Performance reviews are part of any job, and most fitness professionals have either had one or given one at some point. Effective staff evaluations provide personal trainers and group fitness instructors the valuable feedback they need to become confident communicators and refined professionals. Among managers, the best of the best have streamlined performance review systems that have been in place for years and contribute to the success of many instructors and trainers.

This article does not seek to replace existing evaluation procedures, but rather to build on those resources and offer fresh options that align with today’s digitally savvy professionals. Although this article explores staff performance assessments, it is less about developing an evaluation method and more about enhancing existing processes with the use of digital audio and video recorders. Read on to learn the advantages and limitations of using these tools for performance reviews and how careful application—in addition to or independent of a formal evaluation process—can add a crucial learning element (for information on specific types of digital devices, see the sidebar “Digital Technology: Trends, Tools, and Tips”). >>

The Digital Advantage

Using audio and video recording to glean feedback is not new. The approach has been used in sports as a way to improve athletic performance and develop strategic game play. “Instructors, just like athletes, are so ‘in the moment’ when we’re teaching that we often don’t realize [how] the things we do or say affect the overall experience,” says Kimberly Spreen, national director of group fitness and yoga for Life Time Fitness. The growing access to digital recording devices, such as handheld cameras and mobile phones, is impacting when and how often fitness professionals capture and share information. For example, these days it’s not uncommon to see a personal trainer texting between client sessions or a group exercise instructor recording her class for YouTube using a tiny video camera. Of the 85% of adult Americans who have cell phones, 81% have used theirs at one time or another for a purpose other than making a phone call, such as snapping a photo (66%) or recording a video (19%) (Pew Internet 2009).

“I would say that more and more clubs are using digital technology,” says Spreen, who believes these devices provide fitness professionals opportunities to realize where they excel and where they need to improve. In addition to the feedback that instructors or trainers receive from recording themselves in action, digital technology offers the following benefits:

Increased Portability and Usability. Digital devices (for consumer use) are usually no bigger than a deck of cards and weigh just 3–6 ounces. These days, batteries last longer and storage cards can carry more data. Devices are increasingly user-friendly, making live recording less invasive and uncomplicated. Whether you are recording an indoor cycling class or an outdoor boot camp, the improved portability means you are no longer tethered to an outlet.

Enhanced Distribution. Digital technology has made it easier for recorded data to be distributed. No more copying CDs or DVD/VHS tapes—sharing is done immediately, via playback, or later on the Internet or as e-mail file attachments. This allows multiple managers and outside evaluators to provide remote feedback at their convenience.

More Focused Assessments. The YouTube and iPod generation has changed the way people record and consume media. Footage is much shorter and content-specific (e.g., one step combo breakdown per video or one training topic per podcast). Filming is often impromptu and unedited, capturing the most authentic experiences. Similarly, digital recording devices can be used to assess key moments of a training session or class. Instead of recording an entire hour, you document a few minutes to convey a sampling of a trainer’s strengths or weaknesses.

The Digital Disadvantage

While digital recorders have their technological advantages, it is this advanced technology that also makes them unfavorable to use in the fitness environment. Although it may seem efficient and convenient for a manager to flip open a camera phone, video-record a few seconds of yoga class and provide immediate, constructive feedback on an instructor’s downward dog before hitting the delete button, this does not necessarily make it appropriate.

Maintaining member privacy and adhering to club filming policies continue to be top concerns when it comes to any kind of recording, but digital recorders are hard to monitor and easy to exploit, owing to their size and accessibility. What’s more, digital media can quickly move online, becoming part of the public domain. “If not implemented properly, a trainer may get the impression that a manager is spying on [him or her],” says Chris McGrath, personal trainer and founder of Movement First in New York City. “And while an audio recording may appear to be far less invasive than an observed or shadowed session, it may also make clients feel less natural knowing they are being recorded.” It is important to announce all recordings—audio or video—in advance. It is also a good idea to disclose the purpose of the recording and to have staff and clients sign waivers.

Mark Linkiewicz, education manager at Millennium Partners Sports Club Management in Boston, also points out cost barriers. “If it is for company use, then the [facility] would have to provide the [digital resources], which could be cost-prohibitive.” Investing in technology is not always cheap (unless you find something comparable and affordable on eBay), and in an era of economic frugality and tight budgets, asking for a high-definition Flip Video™ Camcorder may be a lesson in futility. Equipment loss prevention is already an issue at some fitness facilities—imagine having to monitor the use of digital recording devices.

Digital Video Assessments

The most comprehensive form of digital feedback is video recording, which enables a manager to visually and aurally identify a fitness professional’s communication skills and training techniques. Instructors and trainers who consent to being recorded for the purposes of professional growth can benefit from watching and listening to themselves in action. Digital video recorders are useful for observing range of motion, movement patterns or choreography, exercise sequence flow and any rhythm-based cuing.

Dana Darby Hargis, a group fitness instructor in Manassas, Virginia, said her self-perceptions changed after taping several of her step routines. “I was surprised to see how little my body was moving compared to what I thought it felt like,” she said. “I realized that I needed to put a lot more energy into my body to make [my movements] show. This insight gave me the impetus to pay more attention to my arms and also my participants’ arms.” At the same time, Hargis said, it was apparent that her cuing skills were strong.

