Super Subbing

Turn last-minute requests to sub into golden opportunities to market yourself.

The phone rings at 5:00 am. I already know who is on the other end—it’s an instructor with an emergency or illness, and she is calling me for help. She knows I am the one to call in this situation: Who else wants to shift their day around to teach a 7:00 am cardio fusion class?

I’ll admit it—I love to sub. I see subbing as a way to flex my mental muscles and maybe gain a few new participants for my own classes. Subbing is how I got my start in this business (and maybe how you started, too), and now that I am well-established, it would be easy to ditch this sometimes thankless job. But I keep filling in, because any chance I have to get in front of a new group is an opportunity to further my career.

This article will show you how to ignite your passion for subbing and use it as a tool to further enhance your career. Whether you’re just getting started or you’re an industry veteran, stepping up to sub is invaluable. After all, if you ever need someone to cover your classes, it’s easier to get if you also give.

Answering the Call

Let’s start at the beginning. When you get a call to sub for someone, gather as much information as you can. You will need the basics, of course, such as the type of class and the time. But also develop some more in-depth questions for the instructor you are covering. It’s ideal if you’ve already taken (or have time to take) the class you are filling in for, but often that is not the case. Get as many details about the class as you can. How many people usually attend? What is their general fitness level? What types of music do they like and dislike? How is the sound system (mike, stereo, any glitches you might encounter)? Is there a class immediately before or after? The more information you have going in, the better you will be received.

Confidence Is King

Never walk into a subbing situation and apologize for your presence. Obviously, some people will be disappointed that their favorite instructor is missing; just remember that without you, they wouldn’t even be having class—you’re actually a lifesaver! When I started teaching, I was inevitably called to fill in for the most popular instructor in town. Sometimes there would be an audible groan when I entered the room, and people would start packing up to go. I quickly learned to insert some humor to lighten the disappointed mood. I’d say something like “Oh, I know, I’m not Josh, and frankly, guys, I’m really bad! You better just pack up and leave now. But if you give me a chance during the warm-up, you might just enjoy yourself. Let’s see!” Sympathizing with the members helps break the tension and humanizes you. You let them know you know how they feel.

Lawrence Biscontini, MA, wellness and spa consultant, shares this story: “I subbed a class . . . once for a woman who had to go get her son [who had been] on duty in Iraq. The fact that the war had just begun created tension, but it also helped put everything into perspective. Instead of complaining that they didn’t get their usual instructor, participants were grateful, and we had an amazing time because the quick discussion about the war at the start of class . . . helped lower everyone’s guard so they could get into the experience. The comment cards were amazing after that class.” Be honest with participants and give them the opportunity to feel grateful that class is going to happen (instead of frustrated that their favorite instructor is absent). This helps set a good tone for class.

Be Yourself

When interviewing fitness professionals for this article, I asked, “What is the one thing you wish a sub would do when covering a class?” The overwhelming response was “Be yourself.” Even though you are filling in for someone else and your style may not be exactly the same, that’s okay. Stay authentic and true to yourself. This helps your comfort level and gives you better command of class.

Another way to make sure you are keeping it real is to take sub assignments only for class modalities that you’re comfortable with. If you never teach hip-hop but have taken some workshops in that arena, it might not be in your best interest to fill in for this class. Find out if one of your areas of expertise would suit this group, or pass on the assignment. Remember, one of the reasons you are subbing is to highlight your skills to a new group of people. You don’t want to crash and burn.

Sandy Navarro, employee wellness coordinator at Holland Hospital in Holland, Michigan, adds that she hopes her subs are “able to teach the appropriate class for multiple levels. It is difficult these days to find an all-around instructor who can teach many different types of classes. I often need to change the class based on what the instructor is able to teach.” Find out which classes are most popular in your area and attend workshops that will help you hone your skills to tailor them to your club’s needs.

Arrive Early and Stay Late

The more time you have to meet participants and talk to them before and after class, the more rapport you build. Remember, these are potential students for your own classes. Taking time to ask questions before class gives you an opportunity to discover participants’ likes and dislikes and find out how everyone is feeling.

Stay after class to answer questions and chat. This helps clients learn more about you and your teaching style and gives you the opportunity to talk up your own classes. Remember, people who attend classes are social beings (otherwise they would just head for the treadmill). They want to make a connection with you and want to know that you are interested in making a connection with them.

Promote Yourself

It’s important to make some clarification before we get into promotion: most facilities will allow you to promote your classes on their schedule only. If you teach at multiple clubs with multiple owners, make it a point to promote your classes only at the facility where you are subbing. Instructors in my area have been fired for trying to pull members to another facility where they teach. Give participants the benefit of the doubt—if they really want to know where you teach, they will find you.

