5 Things You Must Get Right to Succeed in Fitness

by Dan McDonogh on May 06, 2016

An IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year outlines his recipe for success, from mastering technique to perpetually learning.

Niels Bohr, 1922 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, defined an expert as “someone who has made all the mistakes there are to make in a very narrow field.” By that definition, I’m definitely an expert!

I can’t count how many mistakes I’ve made in 16 years in this incredible industry. But I have taken time to reflect on my mistakes, so as to make better decisions in the future. What have I gotten wrong over the years?

  • trying to be a jack-of-all-trades
  • designing programs that only the highly conditioned could achieve
  • not asking the right questions at the right time

And much more. Of course, I still make mistakes these days—I just make fewer of them and with less consequence. We can’t grow if we don’t consider the sources and outcomes of our mistakes.

In 2012, IDEA named me Fitness Instructor of the Year. Shortly afterward, a close friend and colleague, Fraser Quelch, asked me why I won the award and suggested I present my reply to the TRX® Instructor Summit.

Beyond saying I have passion for what I do, I couldn’t answer Fraser’s question at first. But I reflected on it and put my thoughts on paper. I thought no one would really be interested, but it turned out I was wrong. The response was great, and that talk back in late 2012 turned into a topic I have discussed at conferences around the globe.

The topic is “Five Ingredients to Success as a Fitness Professional.” I believe people—especially those just entering the business—gravitate to this subject because they need help navigating what can be a very overwhelming industry.

These are my five ingredients:

  1. Developing Mastery
  2. Making It All About Them
  3. Becoming a Coach
  4. Being Yourself
  5. Learning All the Time

Let’s dive into each of these in more detail:

1. Developing Mastery

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. —Bruce Lee, actor and martial arts expert (1940–1973)

People aspire to be like you and to move like you. You need to be a role model for great technique in everything you teach. Great technique truly inspires others. The trouble is, the more formats you teach, the harder it is to master any of them. Fatigue from teaching too much can make you forget your choreography. Or you simply don’t have enough time to practice when you’re learning a lot of formats.

While group fitness is not like surgery, where fatigue or loss of focus could have major consequences, you still want your participants to get the best of you. Are you giving your clients your best? Are you in the moment every time you teach?

Early in my career, I tried to be everything to everyone. I took on all possible clients, regardless of their goals or personalities, and I tried to teach several group fitness formats just because they were hot at the time.

Two words: big mistake!

Some might say I needed to make that mistake to find my passion or my niche. But as I look back now, I wish I had relied on more than gut instinct to choose clients and group fitness formats. I should’ve been thinking more about where my experiences and interests lay.

After a few years of trying to master several group fitness formats because they were popular, I finally recognized I was really good at teaching only a few of them. That’s what put me on the path to mastery. Here’s how you can do it:

Limit Your Formats

Mastery happens when you are teaching three or fewer formats. For the past 12 years, I have essentially been teaching three types of group fitness: indoor cycling, TRX® Suspension Training® and athletic conditioning. These formats are in my wheelhouse. Have I dabbled in a few others? Yes. But I quickly saw that adding more caused me stress. For example, during my Les Mills® career, I absolutely loved BODY BALANCE™. It was great for my body, and it was one of the only times I was able to shut my mind off. I loved it so much that I decided to start teaching it.

Trouble cropped up when I tried to role-model the technique. All my years of cycling and sagittal-plane movement meant that I simply could not demonstrate a good portion of the poses. Regardless of whether participants enjoyed my classes, I knew I would never master the format, because of my physical limitations. I stopped teaching BODY BALANCE after a short while.

Teach What You Care About

It helps to teach formats that relate to a sporting passion or hobby. Experiences you gain from these activities will influence your language and the way you coach. Nothing teaches like real experience.

For example, cycling on roads or trails will help you teach a better indoor cycling class. You understand what it feels like to climb a mountain, ride into a headwind or catch a draft. I truly believe that I have been able to master indoor cycling not only because I spent 4 years as a program director for an indoor cycling program, but also because of my years of experience training and competing as a cyclist.

