How Constructive Criticism Makes You a Better Instructor

Embrace feedback as a gateway to a successful career.

By Kelly James-Enger
Dec 11, 2014

Several weeks ago, a fellow instructor who has more experience than I do “called me out” on my dead lifts. She said that as she walked by the studio during my Les Mills BODYPUMP™ class, she noticed my questionable form. Her suggestion (after asking me first if she could share): Keep my knees slightly bent instead of maintaining straight legs.

My knee-jerk reaction was to be defensive. “But that’s how I dead lift when I train—I keep my legs straight!” However, she was right. In BODYPUMP, the proper form is to bend your knees slightly. Her comment not only spurred me to correct my own form; it also empowered me to teach the proper technique going forward.

If you’re an experienced group exercise instructor, you’re likely familiar with criticism. Maybe you embrace it, perhaps you take it too personally, or maybe you choose to ignore it. However, refusing criticism or ignoring it completely may hurt your career. In fact, learning how to use criticism—and offer constructive criticism yourself—is an essential skill for all fitness professionals.

Giving Constructive Criticism

You already know the difference between a positive cue (“Keep your knees soft”) and a negative one (“Don’t lock your knees”). Knowing how to give corrective guidance, whether you call it feedback or cuing, falls under the “criticism” umbrella, and it’s a critical skill. “If you don’t correct [a participant] appropriately, the person can either get hurt or will fail to gain all of the benefits of exercise,” says psychologist Alice D. Domar, PhD, coauthor of Live a Little: Breaking the Rules Won’t Hurt Your Health (Crown 2009). “The feedback you give needs to be motivating, not devaluing, dismissive or destructive.” Constructive criticism seeks to help the person you’re speaking to, while destructive criticism tears the person down.

A positive relationship sets the stage for giving and receiving constructive criticism. Julz Arney, co-owner of Team Arney Inc., and a fitness programs specialist in Costa Mesa, California, is often required to provide feedback. “As a mentor, I have found that advice is best received by instructors with whom I have built a professional relationship,” says Arney. “When they know I have their best interest at heart, and I’m coming from a place of wanting to see them excel, it’s easy to give and receive feedback.”

Tricia Murphy Madden, a group fitness instructor and manager at Community Fitness and at Denali Fitness in Seattle, agrees that instructors are more receptive to her feedback because of her relationships with them. She also says that performance improves dramatically when she points out areas where instructors excel. “I know that if I say, for example, how great their cuing style is, they’ll focus on that skill set,” says Madden. “And since I talk to them about what they’re doing well 90% of the time, the 10% of the time when I tell them what they’re not doing well, they feel I care.”

Abbie Appel, group fitness manager at Equinox in Miami, uses the “sandwich” approach when critiquing. “I start with something positive, then say something they can improve on, and finish with something else they’re already doing well,” says Appel.

Appel is also careful to avoid overwhelming people with negative feedback. “You can’t give them too many ways to improve; they get lost in it,” she says. During an evaluation, Appel writes down everything an instructor needs to improve, but she gives the instructor only two things to focus on: one “small picture” item and one “big picture” goal. She then takes the class 2 months later and chooses other aspects for the instructor to work on.

Feedback is more likely to be appreciated than criticism, adds Arney. “Criticism generally has a negative connotation. It focuses on flaws and what is lacking rather than advice on how to improve. Instead, I have found that offering ways for a consulting client or mentee to ‘sharpen things up’ or ‘up [his or her] game’ is more beneficial and better received.”

Arney says her comments are more likely to be welcomed when an instructor asks. for feedback. “If you don’t have a close working relationship with the person, unsolicited advice can come off as rude and arbitrary. However, if someone reaches out to you for help or advice on a project, your feedback is likely to be better received.”

Receiving Constructive Criticism

Most instructors don’t like to hear that they’re doing something wrong, especially from a class participant. However, reframing how you look at criticism can help you learn from it. “Sometimes a participant’s way of creating a relationship with an instructor is to have this conversation,” says Madden. “Sometimes it’s just about being heard. Try to look at it as if the person is trying to connect with you, not that she’s coming after you. I think it’s important to be willing to take feedback and improve your skills. If you really believe in fitness as your career, you have to be willing to grow.”

Criticism from participants is one thing, but what about criticism from your manager? Domar advises viewing it in the same light. “As long as the end of the sentence isn’t ‘You’re fired,’ it means the boss is invested in you,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that everything you do is wrong— he is simply pointing out one specific area where he wants something different. Instead of taking it as criticism, see it as an opportunity to learn how to do things better so you can advance in your job.”

After all, even the most talented instructors have areas where they can improve. “There’s always something you can do to make the experience better for everyone in class,” says Appel. “You have to keep your mind open. As a manager, I sometimes take feedback a little personally, whether it’s about me or one of my instructors. I can’t help it. But then I step back and try to figure out what the person is thinking.”

Consider who is offering the advice before you respond, says Arney. “Is she a part of your close circle of friends? An esteemed colleague? Does he have your best interest in mind? If not, it might be best to reach out to others for feedback as well before you take his or her word. If someone close to me whom I respect offers advice, I absolutely listen. I’m also intentional about asking trusted colleagues for their feedback on a regular basis, so I’m always in learning mode.”

If you’re not sure whether feedback is accurate, consider polling your class. For example, if a participant says your music is too loud, or your circuit moves are too challenging, ask others what they think. Stay open to observations. “Tell people, ‘If you have feedback about the class, please let me know,’” says Appel. “Most members want to be heard, and you, as the instructor, are providing a service. This is a customer service business—that means [you have to be] proactive. Even if you’ve been an instructor for 20 years and have taught the same class every Wednesday evening, you can still ask for feedback.”

The bottom line? The more you ask for feedback, the more likely you are to hear something that isn’t 100% positive. It’s up to you how to react. “Every instructor gets negative feedback,” says Appel. “Know that you’re going to get it, put aside your ego, and address it as part of your job.” That’s how criticism—even when it may feel uncomfortable or off-putting—can improve your performance as a group exercise instructor.

Give Better Feedback

Whether you’re an instructor or a manager (or both), make your criticism constructive, not destructive, by keeping the following tips in mind:

  • Be specific. Instead of saying, “I don’t like your music,” say, “I think the metal rock you’re playing may be turning off some of the older members.”
  • Counter with positives. Instead of talking only about what an instructor is doing poorly, point out her strengths: “You’re doing a great job cuing your cycling class. I’d like to see you focus on helping participants set specific goals for class as well.”
  • Create a bond. Work to maintain relationships with your fellow instructors before you offer feedback. If the only time you talk to them is to offer negative feedback, they’re likely to tune out.
  • Be a role model. Make sure you’re asking for feedback as well and are willing to accept it from others.
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Kelly James-Enger

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