As exercisers change—with time, trends and age—so too do their goals. No longer are people exercising solely to get in physical shape. With more and more evidence surfacing about the positive psychological benefits of exercise, consumers are looking to improve their emotional and mental states as well.

In particular, participants are starting to appreciate the impact that group fitness classes have on self-concept and mental outlook. Skills people
try out in class translate directly into their business and personal worlds. Feeling successful and motivated in
a fitness class can give participants the courage to be more extroverted or risk-taking outside the gym.

When people change their self-perceptions, their mood can also be affected. Exercise affects the ego—that part of our being that defines our self-esteem, our conscious realization of ourselves and our sense of identity. In fact, the documented link between exercise and the psyche is so strong that some psychotherapists (myself included) are prescribing movement and fitness classes to alleviate depression, stress and anxiety. These classes can directly affect people’s inner and outer selves.

How can we instructors strengthen our participants’ egos? What happens when these conflict with our personal goals? And what can we do to ensure that our own legitimate ego needs don’t get in the way of our helping others?

A Question of Balance

Group exercisers grow less inclined each year to accept a self-absorbed, “mirror-staring” instructor. But the reality is we instructors also have psychological needs. How do we balance our ego needs with those of our participants?

There are essentially four potential scenarios to consider in this regard:

1. We can meet both our participants’ needs and our own.

2. We can meet our participants’ needs but not our own.

3. We can meet our own needs but not theirs.

4. We can meet neither their needs nor our own.

Obviously the first scenario is the ideal: All members of the exercise group, ourselves included, leave class mentally healthier and bolstered. But achieving this ideal can be challenging. If we cannot or do not meet the ideal, then our role as professionals stipulates that we work toward the second scenario: sacrificing our needs in order to help the people who put their trust in us. Allowing the last two scenarios to occur is unprofessional at best and damaging at worst.

Defining Your Own Needs

Your ultimate duty is to your participants. To attend to their needs you must first examine your own. How do you achieve that? The key is to avoid trying to figure out your own needs and your group’s simultaneously.

Each day, before you set foot in front of your group, you need to review fundamental questions such as, Who is the class for? What motivates me to teach today? and What needs to happen so I feel excited about and focused on the people coming to my class? Go through a mental checklist touching on your inspiration source, motives and teaching goals. Be honest, not judgmental. For instance,
if you are telling yourself, “I really need an intense workout today” or “I’m not feeling myself today, so I’ll crank up the music,” you need to recognize the possible conflict with your participants’ goals. You may need to take another instructor’s class that day or blast your car radio on the way to the gym instead. Once you take steps ahead of time, you
can move to the in-class phase.

Meeting Participants’
Needs and Your Own

Meeting an ideal is never easy. Basically you have two opportunities to achieve the ego-boosting ideal: The first situation requires that (1) all class participants have the same
psychological needs from the fitness class; (2) you recognize what those needs are; and (3) you have similar needs. The second situation requires only that you be sensitive to and aware of your participants’ ego needs and that you restrict your own needs to being the most effective teacher you can be.

The first situation is a rarity at best. If you get even one new participant
or you or a regular group attendee has an off day, the chances of everyone’s psychological experience being positive are slim.

The second situation has much better odds. In this situation, the outcome depends on your having only one need: being the most effective teacher you can be (remember that ego checklist!). This outcome also depends on your being consistent in how you teach. You can achieve consistency by always demonstrating modifications for all participating levels; by educating people as they exercise; by motivating the group; and by encouraging each person based on his or her individual needs. If you notice that some individuals are struggling when new moves are introduced or that participants’ endurance is being taxed, you can act appropriately to make the class more “psyche positive.” The way to do that is to give positive reinforcement, which will result in better participant progress and retention. For example, if one participant is doing moves differently from the way you are demonstrating them, be sure to verbally reassure that person (either before class, privately or during class with
a generalized cue to the whole group) that it is okay to move differently. Really check with yourself that you offer modifications in a positive, not offhanded, way.

Meeting Participants’
Needs but Not Your Own

What happens on those occasions when you just don’t mesh with your participants? What if something happens in your personal life that prevents you from taking care of your own ego? Or suppose you’re just burnt out? While the group’s needs should always be a priority, sometimes your own will have to be temporarily sacrificed.