2. Making It All About Them

We need to create an environment that promotes inspiration, not insecurity. —Dan McDonogh

When I started teaching, in 2001, I felt I had something to prove. I was at the peak of my athletic career as a competitive cyclist, my focus was razor sharp, and my training had one purpose: to win.

For some stupid reason, I assumed everyone wanted to train that way. I remember very early in my indoor cycling career getting on the bike and basically using my classes as personal workouts. I was superfit and proud of it, so why not show everyone, right?

Then I got my first feedback session from my manager. That helped me realize that my approach to teaching was not in sync with why most people were coming to group fitness classes. Yes, they came to be inspired by fit instructors—I ticked that box—but they also came to be guided to a place they couldn’t reach on their own.

These tips will help you make the experience all about the client:

Cover All Levels

No matter which format you teach or what program you create, you should be able to accommodate all fitness levels. It’s easy to teach to the superfit, but it’s a lot more challenging to teach to those who are not fit.

Does your plan give people who are less fit or less coordinated an opportunity to feel more successful and to share in the group experience? For example, if you are teaching an interval-based program and a participant has not recovered in time for the next interval, do you offer that person the option to take more recovery and then join the group on the subsequent one?

On the flip side, if a participant is finding an exercise too easy in a circuit-style class, can you challenge that person by giving a progression on the spot without missing a beat?

Nowadays, I design my programs to accommodate anybody who walks through the door (barring someone with a major injury). This approach hasn’t failed me yet.

Tell People What’s Coming

Taking 2 minutes at the beginning of your class to explain your class plan can go a long way toward making participants comfortable and getting them excited. People like to know exactly what they are in for. They may know the name of the class, but does the name describe what will happen during the session? Here’s a sample class intro that I use:

“Welcome, everyone. My name is Dan. Today this full-body workout will be 45 minutes long. We will be doing five blocks of work. Each block of work will have five movements that are 1 minute in length. We will do one mobility movement, one stability movement, and two strength-based movements—one for lower body and one for upper body then we will finish each block with an agility movement.

“There will be 30 seconds of rest between movements and a 1-minute rest between blocks. Each block will build in complexity and intensity. There will always be an option to regress a movement should you feel that’s best for you. At the end, we will take 10 minutes to focus on some flexibility movements, to make sure you leave the class feeling open and uplifted.”

Sharing that detailed plan with your participants provides clarity on what they will be doing at any point in the class. The plan not only gives them direction; it also allows you to quiz them at any point to see if they are in the moment. For example: “Okay, we have just finished our third block of work. How many are left?” When they answer, participants get a sense of ownership. I use this tactic often, to be sure my clients stay connected to the program.

3. Becoming a Coach

It’s not what you know that matters; it’s what you can coach. —Chris Frankel, TRX® director of human performance

One dictionary definition of a coach is “a person who is responsible for managing or training a person or team.” While most people associate a coach with a sporting team, you can now find life coaches and nutrition coaches, so why not a coach in the gym/studio?

There is a massive difference between an instructor and a coach. Instructors may be masters of what they are teaching, but they must also be able to communicate that mastery in a way that ensures clients or class participants walk away feeling they have learned something. Here are some suggestions on moving from instructor to coach:

Be Honest

Don’t tell your participants they’re doing a great job if they’re not. I see this all too often, especially in group fitness classes, “You guys look terrific! Keep up the great work!” And as I look around the room, I see bad technique all around me.

The group deserves your honest feedback. If your comments are not true, then you are doing more harm than good. Your participants want to know if they are doing something incorrectly. Give them not only a great experience but also a positive learning environment.

Ask Questions

In place of telling participants to do something, ask them if they did it. This puts the onus on them to take responsibility. For example, instead of saying, “Make sure you find your alignment before moving,” try saying, “Did you find your alignment before moving?”

Because you have asked them a question, they now have to answer, both to themselves and to you. If you see a client or participant actively make a change in his or her movements, you will know you’ve made a connection.

