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The Mentor Experience

Information and support are key when preparing the next generation of instructors.

Teaching group fitness is a labor of love for many instructors. A desire to share that feeling is what motivates them to tutor others. “I find it extremely rewarding to mentor,” says fitness consultant and Reebok global master trainer Fred Hoffman, MEd, who’s based in Paris. “What a pleasure it is to take someone under my wing and share my knowledge and skills.”

There are many reasons to mentor, both personally and professionally. Marina Aagaard, head of fitness education at the Danish Academy of Coaching in Aalborg, Denmark, is internally motivated to pass on her 20 years of experience. “I would’ve liked to have had a mentor when I started out,” she says. Danell Dripps, group fitness director at Hawthorn Farm Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon, speaks to the professional aspect: “I mentor to find talent and bring on new staff. I have six instructors I recruited from the membership base.” Ken Baldwin, a fitness presenter and consultant in Brisbane, Australia, mentors to fill in the gaps. “A lot of the courses today cover only the basics,” he says. “New instructors come to me with good knowledge of theory, but they need help with the practical applications.”

Mentoring is catching on out of necessity and perhaps a little obligation. As the fitness industry continues to grow, experienced instructors give their skills, desire, commitment and time to help new teachers make a smooth transition into full competency. Read on to find out how other fitness professionals create a positive mentor experience by offering sound information and unyielding support.

A Mentor’s Responsibilities

Bringing up a new instructor carries with it a certain amount of accountability. In addition to being experienced enough to have earned respect, a mentor must be adept at cuing and breakdown, musical phrasing, movement patterns and exercise selection. She must be aware of member expectations and able to teach to multiple levels in one class. Practical knowledge, such as knowing how to use the stereo and microphone, is also very important. New instructors ask a lot of questions, so the mentor needs to know about the body and how it functions (or know where to get the answers).

Whether the process is formal or informal, paid or volunteer, time consuming or not, the mentor has some responsibilities that are consistent across the industry. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • offering feedback that’s specific, achievable and related to research and best practices
  • showing up to training sessions prepared and on time
  • keeping management apprised of the trainee’s progress
  • supporting and sponsoring the new instructor to members
  • being honest about progress and challenges
  • preparing the apprentice to have realistic expectations and goals
  • being kind and recalling what it was like to be new
  • giving adequate training and preparation

In short, a mentor should have high standards and reasonable expectations so that the new instructor can successfully get past the first few stressful teaching experiences.

How to Build Trust

A new instructor is learning more than teaching skills; he is also learning to be part of a teaching team. Therefore, he trusts in his mentor to share skills and offer support. To be a trusted counselor, a mentor needs to model all communication between co-instructors, management and members in a positive, constructive light. This reassures the teacher-in-training that he is also being spoken about positively. When giving suggestions or corrections, it’s easier to form a trusting bond if the mentor emphasizes the trainee’s growth and the reasoning behind the corrections.

One way that Theresa Stelly, group exercise assistant director at Gold’s Gym in Santa Barbara, California, establishes a trusting relationship is to tell her interns that it’s okay to make mistakes. “I do it all the time,” she says. “I also try to focus on what went well in the class, as well as what needs to be improved. I encourage members to give positive feedback directly to the intern.”

The underlying messages to interns are

  • I don’t expect you to be perfect.
  • You are part of the team.
  • I have paid enough attention to you to know what your strengths are.
  • I have faith in your ability to improve.
  • I don’t need to be in the middle of your own unique relationship with the members.
  • I am training the members to notice your strengths.

    Members Benefit, Too!

The mentor experience can also be a positive one for club members, who value consistency and quality. When they see that new instructors are being supported in such a way to meet high standards, they understand the benefits that come with having “new blood.” Mentoring allows members “to meet the new instructors and see that their club is contributing to the education and training of the staff,” says fitness consultant and Reebok global master trainer Fred Hoffman, MEd, who’s based in Paris. “This sends a positive message—that we care about the members and we aren’t just going to let new instructors loose without first supporting them. Members see their favorite teachers in another role as educators, and that adds credibility to the club. A mentoring program also provides an opportunity for the club to create good instructors who will fit in well with the environment.”

Whether the process is formal or informal, paid or volunteer, time consuming or not, the mentor has some responsibilities that are consistent across the industry.

Notes About Notes

Taking notes is just a normal part of evaluation. However, it can cause a lot of anxiety. Let teachers-in-training know in advance if you’ll be taking notes, and why. Until new teachers gain experience and confidence, they might assume that all notes are about things they are doing wrong. Point out what they are doing well and ask them to tell you what needs work. This helps develop their evaluative skills.

Students also get nervous when they see a master teacher writing notes, so let them know that the notes have nothing to do with them. “You will see me writing things down. I’m not noting who took a break or let their form slip; I am making notes to help the new teacher.”


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Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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