How to Thrive as an Introverted Instructor
Let your positive personality characteristics shine when you teach class.
When people think of a group fitness instructor, they likely picture a “cheerleader” type. An outgoing, enthusiastic performer. In other words, an extrovert. However, the reason that so-called extroverted qualities are typically associated with an instructor is because many people hold a misconception about what being an introvert really means. Being introverted is not necessarily the same thing as being shy or quiet, although some introverts are. According to popular personality theory, extroverts get energy from social interaction, whereas introverts get energy from privately reflecting on their thoughts and feelings (Pickren 2009). That sensitivity can make for an excellent instructor.
If you’re an introvert who never dreamed you could be an effective instructor, you are not alone. Luckily, there’s a place for everyone at the front of the room. Even if you have made it over the initial obstacle of facing a crowd looking at you for direction, you may still encounter challenges. How do introverted instructors excel? Read on for tips on how to get to the head of the class.
The Accidental Instructor
The majority of the introverted instructors we spoke with never imagined that group fitness would be their calling. While a wide variety of circumstances were responsible for the opportunity, every one of these fitness pros said it was the best thing that had happened to them.
Drew Vanover, who teaches tae kwon do and yoga in both group and private sessions in Tarrytown, New York, felt pressured to become an instructor when he hit a certain rank in his own martial arts training. “The unspoken rule is that you start to give back, but I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not really me.’” His mentors encouraged him, and “Little by little I got sucked in,” he recalls.
Instructor Anastasiya Goers of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, describes herself as a classic introvert. “When I was growing up, I always enjoyed solitude, reading books and studying. I found it draining to be around large groups of people. I was never a social butterfly.”
She started taking fitness classes as a teen and realized she loved the energy— and loved how, as an introvert, it allowed her to express herself. One week her instructor asked her to sub, and despite her initial trepidation, she enjoyed it more than she had anticipated. “The more I became interested in health-related issues, the more I wanted to share with others,” she recalls, adding that this fueled her interest in her current career.
Build Your Confidence
Many introverts deal with social anxiety. This doesn’t have to stymie you. Christine Gallagher, Philadelphia-based owner and creator of the Red Hot Dance Fitness program, recommends rehearsing your routines until they are second nature. “Knowing what you’re going to present is important. If you’re unsure about the material or music, you will be overly focused on yourself. Your performance anxiety will lessen if you feel at ease with the routine.”
Goers advises teaching classes that you are passionate about, since that is where you shine. “Even though I can teach lots of different types of classes, I prefer to focus on Pilates because the more mindful aspects of it are closer to my introverted nature.”
Leverage Your Introversion
There’s no need to pretend to be extroverted. Just be who you are. “You’re there to be a guide, not to be an entertainer, or to show off how flexible you are,” observes Jasmine Kaloudis, who teaches yoga in Philadelphia. “In fact, you do your students a favor when you hold back a little. Students can get hung up on comparing themselves to the teacher, and that can make them less confident.” She also finds that her quiet nature contributes to the class vibe. “The less you say, the more you can allow your students to focus on themselves rather than you.”
Adds Gallagher: “I don’t hoot or holler like some of my favorite instructors, but I’ve realized over the years that many people enjoy my calmer teaching style.”
Practice Connecting With the Class
It’s important to recognize and connect with your students, which can be difficult for introverts. One way to do that is by learning their names. Fort Lauderdale, Florida, instructor Maria Pontillo shares that when she was starting out, she got to know the names of at least one or two students and gave them positive reinforcement during class. “It creates that relationship and allows them to feel more comfortable too.”
How do you find out their names? Pontillo usually goes the direct route, meeting a couple of people after the class to learn their names. But she admits to a handy trick for classes like indoor cycling, where participants sign up in advance: “Surreptitiously check out a few names and then call them out during class. You don’t even have to know who is who when you do it; you’ll figure it out pretty quickly.”
She also recommends finding regular students on social media, if both parties are comfortable with it. “You can scope them out and start to recognize their faces and what interests them. Teaching the class is more comfortable when you feel as though you have friends out there.”
Zawadi Barskile—who teaches at the Garner, North Carolina, Senior Center— concurs. “If I know at least a handful of names, it gives me the illusion, so to speak, of having a close group of friends in the class.”
Veteran instructors realize they didn’t acquire their confidence over-night. Pontillo says she was a “face the mirror” instructor for a long time. Not only was it easier not to have to do the routine in reverse, but she didn’t feel as though she was staring at her class.
“But, you miss out on a connection if you are not looking at them,” she explains. She suggests that newer instructors, especially those who have a more introverted nature, start out by increasing the intervals when they look at the class. “It might be just 5 minutes at first, and then you can increase when you feel comfortable. Try looking at the participants whom you have met, and give them a smile. You’re not a robot
teaching to a lot of people. Act as though you’re their friend and you’re working out with them.”
Since Pontillo has been in the industry for so long, part of her role now is to hire and train newbie instructors. “I see a common struggle with newer instructors who I know will eventually be really talented, but they are trying to overcome their natural introversion. I recommend that any fitness manager who sees this combination should recognize it and help them with the transition. Let them team-teach as long as they want, until they feel truly comfortable to take on a class themselves.”
Take Time for Yourself
Are you a true introvert who draws energy from being alone? Don’t try to go against your nature. As Vanover notes, “I’m not a ‘shy’ introvert per se, but I do find that being ‘on stage’ can be very draining for me. Trying to be outgoing to large groups wears me down mentally and physically.”
Vanover knows that to be at his best when teaching, he has to set aside time when he can have peace and quiet to recharge before getting up in front of class. “Know your limits, and take time for yourself,” he advises. “I know that to do the best job for my students, I have to make sure my batteries are recharged.” For him, that means meditation or setting aside time for his own workout. And he knows that if a day proves particularly challenging, he should take extra time for himself the next day.
Remember Why You’re There
On challenging days when the thought of facing a class seems particularly daunting, remember why you’re really there. “I give myself a pep talk before every class,” comments Gallagher. “It’s not about me; it’s about them! I’m facilitating their ability to improve their days, or their health, or whatever motivation brought them to class today.” She observes that a common fear among instructors is that the whole class is judging them. “Just give them a good workout! They are probably more focused on their own performance than yours. We are our own worst critics.”
Adds Goers: “Don’t seek everyone’s approval. I used to want everyone to say it was the best class ever, but I’ve come to realize that people like different things or different instructors and that’s okay. And some of them don’t want to be your pal. They just want to come and do their workout and get on with their lives.”
Former accountant Ralph Keefe, who now owns Body Mind Studios in New Milford, New Jersey, says, “I became so convinced that the techniques I had learned by studying martial arts could help others, that I was forced to come out of my shell to share them.” He realizes it takes courage, but he advocates putting the students and their needs above your own fears or quiet nature—to share your gift for helping others improve their health.
Fake It Until You Make It
The instructors interviewed for this article unanimously agree that the rewards are worth whatever initial discomfort might come with the territory. “Give it a shot, because you never know,” counsels Vanover. “I didn’t think teaching would work for me, and now I can’t imagine my life without it.”
Gallagher notes that people are surprised to hear that she gets nervous before every class she teaches. “I conquer that fear and teach, only because I love to share my passion with others.”
Pickren, M. 2009. Carl Jung: Extravert vs Introvert. Helping Psychology. www.helpingpsychology.com/carl-jung-extrovert-vs-introvert; accessed Mar. 1, 2014.