I started teaching (like many of you fellow managers) more than 25 years ago. The 1980s were great: We jumped around in our spandex with little concern for our safety. We were obsessed with being fit and toned, and our mission was to “bring it.” I can clearly recall teaching with shin splints, with plantar fasciitis and even once with a severely sprained ankle I sustained when I fell off a step platform. I felt horrible when I taught the next day. Did my students know? Probably. Was I setting a good example? Probably not.
This article reviews the ongoing issue of instructing while injured—and how managers and directors can create policies that support their staff in taking care of themselves instead of setting themselves up for more pain down the road. It’s also important to remember that, like it or not, fitness professionals are role models for facility members. Therefore, it makes sense to showcase self-care and a healthy attitude toward the body’s needs.
An Instructor’s Viewpoint
In my experience, instructors will generally ignore an injury and keep teaching. As director of a large program, I outline in our instructor manual what to do in the event of an injury; of course, we advise against teaching. However, instructors are missing that message: They continue to teach while injured and in pain. Even with strict guidelines in place, staff members continue to teach, primarily for the following reasons.
Money. Let’s face it, most instructors aren’t paid as much as they’re worth, but every class adds up.
Fear. Instructors are afraid to take a leave of absence or sub out their class more than once, because their numbers might drop or their class might get canceled—or the worst: Another instructor might do it better and take over.
Pride. Many instructors feel that, as athletes, they have to play even when they’re hurt in order to save face. Some even think they send a better message to their clients by “sucking it up” and teaching with the injury.
A sense of responsibility. Many instructors are afraid that if they take time off, they’re disappointing their students and letting them down. Some even feel guilty.
All of the above reasons are valid, but they’re short-sighted in more ways than one. Not only are these instructors not thinking clearly about themselves and the potential long-term consequences of teaching with an injury, but they’re also not putting participants first. This approach may deteriorate the overall class experience and lead to attrition.
The Case Against Teaching While Hurt
As a program director, I don’t want instructors teaching while they’re injured or in pain. Here’s why:
Walking the talk. I hear many instructors and trainers advise their clients to take care of their bodies and to avoid exercises that may aggravate an injury or cause pain. These instructors need to practice what they preach. I believe it sends a far more powerful message to members when instructors live by example.
Preventing pain and further injury. Even the smallest, most insignificant-seeming injury can lead to serious pain and further debilitation. Ignoring minor pain and “working through it” could lead to major pain, surgery and, ultimately, more time off from exercise and teaching.
Giving your all to members. Teaching with pain or injury prevents an instructor from being there 100%. Instructors who have taught while injured have admitted to me that those class moments were not their best. Our members deserve a quality experience every time they come to class.
Doing mentoring right. The fitness industry is reaching a point where many of us are becoming “dinosaurs,” and it’s imperative that we mentor and bring up a new generation of qualified instructors. They can learn from our mistakes if we lead them in the right direction.
Keeping track of frequency. Many of our instructors teach several classes at our facility, but they also teach at other clubs in the area. Some of them teach more than 15 classes per week, which is a recipe for disaster. Consider setting limits on the number of classes instructors can teach at your facility, so they get the rest they need.
Meeting the Challenge
Now that the issue has been clearly defined, what are the next steps? I believe that managers can challenge instructors to learn from their injuries. What if we asked our instructors to use their experiences to become more empathetic toward deconditioned participants? What if we offered them better incentives to take time off and recover? Here are some ways the program at my facility supports instructors when they are out with an injury—and some policies that help prevent injury.
Set limits. Set limits on how many classes per day or per week an instructor is allowed to teach or sub. Use a system like GroupEx PRO, or create your own method for facilitating this.
Invite instructors to share their stories. Injured instructors may not be able to teach, but they can still offer value to members. Maybe you have a newsletter or blog where an instructor can share personal experience about recovering from sacroiliac joint pain—with a positive approach to rest and recovery. Perhaps you even have enough money in the budget to pay for that story. A little education goes a long way!
Teach from experience. Create a program for people who have a similar injury and are ready to return to exercise (slowly and with a doctor’s permission). After my last knee surgery, I created a 30-minute program called Knee Hab. This class focused on core exercises that people could perform without aggravating their injuries; it was designed to help make the body stronger so it could heal faster.
Learn and thrive. Being injured does not mean an instructor is out of the game completely. It’s a great time for doing research and getting more education. Encourage instructors to come back to their classes with a stronger body and a stronger brain.
Find a workout that doesn’t hurt. Suggest to injured staff that they try something new. Discover a form of exercise that does not cause further pain or aggravate the injury. As someone with knee injuries, I discovered Pilates and quickly fell in love with it. There were dozens of exercises I could do on a reformer that did not affect my knees at all and made my back and hips feel better.
From yoga to kick-boxing, instructors will find that their bodies are not invincible and that injuries do happen. As managers, with our inspiration and guidance we can help reduce risk and can help assist in the healing process.