyms, college campuses, youth/community centers and virtually. She has taught multiple formats, but her heart belongs to dance fitness. Caitlin owned and operated a boutique fitness studio for two years prior to joining the professional staff at the American College of Sports Medicine®, where she serves as the director of digital strategy.