“Linda,” a longtime member at your fitness facility, is a group exercise fanatic and has become a regular in your classes. Your friendship starts with a little chitchat. She loves your teaching style and engages you in small talk after class. As time goes on, your relationship grows. She shares stories about her family, brings in baked goods and is always nice enough to give you a small holiday gift.
Sound familiar? It’s not unusual for instructors to become friendly with members, clients and class participants. We tend to have an approachable, friendly, outgoing demeanor that helps retain participants. Most instructor-participant relationships are professional and positive; however, what if Linda’s story doesn’t stop here? What if her behavior goes too far? This article takes a look at obsessed, overzealous members and shares tips on how to stay safe and professional.
Let’s say one day Linda asks for your cellphone number. She has always been nice, and you appreciate her loyal class participation, so you exchange numbers. Soon, she texts to find out who’s subbing your class and you politely respond. The texts continue. She asks about class, other instructors and personal information about your family life. Because you live in a small community, it’s easy to find out where you live. She discovers your address and starts dropping off home-cooked meals “for your children.” You’re uncertain of her motives and feel she is crossing a line, but you let it slide—she is a member, after all.
Linda’s fascination with you grows. She attempts to monopolize your attention in class and becomes outwardly angry when you find a sub. Feeling smothered and unsure about what to do next, you try to avoid her. Finally, you bring the situation to your manager’s attention. You learn that you’re not the first instructor to complain about this member’s unorthodox behavior, and the manager directs you to human resources to document the occurrence.
This scenario with Linda is real; however, for privacy purposes, actual names are not used in this article. We work in a service-based industry that tends to be more personal than most. We talk to members and clients about weight loss struggles, physical limitations and personal goals. To some, these topics are very private and can set the stage for oversharing or the need for validation. It’s important for fitness pros to create long-lasting, personal relationships with participants and clients in order to be successful, but it’s not uncommon for members to take the relationship too far and cross the line between personal and professional.
At times that line can be blurry, making it difficult to recognize when behavior is just a bit
-friendly and when it is becoming obsessive—as in the story above. Many of Linda’s actions seemed harmless until the instructor started feeling uncomfortable. The moral: If a member continually oversteps personal boundaries, alert management, write down each occurrence and take steps to protect your privacy.
Approximately 6 years ago, “Karie” decided to expand her career and become a personal trainer. She offered free orientations and fitness assessments in an effort to gain new clients. “One day,” Karie says, “I gave an orientation to ‘Greg.’ He seemed very interested in working with me. At the time, I did not have a work-based email, so I gave him my personal email address so we could discuss and confirm appointments. Right away, he started sending me emails that had nothing to do with training—informational articles, website links, etc. I was polite, thanked him for the information and moved on.
“During our sessions, I could see in his face that he was mesmerized. I felt a bit uncomfortable, but I attributed his demeanor to a strong interest in what we were doing in the gym. I ended up training him only a few times, but he was a long-term member so I saw him often. Although he was married and I was in a relationship, he asked me to date him several times and sent me flowers each year on my birthday. There was a disturbing quality to his behavior, but I was cordial, respectfully declined his advances and thanked him for the flowers.
“Over the next few years, the personal emails continued. I found it odd that these emails referred to actual personal interests of mine. I realized that all the information he was sending corresponded closely to what I was posting on Facebook. He must have been scouring my account, because he discussed many of my current and past posts. Feeling anxious, I permanently shut down my Facebook account and sought advice from a friend who was a police officer and from my club manager. Both suggested I contact law authorities. The police came to the club and called Greg from my manager’s office. They firmly told him not to contact me or come into the club when I was there. Communication stopped, and I thought that was the end of it.
However, the problematic interactions did not stop there. “Approximately 3 years ago, Greg attempted to contact me via email,” Karie continues. “I did not respond, and again the communication stopped—until a year ago. I am now at a new club, I am not on Facebook, and I have moved. Again, I get an email. I was stunned—he knew where I worked, and where I lived, and he complimented me on my current appearance.
“He found my current place of employment and came in to inquire about membership and specifically asked about personal training. The membership representative, not knowing the history I had with this man, led him to the trainers’ picture wall. Luckily, another staff member recognized Greg and was aware of the story. She notified me about the situation and asked me to confirm his name.
“That day when leaving the club, I had a male staff member walk me to my car. I noticed a car circling the parking lot and I believe it was Greg, looking for me. The club decided to deny his membership application. I feel so fortunate to work at a club where I feel safe and know that management is looking out for my best interests.
“I have finally decided to file for a formal restraining order, as we both live locally. I have seen him at the grocery store, at the hospital and randomly around town. Each time I wonder if it’s just a coincidence or if I am being stalked. However, I can’t live in fear.”
Karie’s situation started 6 years ago and is still going on today! As fitness professionals, we are typically not educated on how to deal with obsessive behavior, but maybe we should be. At the very least, we should be aware of the warning signs and know the appropriate course of action to take.
Amanda Scanlon, MA, LCPC, owner of the Hinsdale Therapy Group, in Hinsdale, Illinois, describes an obsession as “a pattern of intrusive thoughts and ideas that preoccupy a person.”
“Obsessions are unwanted,” says Scanlon. “A person will continue to experience obsessional thinking despite a desire to rid herself of those thoughts or images, including obsessive thinking about others. When the obsessive thinking focuses on engaging in a relationship with someone, a pattern of stalking behavior may develop. Someone with delusional thinking may believe that he or she is receiving messages from a specific person who is, in reality, not directly interacting with the disturbed individual in any manner. The disturbed person may believe that it is necessary to follow or track an individual, or believe that the victim is asking for attention.
“In other situations,” Scanlon adds, “a person with unrequited love may stalk a victim in an attempt to investigate actions, reengage with a past relationship, seek revenge or gain control.”
As for the line between normal behavior and atypical or disturbed behavior, “it’s all about interference in functioning,” says Scanlon. “If obsessive thinking interferes with the ability of an individual to function normally, it’s considered unhealthy. Additionally, when the obsessive person doesn’t seem to correct behavior or take feedback from others, such as ceasing behavior after talking with law authorities, it’s a sign that the behavior is disordered.”
“To help prevent obsessive situations from developing, always interact with clients and members purely on a professional level,” advises Scanlon. For instance, if a member or client asks for your personal cellphone number, you can politely respond by stating that it’s your policy not to give out personal contact information—adding that you would be happy to offer your business number. “That will make the gray area between personal and professional much less complicated,” says Scanlon.
If you feel that someone is behaving obsessively toward you or if you encounter an obsessive relationship in the future, Scanlon recommends that you “seek help from law enforcement immediately, keep records whenever possible and remain mindful of your surroundings.”
What is Karie’s advice? “Don’t give out personal contact information. This was my first mistake. If you don’t have a club-based email or extension, set up business-only accounts. Set strict boundaries for yourself. This is a business, and you should keep your personal life out of it. This means limiting what you post on Facebook and other social media sources.
“And lastly,” Karie continues, “never rely on memory. Report suspicious behavior to your manager and document everything and anything you feel isn’t right. Always go with your gut.”
Stephanie Vlach, MS, is an ACE-certified fitness professional with extensive industry experience. Over the past 20 years, she has built a diverse resumé that includes various roles at the corporate, club, nonprofit and educational levels. Currently, she is an adjunct faculty member, a group fitness instructor and a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Reach her at [email protected]