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Screening With Meaning

Group fitness instructors are key players in building a successful fitness center. They touch more members in 60 minutes or less than any of your other staff. This quality time can set a strong foundation for program growth, increased revenue, new-member attraction and, most important, member retention. When you consider an instructor’s impact on member experience, the need for a comprehensive hiring process comes into full focus.

As the fitness industry grows, the pool of well-trained instructors does not appear to be keeping pace. This imbalance means that club owners and managers are faced with a greater demand for classes, but fewer teachers to cover them. Shortages often lead to desperate hiring practices—awarding pivotal positions to candidates without fully screening for qualifications and talents. But the importance of thorough screening should never be underestimated. Linda Hendrickson, group fitness director at Healthtrax Fitness & Wellness in Avon, Connecticut, encourages her fellow directors to interview and audition everyone. “Be prepared! You never know when your schedule may change and you must have an instructor ready and waiting in the wings.”

Many factors go into hiring a group fitness instructor. A friendly smile, a chipper personality and an impressive resumé do not always mean a perfect fit for your facility. Fortune 500 companies are successful in part because of rigid hiring processes. A company may set up several levels of interviews to ensure that potential hires have characteristics that will not only benefit customers but also strengthen internal work teams.

Take the time to screen applicants in various scenarios. This will help you determine whether each candidate will be a boon to your program. A meticulous, step-by-step approach allows you to view the many facets of an individual in action. Such care also speaks volumes about your facility, as it shows both members and other fitness professionals that you have set the bar high for providing excellent service. A thorough hiring process for group exercise includes a personal interview, a movement analysis and auditions. Yes, that’s right . . . auditions, plural.

The Personal Interview

Conducting a personal interview with a prospective instructor is the first step in the hiring process. As a director, this allows you to get more familiar with candidates. Set up face-to-face, formal interviews. Discourage lengthy phone inquiries and on-the-spot meetings. First impressions speak volumes, and it all begins with the initial interview setup and the events leading up to the question-and-answer portion of the meeting. Consider the following during this stage of the process.

Is the applicant easy to get along with or demanding of your time? This may shed light on what the person will be like to manage. If she is pushy or demanding when setting up the appointment, she may be just as demanding once hired, which could lead to a management nightmare. Also, if she is “too busy” to schedule an interview, she may be too busy to commit to a class or to sub for others.

Does the person show up for the appointment on time? The answer may indicate whether the candidate will be reliable and punctual. You want someone who is not on time, but early!

How is the applicant’s appearance? Clean and neat—it goes without saying! Look for direct eye contact, confident posture and a warm smile.

Spend at least 30 minutes interviewing and chatting. Break the ice by taking the potential instructor on a facility tour. This gives him a moment to relax before being put on the spot for questioning. Outline the center’s core values, and impart your expectations. Make questions open-ended so that you can observe the candidate’s communication skills. Dig deep, keeping in mind that you are hiring a member of a team. Probing questions might include the following:

• Why do you want to be a part of our instructor team?

• What new skills can you bring to our team?

• What are your strengths and weaknesses?

• Tell me about a great experience you had as a participant. As an instructor?

• Tell me about a negative experience you had. How did you handle it?

• Where do you see yourself in 6 months? In a year?

• How are you involved in fitness now?

• What qualities do you think a great instructor possesses? How about a poor instructor?

• What was the last continuing education course you attended? When? Why?

• What other activities are you involved in, aside from fitness?

How Do You Move?

After the personal interview, invite prospective instructors to a class taught by you or one of your lead instructors. Do a mental evaluation, and watch for anything that may indicate the quality of the aspirant’s skills, as well as her willingness to be a team player. Take note of the following characteristics:

Ability to Move With Ease and to the Beat of the Music (If Applicable). The instructor may not be able to perform unknown choreography flawlessly, but she should be able to move to the beat and anticipate movement and direction changes.

Facial Expressions and Body Language. Look for someone who is smiling, enjoying group exercise and having fun being a participant. A person who shows no enthusiasm while taking a class will most likely have no enthusiasm when leading a class.

Instructor Respect. Beware of the want-to-be instructor who stands on top of the lead instructor and conducts his own class by demonstrating showy moves or choreography that vary a lot from what is being taught.

Proper Form and Alignment. Participants mimic movement and do so with much less body awareness than most instructors. If the instructor has poor biomechanics, participants will perform the movements just as badly, if not worse.

Interaction With the Instructor. Look for a candidate who approaches the instructor, introduces himself and shows appreciation for a job well done. Steer clear of someone who makes no effort to interact with members or your staff, critiques the instructor or makes excuses for his own performance.

How Do You Cue?

Once you’ve found a person who can move and has the potential to be a positive addition to your team, it’s time to see what she is made of. Schedule a performance audition in which the applicant must teach a 30-minute (minimum) class to you and key staff members. Hendrickson backs up this auditioning step: “A one-on-one audition is not always effective. Allowing the person to audition in front of a group of people permits you to see the potential hire in an actual class atmosphere where you can observe skills.” A benefit to using your current team as an audience is that you can get their feedback afterward.

The audition must cover all key elements specific to the format being taught and must include warm-up, workout, cool-down and stretching sections. Focus on both positive and negative aspects of the workout so that you can offer a fair evaluation. This feedback stage may allow you to take a “diamond in the rough” and, using a little professional guidance, groom her to be one of your A-list instructors. During the audition, make note of the following key points:

Compliance With Current Group Exercise Standards and Guidelines. Be wary of exercises that were taught when headbands, thongs and leg warmers were the rage! Movements must meet current standards recommended by reputable organizations.

