Yvonne Jones, department head of health and fitness at Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA in Encinitas, California, describes herself as a “poster child” for the mentoring concept. In 14 years, Jones went from being a student in the back row to being instructor, coordinator, supervisor, director and then department head.

The Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA has over 20,000 members and offers about 140 fitness classes a week, taught by approximately 80 instructors. Jones has a passion for teaching fresh faces, and she sees the new-instructor training program as a potential feeder system for the fitness department. “I love to see the ‘a-ha’ moment when cuing, music and movement all come together,” Jones says. I have great people in my life who mentored and inspired me, and it’s been a pleasure to give back.”

Please explain the details
of your mentorship program.

Our program is usually run by the fitness director at the YMCA. It’s a 20-hour course taught over a 1-month period of time and combines lecture and a lot of practical work. We usually have 5–10 students and we pull information from several certification manuals. We cover mainstream formats (step, high-low, group strength, interval, etc.) and other formats as needed (senior, youth, pre/postnatal), depending on the interest level of the students. We sometimes bring in experts from various areas to share information.

We also give homework; all students must observe classes and report what they learned and how it can be incorporated into a real-life program. Another part of their homework is to design a portion of a class and teach it to classmates. The session is videotaped, and we identify areas needing improvement. Mentorees may borrow equipment to practice at home, and they can also book studio time. Upon “graduation,” students are matched up with a seasoned instructor (usually the one who recommended them) and teach portions of a class as determined by the instructor and director. We give feedback on a continual basis.

Was your program created
out of need, or was it more
entrepreneurial? What have been the biggest challenges?

It was started 8–10 years ago by one of the fitness directors who was short on instructors and decided that in-house training would be a good idea to fill the need for subs and new class offerings. The biggest challenge is the time commitment both for the students and for the person who teaches the course.

How/where do you recruit
people for your program?
What qualifications do they need to have?

Most of the recruitment stems from our membership. Typically, the “front-row” participants in many classes have the potential to be some of the best instructors. In my case, I happened to be a “back-row” participant who moved well, had good form and could hear the music. The instructor who told me, “You’d be a great instructor. Have you ever thought about teaching?” is the same one who started the new-instructor training program at this facility.

There are no initial requirements, just the heart for teaching and the aptitude for learning the skills. Eventually, if mentorees decide they want to pursue a teaching opportunity, we steer them in the direction of becoming certified. I usually tell students that the course is the “driver’s education,” and that afterward they will actually have to get their “driver’s license” (certification) to complete the process.

Do you offer some type of
compensation for mentorees? What about mentors?

We do not provide compensation for mentorees. However, if they finish the course successfully, we do have volunteer opportunities with value-added membership benefits. Mentors get paid a training rate for their time.

Do you require some sort of
financial or time commitment from mentorees? What about exclusivity or long-term

The course is $100 for members and $125 for nonmembers. The mentorees are not required to work here. It’s their choice how much time they want to put into learning the concepts and completing the homework. Almost everyone who successfully completes the course (and feels confident enough to start teaching) ends up staying because they are already connected. Currently, we have about 10 instructors on staff who have gone through the program and continue to work here. There is very little turnover. In fact, one of the graduates is now our active older adult fitness coordinator—she has done wonders for our program.

Once mentorees finish their
internship, are they promised a job or is the mentoring separate from the hiring process?

No one is promised a job. In fact, at times I actually have to say, “Don’t quit your day job” because of sorely lacking skills. If someone does have potential, usually he or she volunteers for 6 months to a year and transitions to being a paid employee, if desired.

If your mentoring program
focuses mainly on new instructors, is there a component
that focuses on class design, prechoreographed programs and specialty certification/instruction?

I administer a questionnaire on the first day of class regarding the mentorees’ goals, and then I do my best to deliver that education, even if it means bringing in someone else to teach portions of the class. For example, we have a staff person with a master’s degree in exercise physiology (emphasis in gerontology), so I
often ask her to talk about the senior
population and how best to format a class to meet their needs. Keep in mind that I’m only able to give a sampling. If a student really wants to go deeper into one mode, I set up time separately after the formal 20 hours is finished or occasionally within the month of training. This is done on an individual basis. I also encourage existing instructors to come in to take a module they need to brush up on or one that they have always had an
interest in teaching.

Do you offer help (financial or otherwise) with certification training? Why or why not?

No, we do not offer financial help. We have a large staff, and any budget money that is available for certification/continuing
education is earmarked for existing staff.

How do members benefit
from your club-based program?

The mentor program enhances the sense of community because members see that one of their own is now up front and teaching. Also, a new instructor offers a freshness and energy that members enjoy.

What advice can you offer for other group exercise managers who are thinking about starting a mentorship program?

Some of our best and most loyal employees started out in our new-instructor program. I highly recommend creating a program if you’re willing to invest time into planting, watering, pruning and nurturing the growth and transformation of a new instructor.

Read this column every issue to find out how universities and fitness facility mentorship programs are bridging the gap between “veteran” instructors and “newbies,” group fitness professionals who are just getting started. Learn what you can do to help support and foster continuing and robust growth in this important area of health and wellness.