When you look past the skills you teach and see the person you have to work with, then you’ve begun to make the transition from instructor to coach.

4. Being Yourself

I’ve failed over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed. —Michael Jordan, American basketball player

It’s natural to make mistakes. If you take a misstep or lose your train of thought, or if you try to demonstrate an exercise and it doesn’t go well, it’s not a catastrophe. In fact, it shows you are human.

Often, our participants place us on a pedestal and think we don’t make mistakes. When we do err, it removes a barrier between them and us. Here are some strategies to help you keep a healthy perspective:

Keep It Real

Don’t try to be someone you’re not. When teaching, avoid language other people are using. Find your way, your own style.

This is particularly important if you are teaching prechoreographed formats that come with master-class DVDs. When I was program director for RPM™ with Les Mills®, I was responsible for many master-class DVDs. I had my own style of coaching and my own favorite catchphrases. Time and again, I would find myself in a live class with an instructor who was using my quotes or mimicking my style of delivery. It just didn’t fit.

You have to be you. Being yourself helps to build class numbers and forge relationships that extend beyond the class.

Laugh at Yourself

I can’t emphasize this enough. At the end of the day, no one really cares if you mess up your choreography or lose form on an exercise because you chose too much load. It happens to everyone.

Early in my career I would apologize, and I may do so now, but I can also crack a joke or make light of the situation. This can be a chance to share some levity and show your human side, which will engage your clients even more.

5. Learning All the Time

The only way I get better is to assume that I did it wrong the last time. —Unknown

Once you have chosen your craft or established your wheelhouse, so to speak, growth starts in earnest. You spend more time planning programs or learning choreography, and everything you do behind the scenes enhances how you teach. Hopefully, you set aside time at least once a year to attend a conference and you choose sessions and speakers that match your interests.

I can’t remember who said it, but I found it quite profound when I heard somebody say, “If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.” These suggestions will help you become even better at what you do:

Use Video

I have never found anything more valuable than watching my teaching/coaching on video. The camera does not lie: It reveals the things you say and any technique issues you might have.

I distinctly remember watching a class of mine on videotape and counting myself saying the word “guys” more than 20 times in one 50-minute cycle class. I also favored talking to or making eye contact with only the right side of the room. How does that sound? What do clients think? I guarantee you will notice things you had no idea you were saying and doing. Once you notice the things you need to change, embrace them and use them to refine your craft.

Work With Great People

It took me several years to understand that meaningful growth happened when I started associating myself with people I could learn from. I went out of my way to ensure I was never the smartest person in the room. When you leave your ego at the door and open yourself to learning, you can transform your practice. My 6 years at TRX provided me with the most profound growth of my career. I worked daily alongside some of the best minds in the industry, and every day, they challenged me, forcing me to be better. Who are your mentors? Do the people you work with give energy, or do they take it? Do they challenge you to be better and do better? Do you spend more time listening or more time talking?

Finding the Right Path

I hope that one or more of my ideas will resonate with you. Even now, I am constantly practicing in the one area where I see the greatest need to improve. Some days I focus on one key ingredient more than the others, and sometimes when I present at conferences or I am educating other fitness pros, I aim to demonstrate all five. I do my best to approach every class I teach as if it were my last, and to approach everything I do in my career as if someone wanted my job. Not because I am fearful, but because I simply want to do everything in my power to be the best for others. This wasn’t always my goal, but I am glad that somewhere along the way I found the proper path.

Fitness Journal, Volume 13, Issue 6

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About the Author

Dan McDonogh

Dan McDonogh IDEA Author/Presenter

Dan is currently the Senior Leader of Training on the Global Athlete Performance Team for Under Armour based in Portland, OR. One of his main responsibilities is to ensure that UA has a unified & authentic message around Training in Health, Fitness & Performance globally. Previously, he has played key roles with two other major global brands, TRX & Les Mills International. In July of 2015, Dan was one of three finalists for 'Program Director of the Year' and in 2012, he was awarded the 'Group Fitness Instructor of the Year' from IDEA Health and Fitness Association.