Dealing With Difficult Participants
How to Take Control When Caustic Conduct Disrupts Your Group Exercise Class

By Brian E. O’Neill


rue story: One August morning I was getting ready to teach my first 6:00 AM yoga class in a trendy Boston health club. The room was packed with a gaggle of lawyers, agents and power brokers anxious to breathe, stretch and sweat before heading off to their corner offices downtown. Halfway into class, as I was leading them through a one-footed balancing pose, a cell phone began ringing to the tune of “La Cucaracha” in a piercing, high-pitched tone. A participant quickly reached for the phone clipped to his Spandex shorts . . . and actually answered the call! Right there in the middle of class, we were all treated to the following scintillating conversation: “Hello? Yeah. No, it’s OK, I can talk now. . . . I’m just doin’ some yoga.” Talk about difficult participants! Seems as though lately there’s at least one in every group fitness class. It might be the egocentrist who has no qualms about repeatedly interrupting with questions or demands, or the technophile who–etiquette be damned– totes a handbag that emits more blips

and bleeps than R2-D2. Maybe it’s that classic double threat: the chatty twosome at the back of the room, just too cool for school. The list goes on . . . and on. One thing’s sure: When rude or selfish behavior threatens to disrupt a class, all eyes are on the instructor to restore order and maintain a pleasant atmosphere for all attending. So what do you do? You learn how to master the fine art of handling difficult behavior, that’s what.

Nip It in the Bud
The best way to handle difficult behavior also happens to be the simplest: Keep it from happening in the first place. Often, a preemptive approach is all it takes. Try beginning your class with a friendly reminder to turn off all cell phones and pagers. I do this for every class, and it usually does the trick. Other times, you might post a sign outside class reminding participants to enter quietly if they’re late, not to bring in open containers, and so on. One especially nice and effective preventive

move I use is to create a biweekly newsletter that includes news about the club, various class-related tips and a special section reminding everyone about class rules. My students appreciate the extra service, and I get to address different etiquette issues without singling out any one person. Also, never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement. There’s a space in my newsletter that I reserve for heaping praise on a different participant each month for his or her improvement in, or dedication to, my class. Other times, I give away a copy of the music I play during class. Think it sounds too simple or hokey? Try it; you’ll be amazed. If you praise participants when they’re good, making sure to do so in front of everyone else, you’ll have them competing to be on their best behavior.

After the Fact
Unfortunately, not all difficult situations can be cut off at the pass. Sometimes, you need to address the problems as they develop. When dealing directly with a difficult participant, keep a couple of things in mind.
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First, understand that all behaviors make sense to the person who displays them. No one ever wakes up in the morning and says, “I think today I’ll behave in a way that makes no sense to me or anybody else.” Somewhere along the way, difficult people come to accept that their behavior is serving some purpose–whether it’s attracting attention, gaining control or simply blowing off steam. Difficult behavior is usually nothing personal against you as an instructor. It’s generally just a matter of someone being stuck in a poor pattern. Now, we all know your job is simply to teach exercise, not to practice psychology. Nobody’s asking you to delve into your participants’ childhood memories to find out where their errant behavior began. You’re only concerned with where it ends: in your class. But by understanding the source, you may gain the sensitivity needed to handle each situation professionally and effectively. Second, always try a nonverbal approach first, if possible. Many situations can be handled just fine without some kind of face-off between you and the participant. However, for those times when it is necessary to address a particular student after class, remember this simple formula: Respect, reflect, direct. Tempting as it may be, trying to fix a problem behavior by saying something like, “Listen, Buster, keep that mouth of yours shut in my class!” is the verbal equivalent to pouring gasoline on the fire. Nobody likes taking orders, especially busy adults who are paying hardearned money to attend your class. Everybody’s a winner when an issue is resolved tactfully, and savvy persuaders know that the way to get a person to change is to show you are interested in his or her concerns (respect), demonstrate that you understand and sympathize with those concerns (reflect) and offer an alternative solution that appeals to the person’s self-interest (direct). Start by asking an open-ended quesF E B R U A RY 2 0 0 3 I D E A F I T N E S S E D G E

tion. (Examples on how to approach different types of difficult participants are provided below.) Next, paraphrase your student’s answer and say that you are concerned and want to help resolve the issue. Depending on the feedback you get, you can then propose a solution. Make certain, however, that the

often as necessary. If repeated attempts fail to get the job done, it’s time to have a chat of your own . . . after class, of course! Start by saying something like, “I noticed you seemed a bit distracted today. Was there something about my class you want to talk about?” Then take the time to lis-

The best way to handle difficult behavior also happens to be the simplest: Keep it from happening in the first place.

solution includes a benefit to the participant. People rarely change their behavior unless they have an incentive to do so, so the alternative must be presented as somehow better than the original behavior. That’s why you should refrain from saying, “Quit yer yappin,” even when bad behavior seems to justify such a response. The fact is, you’ll probably have much better luck if you stress the benefit to the participant this way: “It’s been my experience that this workout is more effective when you focus intently on what you’re doing.” Remember that your job is simply to provide a quality class to everyone who shows up. No more, no less. Now let’s look at some common disruptive personality types and the ways you can take back control when they cause a commotion in class.

ten and to discuss any complaints or suggestions that come up. Finish by saying you’re concerned that, without the proper level of focus, your class could become less effective (or even dangerous) and you’d like to encourage everyone to work toward developing that level of focus.

The Conqueror
It happens: Some days, your class turns into a game of world conquest, like the board game “Risk.” The person responsible for creating the combat zone is often the one who wants to plant a flag claiming a permanent classroom spot– and then defend it by any means necessary. I’ve even watched one participant stage a series of coups d’