Exercise Modifications/Progressions. A good instructor intuitively knows how to modify moves. Note if the applicant is capable of teaching to a mixed bag of patrons.

Cuing, Phrasing and Lead Changes. Cuing in advance of movement is crucial in most group exercise classes. A good instructor has great timing and delivers cues prior to showing the moves. He is also able to begin combinations at the top of the phrasing, hitting the 8-count so the choreography flows well with the music. Tap-free choreography that offers automatic lead changes supports this seamless effect, creating a smooth and enjoyable experience for participants.

Use of Visualization. Mind-body classes are more effective if an instructor uses vivid imagery to guide clientele through uncharted territory.

Choreography Breakdown. Can the instructor reduce choreography and movement to the bare-bones minimum and then methodically build complex choreography from this base? Or does she leave the class in the dust with the hopes that they will just “get it.”

Vocal Quality. Is her voice high, squeaky and hard to hear? Does she bark out cues like a drill sergeant? Does she speak in monotone? An instructor must command attention with her voice without being abrasive. The voice should match the format and be conversational.

Where Are the Eyes? Note whether the instructor is in tune with participants or watching himself in the mirror. Does he turn around and face the class at times? A quality instructor rarely sees himself in that great big mirror. He looks beyond and into the crowd to offer modifications and motivation.

Knowledge of Basic Biomechanics and Kinesiology. Can the instructor explain the proper setup and safe execution of movements, while offering logical transitions, modifications and progressions?

Come Teach With Me!

Team-teaching offers many benefits. A team-teaching audi­tion is not necessary, but encouraged, as it allows you to assess the potential hire’s ability to interact with members. It also enables you to critique performance and extend infor­mation that will improve the applicant’s teaching skills. During this step, zero in on the instructor’s teaching and communication proficiency, not only with members, but also with the lead instructor. Be wary of an applicant who contradicts or questions the lead instructor during class. Any ambiguity should be addres­sed behind the scenes, not in front of the audience. This lack of respect may be a warning sign that the person is not a good fit for your team, regardless of her teaching ability. Darlene Challingsworth, a master instructor for FitCore™ Pilates who lives in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, feels that the team-teaching test should be an integral part of the hiring process. “The greatest instructor may weaken your team by not being a team player at all. You can hire the absolute best instructor [with] the ability to pack classes, yet [she may not be] supportive of the other class formats, other instructors or the club’s mission. She may use her stage time to undermine others.” Challingsworth adds that these colors often show through in a team-teaching situation. “Watch for instructors who put themselves above another instructor or, worse yet, before the members.”

Ready, Set, Teach!

You’ve filtered a prospect through many screenings. Now what? Hendrickson and Challingsworth both suggest placing your new hire on a sub list if a regular time slot is not available. “Most of my strongest instructors started as subs,” says Hendrickson. A determined instructor who truly wants to be a part of your phenomenal team will do whatever it takes to become a permanent player.

After you’ve made the decision to hire someone, revisit the team-member expectations shared in the formal interview. Make sure the instructor has a crystal-clear understanding of these expectations. Don’t presume anything. Review policies and procedures exclusive to your club, such as dress code, attendance, subbing and even emergency procedures.

Once you have assigned a permanent class to the new instructor, place him on a 90-day trial period. During this time, monitor him to ensure that members are getting the quality instruction you’ve promised them. You may want to do unannounced class visits, poll members and staff, and set aside time to communicate with the new employee one-on-one. Offer praise and support, and share any tidbits that may help him deal with members. Have an open-door policy. Being the new kid on the block can be a little challenging at times.

After 90 days, do a formal performance evaluation and follow-up interview. Revisit your team values and club mission statement, and offer advice on how to grow into a more valuable instructor. With an enthusiastic employee, entertain the idea of goal setting. This will keep you both on the same page in future reviews and evaluations.

Worth the Wait

The hiring and audition process may be long, but it provides a level of quality assurance. Most instructors will welcome this procedure, as it allows them to take the stage and showcase the skills they’ve honed over time. Don’t sell your program short by hiring a person just because she has experience or a certification. Companies wouldn’t hire someone based solely on the fact that she possessed a degree. A credential is only a base from which to grow. An extraordinary group exercise program is staffed by illustrious team players and a prudent program director. All share these common goals—to meet and exceed members’ expectations and to deliver the finest product available!

SIDEBAR: Audition Evaluation Form and Quality Checklist

When recruiting for your group exercise team, look for an applicant who

  • holds a group exercise certification from a reputable organization, plus specific certifications for specialty formats;
  • is CPR and AED certified;
  • has good communication skills;
  • has eyes and teeth that shine;
  • is comfortable in a large group;
  • is energetic, enthusiastic and passionate about fitness;
  • is understanding and compassionate and puts others first;
  • is a team player and respects others (staff and members);
  • is confident;
  • shows loyalty and commitment to team and club;
  • is able to educate and motivate; and
  • is eager to learn new things.

Peggy J. Gregor serves as the group exercise supervisor at Healthtrax Fitness and Wellness in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. She is also a national fitness presenter and FitCore Pilates educator. Reach her at [email protected]

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