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Cohesive Training Courts New Instructors

Theresa Stelly, director of Pilates for Spectrum Clubs of Santa Barbara, shares the finer points of mentor programs.

As the fitness industry grows and ages, many people have noticed a gap between “veteran” instructors, who have been teaching for 10 years and longer, and “newbies,” group fitness professionals who are just getting started. This has led many to voice concerns over the future of group exercise. To address this issue, IDEA Fitness Journal began running a new column in January, highlighting university and mentorship programs that focus on educating this new breed of instructor. Our hope is to discover, together, what we as an industry can do to support and foster continuing and robust growth in this important area of health and wellness.

Theresa Stelly is the director of Pilates for Spectrum Clubs of Santa Barbara, California. She has 25 years of experience to pull from when hiring and training new instructors, and has learned through trial and error the nuances that are most successful. Read on to find out more about Stelly’s experiences with mentor programs.

Please share some details about your mentor program.
Our approach has evolved over the years as our group fitness program needs have changed. Because more classes require specialized certifications, we have had to branch out in our mentor training. All of our potential hires teach a class for the group fitness director. If they are hired, we give them a 90-day trial period before they are eligible for permanent employment. During this time, we mentor and train new hires on an individual basis, depending on what they are hired to teach.

We also have had an ongoing partnership with the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), fitness instruction minor program. During the winter quarter, qualified interns are matched up with a veteran instructor for 10 weeks. At the end of the 10 weeks, we check in with the master instructor to see if the student is a potential hire. If so, we encourage the student to apply and then follow the above protocol until we feel he is ready to teach on his own.

Was your program created out of need or was it more entrepreneurial? What have been the biggest challenges?
We are always looking for new instructors, and we review potential applicants regularly. Our biggest challenge is finding and recruiting experienced instructors who can teach multiple class formats. If we find an intern who shows particular promise, we are willing to devote the time needed to train this person. Since our clubs are in an expensive area (Santa Barbara), we are also faced with the additional challenge of keeping instructors in this region. Housing is quite expensive here, and new instructor salaries are modest at best.

How and where do you recruit people for your program? What qualifications do they need to have?
Although we have a solid base of veteran instructors, we are always looking for “new blood” to keep the program growing. Because of the specialization of many programs (yoga, Pilates, indoor cycling, group power, etc.), we also seek out and train potential new hires by hosting certifications in the particular class format where we have the greatest need. Upon successful completion of the training, we hire instructors who meet our qualifications and who can complete the certification. Generally, we continue to mentor a newly certified instructor until we feel she is ready to teach on her own.

Do you offer some type of compensation for mentorees? What about mentors?
Since our interns are mentoring with a veteran instructor, they are not paid until they are “released” to teach their own classes. The students coming from UCSB receive a weekly written evaluation. Since the mentoring instructor is investing a lot of his or her time in an intern, we feel it’s only fair to provide compensation to the mentor.

Do you require some sort of financial or time commitment from mentorees? What about exclusivity or long-term loyalty?
No, we no longer require exclusivity.

Do you offer mentorees a job when they finish their internship, or is the mentoring separate from the hiring process?
We do not guarantee employment upon completion of an internship. Sometimes, an intern will decide not to pursue group fitness as a career, and sometimes the master instructor feels the trainee is not right for our facility. Occasionally, we encourage an intern to get a little more experience in a smaller, less demanding facility, then come back and reapply.

If your mentoring program focuses mainly on new instructors, is there a component that focuses on class design and format?
Our interns usually come in with a class type or format in mind that they feel is their strength (e.g., kickboxing, Pilates or step). If we hire someone, we then encourage him to begin to expand his repertoire by taking advantage of in-house trainings and certifications. We remind our instructors that the more formats they can teach, the more work opportunities they will have.

Do you offer help (financial or otherwise) with certification training? Why or why not?
When we were owned by Gold’s Gym, our instructors were reimbursed for certifications and additional trainings after their first year of employment. This financial compensation increased with the number of years they worked for [Gold’s] as well as the number of class formats they taught. Now that we are owned by Spectrum Clubs, [instructors] do not receive any compensation for trainings or additional certifications. That being said, instructors’ hourly pay rate is slightly higher.

How do members benefit from your program?
This is a tough one, because we need our interns to have “real” class experiences, but our members tend to dread it. It’s hard to go from a 15-year veteran instructor to a student instructor from UCSB who only has classroom experience. As a result, we move the interns to different days, times and classes when possible after their initial mentorship to help prevent member burnout. Also, if the master teacher feels that the intern is leading a class she is not really qualified for, or is floundering and greatly affecting the members’ experiences, we don’t hesitate to pull that intern from the class. If possible, we place her in another class. As a business, we are always mindful of our paying constituency. Ultimately, members benefit from our internship program because new hires allow us to maintain and expand our class programming as well as infuse fresh, new enthusiasm.

What advice can you offer for other group exercise managers who are thinking about starting a mentorship program?
I think the most important ingredient when implementing and maintaining a mentor program is to have enthusiastic, qualified staff working with your interns. If you have a grouchy master instructor, both the members and the intern will sense that this is not going to be a successful experience. If possible, have one staff person be the point of contact; this helps ensure commitment to the program. You don’t want trainees getting a lot of mixed messages and advice from several different people. The more cohesive the program, the more successful it will be!

Joy Keller

Joy Keller is the director of marketing communications & PR at IDEA, and has also served as executive editor of IDEA Fitness Journal, IDEA Fitness Manager, IDEA Pilates Today, and IDEA Fit Business Success. She is also a certified personal trainer, indoor cycling instructor and yoga teacher (RYT 200).

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