It’s not hard to retain confident exercise enthusiasts who love your classes. The greater challenge is to keep timid, anxiety-ridden individuals, the ones who may need movement the most—and who may become new “followers” if given half a chance to gain a little confidence.

As a group fitness instructor, how do you accomplish this? One way is through understanding mindset. Do you know, for example, why some people don’t bound into your class, eager to take on the front row? It’s not uncommon for people to have exercise phobia or feel ashamed or embarrassed.

Psychology drives (or impairs) our motivation to exercise. According to Len Kravitz, PhD, the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at the University of New Mexico, there is evidence (Trost et al. 2002) that “the primary psychological factor associated with exercise adherence is a person’s physical self-efficacy.” In other words, a person’s level of success is determined by his or her confidence in completing an exercise movement or program.

When a fearful individual takes the monumental step to try your class, it’s your goal—and responsibility—to provide a positive experience that encourages that participant to return again and again. As Kravitz states, “The influence of the exercise professional in empowering clients to ‘succeed with exercise’ is vitally important to exercise compliance.”

Empower your participants by helping them shift their mindset. In other words, shape their minds before shaping their bodies.

Understanding Mindset and Community

I could never do that.
It’s too hard.
I don’t like doing those movements.

Sometimes, people feel as if their ability to exercise or to execute a movement pattern is limited. They may even believe they were born lacking certain abilities and can’t change that. Often, they don’t even want to try a movement, or they quit an exercise entirely. (Note: This discussion isn’t referring to people who’ve just had knee surgery and can’t jump, for example.) Reluctant participants may possess a fixed mindset that roots itself in nature. As their fitness leader, you want to help them nurture a growth mindset (see the sidebar “Growth Mindset Theory” for more).

Before you implement specific mindset strategies in your classes, look at the larger picture. Consider the human desire to feel a sense of belonging. People attend group exercise with a shared goal: fitness and health. They hope to connect with others and be moved by powerful music. They want to belong, feel connected and have a strong support system, like a family—their fitness family.

In 2015, a survey by The Retention People found that the risk of canceling a gym membership was 56% higher in gym-only members than it was among group exercisers (Aiello 2015). Why? The responses pointed to the social side of group exercise: the camaraderie, accountability and fun factor—all traits embodied by a fitness community.

Here are some strategies to help you build a stronger sense of community in your classes:

Get to know your participants. Take the time to chat with class members, and not just in passing. Engage in sincere dialogue. Listen to them and ask questions. Show interest in their families and hobbies. Make them feel that you value their time, and don’t forget that for some of the more fearful participants, just showing up was a huge battle. Acknowledge that they succeeded by just being there.

Share personal stories. The cliché “Everyone has a story” couldn’t be more true. Listen to your participants’ stories and share yours. Chances are you’ll find similarities that lead to more conversation and greater mutual understanding. Discuss goals, kids, vacations, experiences and whatever else comes to mind. Open up. A fitness instructor who shares her stories demonstrates that she’s a human being, not some robotic leader getting paid to work out.

Laugh and have fun. Laughter is a key ingredient for a healthy community. Laugh at your immediate mistakes and past failures.

Coaching Strategies to Develop a Growth Mindset

What are some practical things you can do to gain the trust of those brave souls who made it to class? How can you help them gain confidence? According to Stanford professor Carol Dweck, PhD, a researcher in the field of motivation, you must encourage participants to relish their progress as they trust the process (Dweck 2014). Emphasize progress, not final achievement. Dweck suggests reassuring and praising students by focusing on “the process [they] engage in—their effort, their strategies, their perseverance, their improvement.” Here’s how:

Support intrinsic pride. Rather than emphasizing calories burned or inches lost, promote how good exercise feels. This sends a powerful message that validation should come from within. For instance, try saying, “You worked hard today; be proud of yourself!” and “Ahhh, we feel better now than when we walked in.”

Encourage risk-taking. Build challenges into your class by introducing safe progressions. For example, you might say: “When you’re ready, try it in a staggered stance or on one foot.” Or offer a new choreography challenge by saying, “We’ll test out some new moves with several layers for you to choose from.”

Teach resilience by example. Talk openly about your own failures and how you overcame them. In a private conversation with a discouraged participant, use encouraging words; for instance, “I know planks seem really difficult right now, but as you keep practicing them, you’ll be able to hold them longer. You’ll see.”

Use positive language for positive outcomes. Cue the desired behavior using positive language, as opposed to cuing what you don’t want. When you say, “Don’t let your chest fall forward” during squats, participants must process that cue, figure out what it means and correct it. They may just hear, “Let your chest fall forward.” Instead, say: “Keep your chest lifted.” It’s clear and precise, and participants are more likely to be able to follow it.

Implement the “yet” concept. Help participants build the confidence to keep trying, so they feel less concerned about the negative consequences of making mistakes. If you say, “We’re not there yet,” it implies that everyone will keep working toward a desired goal. The word “yet” has a lot of power in relation to motivation. “Yet” encourages continued effort (Dweck 2014).

Dictate intervals of time, not reps. Deconditioned participants will immediately feel defeated if they think a task isn’t achievable. Instead of instructing your group to tackle, say, 12 pushups, design intervals based on time. You might cue, “We have 20 seconds of pushups. Do what you can with good form. Rest when you need to.” This way, deconditioned and/or nervous participants won’t feel they’ve failed before they’ve even started.

Avoid comparisons. Self-comparison is the only comparison you should be encouraging. “Bob, wow! You are so much stronger than last month. Great progress!” Bob is lifted and recognizes that his hard work has paid off.

If you use these strategies in your fitness community, you’ll be more likely to retain once-fearful participants. Not only will you increase your following, but you’ll also make a lasting, positive impact on individuals who might otherwise feel helpless. You will give them hope for continued health and wellness.