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Pruning a Prima Donna Participant

Use proactive measures when dealing with a group exercise member who acts like a diva.

If you teach group exercise long enough, you’re bound to encounter the group exercise diva. This self-proclaimed privileged member wreaks havoc in your classes and throughout the club. She is the person who feels that rules apply only to others—not to her. She (or he!) displays disrespect for the group exercise experience, the instructor and the other participants. The diva’s behavior tends to create a negative experience for the majority of attendees. Unfortunately, the instigator often goes unchecked. This can lead to decreased class participation and higher attrition rates.

As an instructor, you are responsible for controlling your class, which you can imagine as your own mini-business. It may be difficult to be the “heavy” and address a diva. Most instructors don’t like confrontation and want to please everyone. However, this is a necessary evil in order to provide all members a quality experience. Instructors must bite the bullet and risk upsetting one person in order to please others. There are a variety of professional ways to deal with a diva so that class can be enjoyable and stress-free for all.

Chatty Cathies

We tread a fine line when it comes to folks who chat throughout class. One of the main reasons people exercise in a group is that they like the socialization. Many return week after week because they’ve made friends and find it motivating. So we don’t want to completely discourage people from talking. However, there are those who choose to exercise their jaws more than their bodies. The problem occurs when a comment here or there escalates into a full-blown conversation that everyone can hear. As an instructor, you immediately divert your attention to the chatty individuals as you try to quell their rude behavior. If you talk louder to drown them out, they talk louder to drown you out. Unfortunately, your focus has now shifted away from those who are relying on you to lead them through class.

Solution: Chat on This! Address this problem immediately, before it erupts into a war between members. Recently I was approached by one of my aquatics instructors, who complained that some women in her class talked so loudly that other members were writing a letter to management. My instructor asked if I would go in and handle the situation. I refused, advising her to manage her own class. Participants look to the instructor as their leader. In this case, the instructor did not want to be the bad guy (I guess that was my job!). However, in reality, members would respect her more if she spoke to the divas directly. The stronger you are, the less you will encounter this sort of thing in class. Send a message that excessive talking is not going to be tolerated during class. Address the issue in a tactful, professional way. For example:

  • Make a general comment, such as “We’ll burn more calories if we focus our work on our legs instead of our jaws!”
  • When a general comment doesn’t work, look right at the culprits and ask, “I hear you and am concerned that there’s a problem.” This lets them know that not only are you aware of their behavior but you disapprove of it.
  • Take the silent approach. Stop speaking and cuing (but keep moving) and look in their direction.
  • If the chatter continues, approach these participants privately right after class. Say something like this: “Jane and Tim, I appreciate that you enjoy my class, but sometimes the talking can be really disruptive. Could you please be aware of this during the next class?”
  • Start class by stating your intentions: “Today we are going to focus on cardiovascular strength and stamina. Monitor your perceived rate of exertion. You should not be able to speak a full sentence to the person next to you.” Or: “Hey everyone, let’s keep the chatter to a minimum today. We need to be respectful of each other.”
  • Never reprimand a member directly during class or make comments that come off as personal or demeaning. This includes telling people not to come to your class if they’re going to talk or act like children!
  • Do not let other members fight this battle. Be in control of the class at all times.
  • If any diva becomes a chronic problem, then you must enlist the help of the director. It is advisable that the director, instructor and diva all have a conversation so that everyone is on the same page.

Better Late Than Never

Another behavior typical of a diva is consistently arriving late and making a point of staging a grand entrance! The disruption affects members in a variety of ways and can even make the situation unsafe, both for the latecomer and for others.

Solution: The Early Bird Gets the Good Workout! Noel Miller, initial training supervisor, program developer and national trainer for Body Training Systems, based in Atlanta, offers advice about being proactive and addressing the situation prior to class. “For equipment classes, I encourage those who are on time to set up their equipment toward the front and center, and I let participants know that this is so that late participants can be less disruptive. Then I’ll tell people as they come in late to fill in the back and sides.”

Making general comments such as “Remember the importance of a proper warm-up” or “Be sure you arrive early to set up your equipment” puts the diva on the radar. It also shows others that you do not approve of the tardy arrival and you have the group’s best interest at heart.

If a diva still doesn’t comply with the arrival rules and you need to approach this person one-on-one, Aimee Marshall, group exercise director for the Berkshire West Athletic Club in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, offers this advice: “I try to explain that it is for her own safety that she [should arrive] on time. If she knows she is going to be late, she should be quiet and have someone else set her equipment up for her or perhaps find a class that fits her schedule better.”