“A digital video camera can adequately measure all components of how a trainer communicates to a client verbally, visually and kinesthetically,” says Pete McCall, exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. Video can assist managers in identifying issues related to spotting technique, the personal space between client and trainer, and motivational cues. “Video feedback could identify issues that would allow managers to improve their trainers’ skill sets.”

Group fitness instructors or personal trainers who teach small-group sessions tend to benefit most from a video evaluation. Recording from the back of the room provides a wide vantage point—enough to see the instructor’s teaching skills as well as participants’ reactions. This allows many pertinent questions to be answered. Are members getting lost during choreography? Are clients spending too much time standing instead of training? McCall recommends video recording, especially since many personal trainers are moving toward group coaching. “It helps identify whether or not [trainers] are providing cues that participants can easily follow or whether they need to improve their communication skills.” A video can also capture how a fitness professional adapts routines and exercises on the fly, based on participant feedback.

Digital Audio Assessments

In environments where it may be inappropriate or unfavorable to have video recording devices, digital audio recorders can capture instructor or trainer experience without disrupting the flow of a class or session. Digital audio devices (often called voice or MP3 recorders) are small, discreet and easy to use. While this does not mean that audio devices should be “hidden” or used without consent, making an audio recording is less invasive than having a camera in the back of the room or shadowing a trainer like a filmmaker. When the primary focus is to evaluate verbal communication skills, such as coaching techniques or motivational cues, an audio recording is the best method.

In certain group exercise classes, such as indoor cycling, yoga and Pilates, where verbal cuing needs to be incredibly clear and detailed, audio feedback can help bring attention to tone of voice, cadence and cue fluidity. Audio recording is also quite helpful in personal training sessions and specialty classes where guided imagery and descriptive cuing are integral, and audio might be preferred over video in a darker room or when participants are under age (e.g., baby boot camps and kids’ fitness).

Audio assessments can pinpoint places where cuing can make or break the experience. “When I teach yoga, I rarely hold postures or practice along with the class,” says Jackie Camborde, group exercise specialist in Sante Fe, New Mexico. “I want [the participants] to find the poses in their own bodies, and I give them the verbal imagery to accomplish this task.” Camborde suggests that new instructors spend a great deal of time developing their cuing skills. Audio recordings can help fitness professionals analyze their intonation, volume, phrasing and instruction. “Any time we record ourselves and play it back, we learn something new. Even though it may seem intimidating to [hear yourself], it’s worth it if you find little verbal tics such as like, uh and okay, so you become better with your words.”

Personal trainers can also take advantage of audio recording to assess interpersonal skills, initial assessments and orientations. “Perhaps the most critical moment in a trainer-client relationship is the first meeting,” says McGrath, who adds that building trust and rapport is crucial. “If a trainer misses key opportunities to establish this [trust], there may not be a second meeting. Being able to listen [after the fact] to a real session allows the trainer to pick out important statements that may or may not have been missed during the live meeting” (see the sidebar “Evaluating Your Digital Recording”). Audio recordings also complement SOAP (subjective, objective, assessment and plan) notes and can help fitness professionals better prepare for a client’s next training session.

Professional Growth Goes Digital

Digital technologies do not always need to be integrated into a formal evaluation process. Other applications of audio or video recordings can also enhance professional growth. The staff at Equinox digitally record master classes, workshops and events. These recordings are then added to a database of educational resources. “We believe in the power of these tools for advanced evaluations and mentoring programs,” says Lashaun Dale, MA, MPH, who works as part of the National Creative Managers of Group Fitness at Equinox, New York City. “[Videos] are tremendously advantageous in taking skills from good to great.”

Some organizations that offer their own teaching certifications, such as Les Mills or Body Training Systems®, require fitness professionals to submit video recordings (DVDs) within 90 days after an instructor-training workshop, to demonstrate skill competencies prior to teaching new, branded formats. This not only ensures that programming remains consistent but also allows fitness professionals to develop their skill sets remotely.

Fitness “vloggers” (video bloggers) who regularly post videos online to sites like YouTube do so to demonstrate exercises and explain fitness topics in more detail. “There are endless opportunities to stimulate creativity as well as point out poor form, high-risk exercises and what not to do,” says Eric Beard, fitness director of the Longfellow Sports Club in Natick, Massachusetts, and senior master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Beard has uploaded countless videos to YouTube and uses them as resources to develop his own staff. “If there is a conversation between one of my staff members and myself, I can document the content of that discussion with videos and then share it with the rest of the staff.”

Don’t Replace; Embrace

It’s clear that digital technologies can be successfully used to support job responsibilities and help meet new career objectives for fitness professionals, but “face time” is still needed. “Digital technologies can certainly help a manager be in more places at once,” says Carol Murphy, education director for Drums Alive®, 2010 IDEA Group Fitness Instructor of the Year and owner of FitLife in Rochester, New York. “It gives managers a foundation for finding ways they can specifically help an instructor. It allows them to see how [instructors] are being perceived.” Although audio and video recorders are much easier to implement today than a decade ago, Murphy advocates that “physical and mental presence helps [fitness professionals] feel recognized and valued. It shows that the manager is genuinely interested.”

Ultimately, the extent to which digital tools are utilized to assess and develop successful fitness professionals will vary from company to company. However, since we are living in a world where digital technology is a constant, it may be time to re-evaluate the pros and cons of using digital audio and video recorders.