How to Deal With Class Cliques

by Shannon Fable on Apr 19, 2015

Skills and Drills

Sometimes high-school drama finds its way into the group exercise studio.

High school may have felt like the toughest time in your life. Navigating the social cliques was mentally draining and often confusing. After graduation, you hoped all that was behind you; however, fast-forward to modern-day group fitness studios and you may find yourself reliving some of your worst nightmares. While the drama may not be as intense, there are still situations that require delicate handling.

We’ll dissect a few personality archetypes and uncover tools to help you cope. Each type requires subtle differences in your teaching approach. Your goals are to enhance the relationships you have with these amazing people—each with a unique life story— and learn to work better with a diverse group. Note: This article focuses on female dynamics, as portrayed in the movie Mean Girls (2004) and Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes (Three Rivers 2003). The intention is not to exclude men, who may exhibit similar patterns.

Cliques and Groups

Mean Girls is about a group of highschool girls navigating the complicated landscape of popularity and the resulting daily angst. The movie was based (in part) on Wiseman’s book, which looks at female high-school social cliques and the damaging effects they can have on young girls.

Here’s how Wiseman breaks down the typical roles girls assume within cliques:

Queen Bee (QB). The QB is charismatic, forceful, pretty and manipulative. She is popular, exudes power and is the center of attention.

Sidekick. She is second in command and closest to the QB. Her power is tied up in this relationship. The good news: When separated from the QB, she can change her behavior for the better!

Banker. This archetype creates chaos by keeping track of the “dirt.” She gains trust by dishing the details, but then uses what she knows for her own benefit when the time is right. She’s hard to detect because she’s quiet, yet strategic, and almost never the subject of group quarrels.

Floater. This is the one who associates with more than one group. She is respected because she doesn’t rule by meanness, and, if needed, she will stand up to the QB.

Torn Bystander. She is conflicted and constantly torn between doing the right thing and being loyal to the group. She’s often in the middle of conflict because she apologizes for the behavior of the QB and sidekick. However, she knows they’re wrong.

Pleaser/Wannabe/Messenger. Sometimes this archetype is part of the group and, other times, she’s on the outside trying to get in. She will do anything to gain acceptance from the QB and sidekick, and her motivation is to please others. Unfortunately, she sometimes gets tricked into doing the dirty work.

Target. The target is the victim and is made fun of, excluded and teased. There are upsides to being the target—she learns empathy and understanding for the underdog, and as she gets through to the other side, she gains objectivity. Unfortunately, the rejection often makes her feel helpless and ashamed.

Do these roles sound familiar? It’s important to realize we all played one (or more) of these, whether we knew it or not. We certainly carry the lessons learned with us. Now, these Queen Bees and Wannabes are in your classes! Some of them may feel as if they were back in the high-school cafeteria looking for a place to sit when they walk into the studio.

How different would your interactions with members be if you understood that stepping into a group fitness class might bring back these memories? That the interaction could fire up roles played in high school or send people scrambling for a “do-over”? How might you change your teaching style if you realized you had the potential to slip into one of these roles yourself? While you can’t please everyone all the time, you can be more aware of what’s happening sociologically in your classes.

To begin, take a look at the archetypes described above and ask yourself these questions:

  • Which role did I play?
  • What lessons did I learn?
  • How would I change things if I could?
  • How might my past be affecting me now?

Awareness is the first step in changing the way you deal with more difficult members. It may also steer you toward teaching different class formats, in other time slots or at new facilities. Now, let’s look at how your unique perspective complements or clashes with the roles participants play in your classes.

Front-Row Frowner

Every class has a core group of participants (sometimes only one or two) who plant themselves in the front row, maybe even crowding your space. These ultracompetitive overachievers might “up-level” in minute 2 of the warm-up, jog in place during recoveries, or let you know when you’ve done something wrong. Wannabe instructors hang out here (self-disclosure—this was me 20 years ago), and they may not realize they’re distracting. They want to be noticed and were most likely QBs.

Teacher Strategy:

  • Assume their competitive nature is necessary for them to achieve their goals. In other words, it’s coming from a good place!
  • Avoid wasting your breath on explanations, which may just frustrate you more. Focus on the people who need you.
  • Turn them into allies. Chat with them before class, and give them “assignments.” Designate them as advanced-level demonstrators and give them a sneak peek at the day’s plan. Always thank them for how hard they work and for setting a great example.

“My Space” Maven

These gals arrive early and mark their territories. Their area is set up before you’ve even cued up your music, and they often even get you ready! My Space Mavens may save space for their buddies and freak out if someone is in “their spot.” They are experienced, good at technique, cheerful and vocal. You love them in the moment, but fear having to negotiate their disputes if the bike under the fan has been taken by (gasp!) a newbie. They were probably the Sidekicks in high school and long to feel special, in the know and part of the group.

Teaching Stategy:

  • Assume their territorial behavior has more to do with ventilation, line of sight or the desire to feel comfortable.
  • Turn them into the welcoming committee. Enlist their help in setting up new class members with equipment and the class overview. When possible, give them insider information to make them feel special.
  • It’s going to happen—someone will take one of those coveted spots. Try to help the My Space Maven settle in somewhere else. Make a big deal about how gracious she is, and help the “offender” feel better about the situation.