Divas are territorial. If you cross one by taking “her” spot in class, beware! I remember a verbal and physical confrontation erupting between a diva and a member who took “her” spot. Not only did this affect the other member involved, who promptly canceled her membership; it also affected the other 25 people in the room, who stood with mouths agape.

Solution: Spot Removers That Work. Ask the diva to arrive early if there is a certain spot she desires. This can also help address the issue of coming to class late.

  • Personally remind the diva that every member pays club dues and no one “owns” space or equipment.
  • Be very clear that confrontations, verbal or physical, cannot be tolerated. If bad behavior is repeated, have your director intervene and issue a strong warning outlining the consequences, which may include suspension of membership for a specified time, or even termination.

The Soloist

I’ve always been intrigued by the person who attends a class but doesn’t follow the programming. It seems that this person invariably wants to be front and center. Trying to teach safe, effective movements when someone is doing crazy moves 5 feet in front of you can be frustrating. It can also be annoying and confusing to other attendees.

Solution: Join the Chorus. Natalie Weber, of Worcester, Massachusetts, group fitness director and instructor for Gold’s Gym and a national trainer for Body Training Systems, offers an easy solution to the problem: “I tend to ignore it unless it is disruptive. I will make eye contact with that person and coach the move(s). I make it pretty obvious that I am asking her to do what I’m doing, or at least something close.”

Faced with this situation, Miller adds, he respectfully addresses the individual after class and asks him to move to the back of the room where his movements cannot confuse others.

Additional tactics that can work in your favor may include

  • reorienting the class so the soloist is not so disruptive; and
  • approaching the individual to find out if her solo flight is a result of an injury, and if so, offering some safe solutions.

Sign-Up of the Times

Many clubs have instituted a registration policy for classes that have a limited amount of equipment. This helps facilities avoid a situation where 30 people are trying to get into a class that can accommodate only 15. Divas abuse the registration policy on many levels. Some simply don’t sign up and then arrive expecting to be accommodated, while others reserve a spot and don’t show up, which is inconsiderate to others who wanted to participate.

Solution: This Is Not Invisible Ink.

  • Make sure the front desk and other staff are fully aware of the sign-up policy.
  • Post the policy where everyone can see it, particularly near the group fitness rooms where preregistration is required.
  • State the cancellation policy clearly,
    in bold, on the registration sheet. Remind people when they are registering for class that there is a cancellation policy (set a time, such as 2 hours prior to class) in order to be fair to all.
  • Stipulate that people should register their names in ink (many divas will erase names and enter their own).
  • Take the list to class and check off names. You can let a diva know that she can join class if a space becomes available because of a late cancellation or a no-show.

Repeat offenders may require a more distinct slap on the wrist. Discuss possible consequences with your director. Consider revoking sign-up privileges for a set period of time. If your classes are fee-based, you might even charge divas who persistently register but don’t show up or call to cancel.

Group Exercise Studio or Complaint Department?

A diva can also use classes as a platform to state his displeasure with just about anything. The music is too loud, or he doesn’t like it. The room is too hot or cold. The center dues increased. He dislikes the workout. Complaining is a chronic disease. It can become contagious and is sure to diminish the experience of others.

Solution: This Department Closed!

  • Direct the diva to the suggestion box or a department manager who can more effectively resolve the situation.
  • Remind participants to focus on the exercise. Say you will welcome their comments after class, when you can dedicate more time to their concerns.
  • If people complain about the workout, approach them after class and ask for recommendations on how they would make it better if they were the instructor.
  • Be “in the know.” Make yourself aware of all club policies, events and programs so that you can more easily address concerns.

The Needs of the Many

Bottom line: instructors need to address diva behavior in order to provide an enjoyable experience for the majority. Weber reminds us how a diva affects not only the members but also the instructor: “It’s hard to focus on teaching or coaching your class when a person is late, disruptive, etc. So, essentially, your whole class suffers. This can be frustrating for other members who follow the policies and procedures.” Marshall agrees and adds, “Addressing these situations makes us better instructors as we learn to overcome distractions. You will also be more respected for standing up for yourself and the other members.”

Focus on providing a comfortable environment for the majority of members. Do not hesitate to reprimand or even terminate members who cannot comply with club policies and who continue to treat staff and other participants disrespectfully. Trying to save one “bad apple” is not worth the price of losing dedicated, happy attendees.

Sidebar: Document Your Diva

When dealing with a repeat-offender diva, it may be useful to keep track of rants and raves. Keep club management in the loop about the unruly behavior. Carefully document behavior problems that affect staff or other members. Save any correspondence, such as letters or e-mails to management or notes in the suggestion box from other members, to corroborate your own experience. A paper trail can come in handy if it gets to the point where you must confront the prima donna participant in person.

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