Create a mentor program and build a strong foundation for your group exercise program.
No new talent. A dearth of qualified instructors. Young people not interested in teaching. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone—many markets across the country lack qualified professionals to teach group fitness. How can we reverse this trend? By hand-picking our newest talent and molding them into the instructors we wish we had! Mentoring novice instructors can help revitalize a group fitness program and give current instructors a fresh pool of talent to pull from when they need coverage (what would many of us give for a sub list full of qualified people waiting to teach?).
How and where do you find new talent? Instead of waiting for people to contact you, try recruiting prospects yourself. Start within your facility, in your own classes. Participants might not consider teaching until you plant the seed. But they are great recruits because you already know how they move, what their personalities are like and whether they would be a good fit for your schedule. Approach a potential instructor by saying something like, “Dale, you always have such great energy in step class. Have you ever considered teaching?” This is also a great confidence builder for your regulars. It’s flattering to be noticed as a potential instructor!
If you can’t find new recruits class-side, put up a flier at your gym announcing a free workshop: “Everything You Wanted to Know About Teaching but Were Afraid to Ask.” Schedule it at a time when most people can attend; for example, one evening after a packed class. Talk about how to get training, what most employers expect and what benefits there are to teaching. You can also post the flier at local colleges and universities, hair salons and even grocery stores. You never know who is out there unless you ask, and this is sometimes a better (and cheaper) way to find new talent than running an ad in the classifieds.
Another place to look for recruits is your local school system. With so many budgetary cuts, many schools have completely done away with physical education or offer it only once or twice a week. Wouldn’t it be great to find some enthusiastic schoolteachers who want to supplement their income and learn a new skill? They already know how to stand up in front of people, lead a group and organize their time—that’s a big part of the battle. Other places where you might find some diamonds in the rough include medical offices, day spas, “Mommy and Me” groups and adult intramural sports associations.
Now that you have your prospective instructor(s), you need to give them a structured program to follow. At some gyms, mentoring doesn’t begin until people are certified. Why not start before that? Putting together a certification prep program that runs concurrently with your mentoring course is logical; while instructors study exercise science and physiology, they also get practical experience. At the end of your program, they are ready to pass their certification exams and ready to start teaching, or at least apprenticing. If you are giving a once-weekly class, assign homework for off days. Sample assignments might include leading a warm-up, designing a strength training exercise or building a cardio combination. Ask participants to present their assignments for critique at the next scheduled class.
After your mentorees pass their certifications, they will need guidance and support to begin teaching. Assign senior instructors to your new prospects, matching them up by modality, personality and what they can do to help grow the novice instructors’ knowledge base. This is also a great way to build your current instructors’ skills and to create a more solid team.
Amy Bomar, owner of FIT Launch Inc. in Everett, Washington, places her new instructors into classes as “aides” once they have completed training. Their duties are essentially to act as “shadows,” showing modifications, assisting with new participants and teaching small segments of their selected formats, such as the step warm-up. “The mentor instructor offers feedback and support after each class, [and this] continues for several weeks or longer, depending on the individual,” says Bomar. “Gradually, the time in front of class is extended, and the new instructor is granted more opportunity to teach longer segments, such as a full 32-count combo or the entire strength and flexibility portion. Again, this will vary depending on each instructor’s learning style and commitment level.
“Additionally, potential new instructors are encouraged to attend classes taught by various instructors at the facility, not only to learn from them, but perhaps to observe areas for improvement that may benefit [the new] instructors. Both the mentorees and the mentors give weekly reports on their teaching/mentoring experiences. Progress is the goal from week to week.”
“We give instructors hotel, meals and no pay,” says Lawrence Biscontini, who works for Golden Door Spas, regarding his mentor program. “They teach up to four classes per day and [as cross-training] attend all other six classes per day. They fill out forms, sharing what they can give and what they are getting. We mentor their strengths and opportunities for growth.”
At my studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I have a new instructor, Alex, whom I tutored to help her pass her group exercise primary certification. She decided she really wanted to focus on step and strength training classes. We met about once a week to work on one element of her class. She showed me her choreography, including how to break it down and modify it with proper visual and verbal cues. If she was struggling with a transition or a breakdown, we worked together to fix it. Each session was an hour in length and ended with an assignment for the following week. After working with me in this way for about 2 months (and attending many classes with a variety of instructors), Alex began teaching pieces of step and strength classes. This allowed me to introduce her to my clientele and allowed her to build a little following before teaching complete classes on her own.