It’s important during the class you are covering to keep self-promotion to a minimum. Hopefully, your teaching skills will speak loud and clear, and interested parties will seek you out after class. Being available afterward is one of the easiest ways to promote yourself. Bring a handful of group exercise schedules to class with your regular classes circled or highlighted and give them out to anyone who expresses an interest.

Another option is to get some business cards from your club and print your teaching times on the back. You can also print some personal business cards with your schedule. This is an easy way to let members know when they can work out with you (and a great way to attract new prospects outside the club to your classes!). Be sure to point out classes you teach that are similar to the one you covered, as well as any classes that set you apart from other instructors. Many of my clients come to the studio knowing I am a yoga teacher, but with no idea that I also teach dance, stability ball and other modalities. I make a point of inviting them to try out several different types of classes with me, which has helped many of my clients cross over and attend a wider range of classes.

If you teach group exercise and are also a personal trainer, it’s important when subbing that you keep the emphasis on group fitness. You can always promote your training skills when you are on your own turf. This is the best way to be respectful of the regular instructor.

Follow Up

Many subs drop the ball on following up. After the class, it’s imperative to call the instructor you subbed for and tell him or her about your experience—report on how class went, any glitches that came up and anything else you feel is pertinent. Thank the instructor for giving you the opportunity and let him or her know your availability for the next time help is needed.

It’s a good idea to check in with club management as well. Leave your availability with the fitness director; this sets you apart as someone who is reliable and professional. This is especially important if you are a newer instructor. Many managers reward instructors who are eager, prepared and willing to fill in for others. If you want your own class at the facility where you sub, showing this level of professionalism may tip the scales in your favor. Don’t forget to call and thank the program manager for the opportunity; this helps set you apart as someone who has a stake in the program’s success.

The Manager’s Wish List

Whether you’re subbing at your regular facility or a new one, it’s important to know who is in charge of the group exercise program and to engage that person. It is vital to your success to know what management expects of you as a substitute (or a regular on the schedule). In compiling this article, I heard many manager requests repeated over and over again: be on time, be prepared, be engaged and be engaging (see the sidebar “Sublime Subbing Suggestions” for more wishes from group fitness managers).

On the flip side, managers wish that instructors who need subs would be more proactive in finding them. Most of the facilities I spoke with leave subbing to instructors, which sometimes leads to last-minute juggling. “I believe it is very important that instructors take responsibility for [finding coverage],” says Christi Taylor, international presenter and chief operating officer for Taylor’d Fitness in Sedona, Arizona. “I know many coordinators who are burdened because instructors don’t take responsibility as they should.” Find a sub as soon as you have dates you know will need coverage. Waiting until the last minute causes undue stress for both the manager and whoever ultimately fills in for you.

Reap the Rewards

When you make an effort and treat your subbing experience the same way you would your own class, the rewards can be fantastic. You have the opportunity to bring a whole new roster of clients to your own classes, and you now have a grateful instructor who owes you next time you need coverage.

The best part of subbing for me is that it takes me out of my comfort zone. Teaching in front of a new group makes me think about the clarity of my cues, the energy level I bring and how I interact with the class. All instructors need this type of exercise every once in a while—it makes us stronger and, ultimately, better teachers. So the next time you get a 5:00 am wake-up call, answer the phone and cover the class!

SIDEBAR: Sublime Subbing Suggestions

Here are some tips and lamentations from the pros:

“I used to have a difficult time finding subs for my classes when I [traveled]. My students can be very hard on subs. I hear this all the time from other presenters as well. To resolve this issue I would typically pay subs twice their rate to sub for me. Then, it’s not hard at all to find a sub. Problem solved!”

—Christi Taylor, international fitness presenter, Sedona, Arizona

“[Never] walk in with an apologetic tone; have enough self-confidence that maybe—just maybe—you are as good as or better than the regularly scheduled instructor.”

—Lawrence Biscontini, wellness and spa consultant, Fajardo, Puerto Rico

“I have found that it is better to have a regular backup for each class [on my schedule]. It has taken out the hassle of trying to find a sub. Instructors work it out between them and just let me know who is doing what day. That makes it so easy!”

—Monica F. Turner, metropolitan training director, YMCA of Central Ohio

“Reciprocate. Plan further in advance. Elevate the benefits of [a variety of] instructors.”

—Carol Murphy, owner and fitness director of FitLife, Rochester, New York

Jackie Camborde is the owner of Santé Fitness Studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is a master trainer for Resist-A-Ball® and an international fitness presenter. Contact her at www.jackiecamborde.com.

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Jackie Camborde

IDEA Author/Presenter
Jackie Camborde has been teaching group fitness classes for over 14 years. She owns Santé Studio in... more less
May 2008

© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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