Making sure that a new student is comfortable and feels included and welcomed throughout the class is key to reducing any intimidation they may have felt when they walked in the room, and enhancing their overall experience in your class.
New students should be monitored particularly closely during their first few classes. Look for signs that they might be intimidated by the class to help guide the tactics that you use throughout the class to keep them focused on the progress that they are making.
Signs of intimidation:**
- Constantly watching other students
- Facial expressions of frustration or fear
- Withdrawn body language, such as moving to the back of the space, looking at the ground and moving hesitantly
- Giving up — doing exercises with little to no energy or not doing them at all
If you see a student displaying these behaviors, it’s important to note that any action on your part that makes them feel “singled out” from the rest of the students is likely going to have a negative effect. There are two approaches I have found to be successful: the verbal approach, and the nonverbal approach. (And, spoiler alert, they often work best when used together!)
Caveat: The cueing tips below may seem old hat to seasoned instructors — you’re likely doing many of these things without even realizing it. For new instructors, I know there is already so much going through your head just trying to remember the exercises/movements for your class, let alone think about all of these cueing tips at the same time! I recommend practicing these just as you would practice other cueing. Rehearse your class at home: Imagine different scenarios and practice how you would cue in response. As you get more and more classes under your belt, you will become very comfortable and confident in interacting with your students, both new and “regulars,” this way.
Speak up: The verbal approach
The verbal approach is focused on using your words effectively to communicate to the group in a way that provides needed direction without calling out individual students and telling them to correct their behavior. This should flow seamlessly into your verbal cueing for the class as a whole and not give any indication that you’re giving direct instructions to a specific student. You can also provide verbal encouragement to help manage any internal dialogue your students may be having about their ability to do exercises or judging themselves against others in the class.
You may not know the specific reason a student is responding to a movement or exercise while the class is going on, so your verbal cues should cover the spectrum of potential points of intimidation. Offer students modifications and motivation while still giving them “permission” to take the space they need to rest.
An example of the verbal approach: The class is instructed to hold a high plank, and you notice a new student immediately dropped down from the plank and is now sitting or lying on the ground with a defeated look on their face. You don’t know in that exact moment why they have given up, so you verbal cues should cover the spectrum noted above:
“Remember that planks can be performed with your forearms and elbows on the ground to take pressure off of your wrists. You can also lower your knees to ground, or you can even do both. It’s normal to feel a little shaky in a plank, but you’re pushing those muscles! Hold if you can, but rest if you need to; you’re all doing a great job!”
This example offers multiple modifications, motivation/normalizing of the physical challenge of the exercise and also acknowledges that the student may simply need to rest, and if so they should not feel badly about taking that time.
You can also use the verbal approach to focus students’ attention. Example: You see a new student looking around and anxiously watching other students for cues during an exercise with which they are not familiar. This can cause confusion and also introduce unnecessary comparison between their performance and that of other students. Call out, “Be sure to look at my feet! See how they are pointing forward? Check that your feet are pointing in the same direction as mine.” You’ve now redirected their attention back to your cueing and their own body placement.
Eyes on me: The nonverbal approach
Depending on the format of the class you are teaching, verbal cueing may not be the most effective way to support an intimidated student. Physical cues and nonverbal communication can help a struggling student to feel more comfortable and confident during the class.
A straightforward way of giving physical cues is to position yourself to directly face or move near the new student. Make sure that they can very clearly see you demonstrating movements and modifications without other students or equipment obstructing their line of view. This is a version of a psychology technique called mirroring. If you’re teaching a class where you regularly move around the room (such as yoga or barre) you can spend time directly next to the student as you are cueing, giving additional physical cues to the student while you are giving verbal cues to the “regulars” in your class who are comfortable with following along.
Eye contact is a very important part of nonverbal communication and mirroring during a fitness class. You can give a student a correction by making eye contact with them, and then point to or move the area of your own body where they should be making a correction with theirs. This is best described with an example: You see the student pulling their shoulders up to their ears during an overhead dumbbell press. Make eye contact, and either tap your shoulders (if you’re not also holding the dumbbells) or do a little lift of your own shoulders (if you are also holding dumbbells), and then overexaggerate a lowering of the shoulders. If you make this exaggerated movement while making eye contact, it very clearly signals to them to relax their shoulders.
You can also use eye contact to congratulate or “cheer on” the student. Make eye contact and give them a big smile and/or a positive head nod. This clearly signals to them that they are doing a move correctly. This can be particularly effective if their face says “I don’t know if I’m doing this right” while, in fact, they are doing the movement correctly.
All together now
As noted before, these techniques can often work together to increase effectiveness. You may use one or the other at various times throughout a class, and you may find yourself using both at the same time. Not all approaches work the same way for every student or every format. You may need to try both or a combination to get a positive reaction from a student.
Follow up with an invitation
After the class finishes, check in with your new students. Ask them how they felt about the class and answer any questions that they may have. Finally, thank them again for coming and invite them to join you in the next class. “We have this class every Thursday at 6 p.m.; I would love to have you join us again next week!” You may be surprised at how a very simple invitation can make them feel much more at ease, and confirm to the student that they belong in your class.
Some final tips that I’ve collected over the years:
- Humanize yourself. All of your students will feel less intimidated by you as an instructor if you acknowledge the parts of the class that are challenging you too. “Wow, my legs are really shaking as we hold this position! What about you all?”
- Use inclusive language. Avoid using any kind of gendered language, or language that assumes the gender identity of your students. Phrases like “great job, guys,” or “come on, ladies” are frequently heard in fitness classes; instead, focus on using inclusive terms like “everyone/everybody,” “you all,” “friends,” “folks” and “ya’ll” (if you’re so inclined).
- Allow students to set their own bar. Avoid using subjective terms like “hard” or “easy” to describe exercises. This can set a bar, especially for new students, that may not be realistic. What feels relatively easy to one student may feel impossibly hard to another.
**An important reminder: it is CRUCIAL for you as a fitness professional to be able to discern frustration or situational discomfort from physical pain and/or overexertion. If there is any indication that a student is in distress, immediately pause the class to attend to the situation based on your facility’s protocols.
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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.