I also encouraged Alex to find continuing education programs that focused on step and strength. She took a great step intensive at a recent fitness convention, which gave her many new ideas for building her classes. She is now teaching a step interval class and an interval training class and continues to work with me about once a month, or whenever she needs assistance.
When you take the time to train a new instructor, it’s important to have some structure in place to ensure that your new talent continues to enhance your program. When I take on a new instructor, I first ask what his commitment is to my facility and to the area (Santa Fe is renowned for being a transient community, especially for fitness professionals). It’s awful when you train an instructor and get him up to speed only to have him move away. I ask all instructors to sign an agreement stating that once they have completed their program they will work for me for a certain term at my apprentice rate (the low end of my salary range). They are allowed to sub at other facilities during this time, but they need to check with me before accepting a regular class at another club, to make sure it won’t conflict with my needs. I try to give them free or reduced-cost continuing education opportunities, I offer them 24/7 online support, and I regularly check in with them to monitor their progress. As the owner of my facility, I do not charge for mentoring, but our agreement ensures that I will be paid indirectly by the new recruits’ future success.
Many program directors do not compensate mentorees for training but do pay once they start teaching. On the flip side, senior instructors assigned to mentor outside of their regular teaching times are usually compensated at a rate at or close to their hourly teaching wages. “I’ve witnessed some facilities pay a ‘meeting wage,’ which is about $12.00–$15.00 per hour, and others just assume it is a job requirement,” Bomar says. “My personal opinion is that [mentors] should be paid. They have much to offer, and their time is valuable; paying them shows respect and confidence. I also feel [it] brings a new level of commitment to your programming when your talent is able to assist with training new staff.”
Once a prospect has passed her certification test, started subbing and perfected at least one type of class, it’s very easy to stop the mentoring process. Don’t let this happen at your facility! You now have an instructor hand-trained by you and your staff, and you need to continue the process to ensure her growth (and the growth of her class numbers). One way to do this is to provide in-house training. My facility offers a monthly choreography exchange where all local instructors can share new ideas, have new moves critiqued and get help when they are having “choreographer’s block.” This is a great way to build camaraderie among instructors and keep them in a constant state of learning.
As your mentorees become more seasoned, encourage them to expand their knowledge. For example, Alex wanted to know more about teaching indoor cycling. Since my facility does not offer a cycling program, I connected her with another club in our area and she now has a cycling mentor helping her program a class. Developing a network of mentors at various facilities in your community will help deepen the pool of qualified instructors you all have to choose from. In addition, building alliances with other clubs creates a stronger fitness community.
Like many other program managers, Bomar is an avid supporter of mentoring instructors whether they are “freshly certified” instructors or just “intrigued about working with others.” “I support at least 6–12 months of mentoring and/or practical training for all new group fitness instructors,” she says. “Without it we are placing the health and wellness of individuals in the hands of lightly experienced or nonexperienced instructors. I don’t believe any new participant would be comfortable with that.”
Making the decision to mentor new talent is a big commitment. If the primary thought in your mind is “I wish I had the time to put a program like that in place,” ask yourself if you can afford not to make the time to have a mentoring program. The future success of your group exercise program (and the industry) may depend on it.
If you are a new instructor struggling to find a mentor, the easiest thing to do is attend classes in your area, find someone whose style you like and ask that person for guidance. One of the best things about this industry is people’s willingness to help. I have found many of my mentors just by striking up a conversation and asking if I could turn to them for advice. I have yet to be turned down, which is a testament to the generosity that most fitness professionals possess.
If you can’t find a local mentor, another option is to attend weekend workshops with online follow-up support. Christi Taylor of Taylor’d Fitness in Bowie, Maryland, offers a 2-day training school with online follow up.
“I make myself available by e-mail and phone for each participant after the school is over, to answer any questions and mentor if necessary.” Taylor also presents a number of preconvention options that help new instructors learn to master a new modality.
Many other fitness pros offer similar support. Try an online search for “fitness instructor mentor” and you’ll pull up several dozen organizations and individuals offering services. If your favorite instructor doesn’t list a mentoring option on her website, contact her and see if she provides this service. Keep in mind that most industry professionals will charge a mentoring fee, which you can consider an investment in your future.
Jackie Camborde is the owner of Santé Studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is a master trainer for Resist-a-Ball® and a registered yoga teacher through the Yoga Alliance. She offers mentoring services through her website, www.jackiecamborde.com.