Overheard in the Locker Room
Transmute negative feedback into positive fuel for growth as a group fitness instructor.
You just finished teaching what felt like a seamless kickboxing class. The stereo system cooperated, the music was right on, your cuing flowed, and so did your sequences. Everyone seemed to enjoy your combos and creative transitions. You’re feeling that postteaching buzz that comes from your own endorphins and the added high of inspiring others to move their bodies and have fun.
As you pass through the locker room to freshen up, you overhear a conversation that kills your buzz. “Can you believe she taught that same tired, old routine?” says an unfamiliar voice from behind an open locker door. “I know, right?” echoes another voice. “And she could also stand to lose a pound or two. It’s crazy she teaches fitness for a living! She doesn’t look that fit to me.”
You duck into a bathroom stall and think about what to do. A rush of emotion sweeps through your chest. Should you confront them? Tell them you’ve been teaching for 13 years and how dare they question your expertise? Furthermore, you just had a baby 10 months ago—and so what if you’re carrying a few extra pounds? No, you can’t do that. Not only is it unprofessional, but you’re feeling too reactive right now. So you sit and wait for them to leave, and you spend the next several hours ruminating, steamy hot over the comments and feeling like a failure. Your confidence—a crucial attribute for any teacher—has taken a severe blow.
However, you don’t have to let participants’ negative talk annihilate your enthusiasm or self-esteem. All group fitness instructors have experienced the sometimes-harsh reality that not everyone loves them. Whether you’re a smart veteran with an offbeat sense of humor that doesn’t sit well with some people, or a newbie who struggles from time to time with which foot is leading, at some point you will learn that you’re not everyone’s cup of tea. Unfortunately you may hear it indirectly instead of directly, which can make it hard to address.
Read on to learn what other group fitness instructors chose to do when they heard negative comments either inside or outside the locker room.
The Unpopular Sub
While subbing a class is a great way to be a team member and to gain experience, the downside is that participants are often quite happy with their “regular,” thank you very much. It doesn’t matter that the class would have been canceled without your saving the day or that Sally has food poisoning and that’s why she’s not teaching—you have a tough crowd to please. So you smile and do the best you can. Sometimes, however, disgruntled comments find their way back to you one way or another.
“About 21 years ago, when I was brand-new, I subbed for a very popular instructor at a gym where I also had a membership,” says Nancy Korf, a fitness professional from Portland, Oregon. “A few days later, I was in the locker room dressing behind a curtain, getting ready to take the class [as a participant]. Some members approached the instructor and said they were so glad she was back because the sub was so awful. They went on for about 30 seconds, which felt like an hour. I stayed in the locker room after they left, gathered my things and drove home in tears.”
Korf says she learned a lot from this experience, and it helped shape the rest of her career. Instead of calling it quits, which she could have done, she made the decision never to allow members to “talk smack” about other instructors in front of her. “I try to impress upon my members that a sub is a gift. If they start to complain, I counter with something positive about that instructor.”
“I learned that not everyone is going to like the way I teach, but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad instructor,” Korf continues. “After I stopped fretting about the people who didn’t like me (and it hurt), I recognized that a lot of people did like me. My regular classes had decent attendance. It usually takes awhile for an instructor to grow into his or her own skin, and the early criticism forced me to grow into—and accept—mine.”
The Martyr Participant
Sometimes your manager passes down a valid complaint, or a member comes straight to you with an issue, and you do everything you can to improve and create a better experience. But what if the irascible participant just doesn’t respond or holds on to negative feelings about you? Victoria Ganieany, a fitness professional from Monson, Massachusetts, ran up against such a member.
“I got a complaint about one of my Zumba® classes from a member who had been taking my class for months,” says Ganieany. “I had tried all-new choreography, and she had yet to learn the previous [routine]. After class, she told me that she didn’t like how I taught (yet she continued to come), that she didn’t like the dances, that I should face away from class, do this, do that, do whatever other instructors did, etc. During my next class I included older choreography, and I noticed she was facing the corner or the back of the room while everyone else was facing the front! She complained to the owner of the club that she didn’t like my class—although she continued to attend.”
In dealing with a passive-aggressive or serial complainer, Ganieany believes, the best approach is to hear him or her out, do the best you can, and then focus on the big picture. Sometimes the person who takes umbrage with you, no matter what you do, has an agenda with roots that go deeper than your encounters. “I had to let that one go,” she says. “Nothing I said or did made her happy. We can’t please everyone every time, so I didn’t take it personally. I accommodated her requests, and she still complained.”
Moving Forward and Beyond
Negative feedback can come at any time, of course, not just after class, in the locker room. Participants can be rude and disrespectful during class. A student may complain about the music playlist or mock your speech or gestures, an attendee may blatantly ignore instructions, putting others in danger—and who hasn’t had someone use a smartphone during class? The key to dealing with these and other challenges lies in how you react.
“The more energy you put into a response or thoughts about a negative situation, the more pushback you’ll get,” says Danielle Vindez, a health and fitness professional from Redondo Beach, California. “Be curious about what you heard and ask questions to learn the perspective of others. This may diffuse [the situation] and teach you more about yourself.”
Jabez Gibson, a conditioning coach from Knoxville, Tennessee, also sees negative commentary as a learning opportunity. He suggests letting the words settle and then deciding if any of what was said was true or if there is a consensus. If so, he says, find ways to get better. “Feedback is needed for improvement,” he adds. “Listen to what’s being said and put your pride in your pocket. Embrace the fact that anything can be improved upon.”
Ganieany’s advice is to be receptive and approachable. Let participants know you have an “open door” policy and encourage them to interact with you. The onus is on you, however, to offer a safe place for people to express less-than-positive thoughts. “I ask if anyone has any questions before class, [and I solicit] suggestions or feedback after class,” says Ganieany. “This gives them an outlet to bring issues to me instead of making negative remarks elsewhere.”
Christina Montell, a group fitness instructor from Phoenix, said her husband overheard negative comments about her during a class, but then also heard a shift in attitude afterwards, which proved the plasticity of thoughts and feelings. Montell says she stays focused on improving her teaching skills and doesn’t worry about winning popularity contests. “Each class is different. Participants are different. You can’t please everyone all the time,” she says. “I let my work prove how good I am.”
As an instructor, you are in a position to influence many people on a daily basis. In addition to this responsibility, you have to stay up-to-date on the latest exercise research and techniques, be an ambassador for your fitness facility and put aside any bad feelings you may have at a particular time to be “on” for others. Don’t let an unsettling comment take you out of the lineup. Take stock of what is said, decide if it’s true for you, and take steps to improve if it is. Otherwise, keep inspiring the world to fitness with your unique passion. Or as Korf says: “Be yourself, unabashedly.”