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A Setup for Successful Subbing

If you teach an ongoing group fitness class, inevitably you’ll need a sub. Odds are also strong that you’ll be a substitute at times throughout your teaching career. Whether you are subbing out or subbing in, you want the experience to be the best one possible—for your class, the other instructor and yourself.

Everyone’s heard the horror stories about subbing:

  • returning to your regular group and being bombarded
  • coming back after an extended subbing-out schedule to have management tell you the sub is taking over the class—you are out, and this supposed “temporary” person is in
  • entering to teach as the sub and facing a hostile room
  • seeing members walk out as they see you, the sub, walk in

Such scenarios show why it’s imperative to set the scene for subbing success. Fortunately, it’s easy to turn subbing into a win-win situation with a few thoughtful actions and announcements. What are some tips for ensuring a positive subbing experience? Take these actions whether you are seeking a sub or filling in for the regular teacher:

Leave Your Ego in Your Gym Bag

Subbing out. Subs are not your competitors, so put them in the best light possible. I have witnessed teachers tell their class, “Don’t worry. I’ll be back next week, so you have to put up with this sub only for an hour.” Another jaw-dropper I overheard: “I know you all don’t like the sub I lined up, but it was my only choice.”

Subbing is not about making sure your participants love you best or ensuring that a colleague can never match you. It’s about creating a positive workout experience for your members, no matter who is leading the class. If you teach well, your class will be happy to have you back even if you send them the world’s most popular, amazing, superstar sub. Isn’t that what everybody wants? If the sub outshines you, use it as motivation to improve. On the flip side, if your sub underperforms, it’s your responsibility to better choose, prepare or support your next sub.

Subbing in. A talented former colleague subbed in for another teacher and got flooded with requests to take the class permanently. His response? “I’d love to take over this class long term. Maybe if you let management know you want me for this slot, they will make a change.” How often do you suppose the regular teacher asked him to sub again after that?

Your job as a sub is to teach well and support the usual teacher. Undermining a colleague makes members feel awkward and disloyal—and it reflects poorly on you. You are not there to prove you deserve to teach that class more than the person who asked you to cover it. Use the opportunity to be a team player and to showcase your skills. If appropriate and genuine, compliment the regular teacher or cite an example of how you and that teacher operate together behind the scenes.

Manage Class Expectations

Subbing out. Let your participants know how you expect them to treat the sub. This is not only the most helpful action you can take, but it’s also the most underused opportunity. No way around it—the degree to which participants accept a sub is the regular instructor’s responsibility.

You must be proactive. Don’t line up a sub, then neglect to mention it to your participants or gloss over it by simply saying, “You will have a sub next week.” Set detailed expectations—positively and with enthusiasm.

Share Information Beforehand

Subbing out. At a minimum, let your sub know enough about your class to prepare for their fitness level, group personality and class format. Does the group prefer rapid changes and a lot of variety or high repetition and gradual progressions? Are the demographics skewed in a way the class description does not reveal? If your yoga class is not billed for any specific age group but has an average age of 65, let your sub know. If your group loves Top 10 hits but dislikes oldies, share this information.

Let’s say your class is Strength and Stretch, and you consistently devote no more than 20% of the time to stretching. Let the sub know—but as a point of reference, not as a dictate. Your sub may go with a 50/50 format, but at least the sub knows to prepare the group for something different.

Subbing in. Ask the regular teacher about content, structure, traditions or anything else that is not apparent from the written class description. For instance, one of my most rewarding and well-received sub-ins happened in a class format I don’t teach—Pilates Fusion.

In this case, I subbed for a teacher who had an emergency. I walked in cold to sub for a popular teacher, encountering a group I had never met, and about to present a format no one expected. No better recipe for walkouts and resentment, right? My preclass announcement had to reset and reframe the situation, and I had to get buy-in from participants that we were in this together.

After introducing myself, I reassured the class that their regular teacher had been called away for an emergency but was okay and would return the next week. Then I told them that while I did not teach Pilates, I planned to reach similar goals and benefits via a different mode that I was skilled in.

With confidence and a lot of energy, I laid out a challenge: “Try my exercises, some of which I guarantee will be new to you. Let me know after class whether you were still able to strengthen your core, progress your goals and feel you spent your time well despite today’s changes. While I may be new to you, you can rely on my long experience to do my best in (your regular teacher’s) absence. Is that a deal?”

Before we even started, I got buy-in and a thumbs-up. No one left. The feedback was fantastic and centered on my teaching. They didn’t compare me with their usual teacher or mode of exercise.

Be Yourself: Teach Authentically

Subbing in. The biggest mistake I see subs make is trying to emulate the usual teacher or trying too hard to be someone they are not. While your mode and format will usually be consistent, your personality is what sets you apart. Go into the class clear on who you are and what makes you unique.

In the Pilates Fusion subbing example above, I flat-out told the group that I had a big personality, cracked corny jokes and sometimes sang along with my playlist. If they expected me to be like their usual teacher, who is calm, soothing and modulated, I busted that myth right away. I can’t say it enough: Successful subbing is all about setting or resetting members’ expectations. You are almost always better off facing potential issues directly rather than dancing around them.

Say No If You Have Little or No Chance to Succeed

Subbing in. Finally, it’s okay to say no to subbing for a teacher whose class is known to be difficult or unwelcoming. Just because you are available or able to sub a class does not mean you are obligated.

Over the decades, I have worked with many instructors who did not prepare their participants for subs. Most of these teachers were simply passive and neglectful about managing their regulars’ expectations. A few teachers actively created an environment where a sub could not succeed. It’s one thing to welcome a challenge and quite another to be set up to fail. Simply say no in the latter case.

If you want to go the extra distance even while refusing to sub, try what has worked for me: “Thank you for asking me to sub your group, which I know is dedicated to you and upset when you are gone. Once you have trained your people to welcome subs, I would be willing to help out. Until then, I wish you the best procuring a good match in your absence.”

This hearkens back to my principal belief that the odds of sub success ultimately depend on the regular teacher. Group exercisers around the world have enough in common that you know what to expect of them. They are neither the problem nor the solution—you are. To put it succinctly, be direct: Let people know what to expect.

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