Social Butterfly

You may lovingly refer to Social Butterflies as “Chatty Cathies.” Their conversations are poorly timed, whether they’re with a friend on the bike next to them or a person on the other end of the cellphone (texting counts). Social Butterflies are probably the toughest to deal with because they genuinely want to be in your class and are usually regulars, but they can be extremely distracting to others.

Teaching strategy:

  • Assume they want to be there and are unaware that they’re a distraction.
  • Avoid passive-aggressive cues (“If you’re talking right now, you’re obvi- ously not in Zone 3,” with a raised eyebrow, stern voice and piercing gaze). Chances are, they don’t even know you’re talking to them!
  • Do not badmouth them to others.
  • Deal with the situation by chatting with them in the moment. Get the class on a task and, with microphone away from your mouth, gently pat them on the back or the hand, ask if something’s wrong and give them permission to step out and finish the conversation. Otherwise, talk with them after class.

Constant Complainer

Oh how we love the fingers in the ears when the music is too loud and the whirl of the finger to signal the fans need to come on. Constant Complainers might include Miss Misoneist (fancy term for someone who fears change)—the one who picks up her stuff and exits when a sub walks in, or rolls her eyes when you suggest the tiniest of equipment or workout changes. She was mostly likely the Banker in high school.

Teaching strategy:

  • Assume Constant Complainers are vocal because they passionately care about you, their workout and the club.
  • Don’t ignore them, because if you do, they tend to get more vocal. Remember, defending your position or trying to explain the situation may only make you more frustrated because many times you cannot fix the problem.
  • Own the situation and be empathetic. Give your full attention (in private, if possible), instead of dismissing the complaint. Emphasize that you hear what they’re saying and you understand where they’re coming from. Explain why whatever they want can’t happen right now, and give them options for resolving their issue. Tell them what you can do to help.

Your Best Friend Forever (BFF)

You love to hate the BFF. On the one hand, participants of this type are your biggest supporters and chief cheerlead- ers. They fight your battles, sing your praises in the locker room and gener- ally make you feel great. The downside is they sometimes monopolize your time. Before and after class, they simply need to be near you. They have ques- tions, stories and gossip. Most likely, these gals were Sidekicks or Pleasers/ Wannabes/Messengers.

Teaching strategy:

  • Know that they just want to be part of the group!
  • Don’t ignore a BFF, but put time constraints on the conversation. For example, say: “I have to clear out for the next teacher. I have 2 minutes to chat in the hall, or can I meet you 5 minutes before class tomorrow?”
  • Make them feel special at the beginning of any conversation and try to connect them with others.

Just Happy to Be Here

These pleasant participants (and former Floaters) happily set up shop in the mid- dle and back rows. They don’t arrive too early or stay too late, but they are consis- tent. Without having a conversation, you don’t know their goals or motivations, which can be dangerous. Many times they avoid working very hard, take extra long breaks, or do something completely different from what you planned. While this can drive you crazy, approach this group delicately.

Teaching strategy:

  • Assume they’re doing what’s right for them. Honor that!
  • Avoid pushing them to work harder. Your intention may be good, but if what they’re doing is working for them, pressure from you might feel judgmental and pushy.
  • Seek out meaningful conversations and ask what more you can do for them.

Silent Sufferer

Silent sufferers sneak in as close to start time as possible, hope to go unnoticed and have more questions than you will ever be able to answer. They are terrified of being singled out, but in desperate need of education, information and motivation. Sometimes they look just like the “just happy to be here” group, and it may be hard to distinguish between the two. A Silent Sufferer may have been a target, or may be one now. You can empower and change the life of a Silent Sufferer if you manage the situation with grace.

Teaching strategy:

  • Assume that everyone is a Silent Sufferer in some way. Therefore, each person deserves a personal touch alongside a healthy dose of empathy (not sympathy).
  • Avoid teaching in a “follow the leader” style. Rather, be a coach who provides several different ways to achieve the end goal.
  • With those who avoid eye contact, try to break through, in a delicate way, by standing at the back door or helping them put away their equipment. Talk about things other than the class or exercise; for example, their outfit, shoes, kids or neutral subjects.

Of course, you must also recognize that “you can’t fix crazy” (thank you, Julz Arney, president of Team Arney Inc., for giving me this nugget long ago, thus allowing me to keep my sanity). There are times when you simply must turn a blind eye (unless someone is doing something harmful) and focus your efforts on the ones who are begging for your attention!

Arney also has this advice for coaching other women: “Be approachable— and that doesn’t just mean be friendly. It means knowing how to ask open-ended questions and become an excellent listener. We must take off our expert/ problem-solver hat every once and a while and simply let other women feel heard.”

Want more from Shannon Fable?

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About the Author

Shannon Fable

Shannon Fable IDEA Author/Presenter

Shannon Fable, 2013 IDEA and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year, is the VP of Fitness Programming for the FIT4MOM® franchise. For more than two decades, she has helped impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, Schwinn®, Power Systems, ACE, Silver Sneakers, and BOSU® as a fitness business and programming consultant. An experienced educator, freelance writer, and certified Book Yourself Solid® Business Coach, she helps fitness entrepreneurs navigate the industry and make more money. Fable serves as Chair of the ACE Board of Directors and is the founder and co-owner of GroupEx PRO®, a cloud-based group fitness management tool.