The reality is that the impact you have on the egos of your class participants can be greater than the impact they have on your ego. You are the one in your “comfort zone” doing an activity you already feel successful at. They are the ones trusting you in an area where they are not the leaders.

Regardless of whether your own goals can be met on any given day, your participants will leave class having had a positive or negative experience influenced by your attitude and teaching priorities. Keep in mind that for some exercisers, just getting to class is a monumental achievement. Factor in participants who are depressed, unmotivated or negative. Consider the number of exercisers whose feelings of self-worth are tied to a physical condition with which they are dissatisfied, such as being overweight, uncomfortable with their body or uncoordinated. Also think of the people who are coming for the first time, aren’t used to your routine or simply are not in as good shape as you are (but wish they were).

Now imagine the difference between a teacher who welcomes, encourages and “strokes” her participants and one who looks no one in the eye, seems to go into teaching on “autopilot” and appears more concerned with how high she herself can kick than how well her students are doing. It’s easy to see how a few kind words can strengthen someone all day, just as negative feedback or unnecessary ego bruising can create one more
exercise obstacle.

Meeting Your Needs
but Not Theirs

The flip side of the last scenario is the instructor who bolsters her own ego while sacrificing the group. This is often the case when the instructor’s needs do not relate to the actual act of teaching; this circumstance can cause an instructor to become oblivious to her participants, both physically and psychologically.

Do you habitually work yourself as hard as possible during your class in order to give yourself a good workout (or to prove to your class how tough you really are)? Do you demand more attention from the group than you are willing to give them? Do you feel the need to prove your athleticism or show the class how fancy and difficult you can make the routines? Keep in mind that the toll on your participants can be enormous if they feel excluded, inadequate or incompetent. Instructors who answered yes to the questions asked above are ultimately and directly responsible for discouraging their participants from pursuing exercise.

Meeting No One’s Needs

Nothing is more discouraging to
people hoping to gain confidence and build self-esteem than to participate in an exercise class in which they can’t keep up with others and then get little assistance, guidance or encouragement from the instructor. Instead of having a positive and motivating
encounter, these people leave feeling frustrated and questioning their abilities to partake in group exercise.

Yet this is exactly what happens when an instructor is unaware of or ignores the needs of the participants. The effects on their psyche last much longer than the hour or so of that particular class. Lack of encouragement or additional instruction from the teacher leads to frustration, aggravation and increases in stress level—exact opposites of the hoped-for results that motivate people to take the class in the first place.

The other side of the coin, though, is that instructors can just as easily sacrifice their own needs for too long a time. If your needs are continually not being met because they are not in the best interests of your participants, then you should reassess the situation. You may need to redefine your own needs. You may also have to consider teaching a different kind of class, frequented by participants whose ego needs are more in line with your own.

Sometimes your needs may be overshadowed by those of a participant suffering from an injured ego or low self-esteem who decides to act negatively in class. At no time should you ever allow yourself (or, for that matter, another participant) to be verbally or physically abused. If someone in class is making demands, jeopardizing your integrity or engaging in harassing behaviors (such as yelling, disrupting class or making lewd remarks), then you have to protect yourself by asking that person to leave or having management intervene.

The bottom line is clear: If you are consistently making your participants feel successful at your own expense or, conversely, if you habitually ignore their needs and boost your own ego, then it’s time for you to take a teaching break—for your sake and theirs.

Ego Power Boost

With everything you have on your mind, it’s easy to forget that a critical part of our job as instructors is to
create a safe atmosphere for participants to take risks and challenge themselves. As leaders, we influence them physically, psychologically and mentally. We have both the power and the obligation to help people who come to us hoping for an uplifting, energizing experience. If we are clear about our personal reasons for teaching, we can improve the chances that everyone will have a positive class experience. Imagine everyone leaving each class improved both in body and mind. True teaching really can change the world!

idea fitness edge/September 2000

Ways to Strengthen Your Participants’ Egos
  • Remind participants to work at their own level.
  • Tell them when they’re doing well.
  • Offer comments like “Hang in there; you can do it!”
  • Give options when moves are too difficult for anyone.
  • Teach the moves instead of giving a performance.
  • Teach facing the class, not the mirror.
  • Give positive corrections instead of “Don’t do this” and “Not like that.”
  • Motivate with kind words.
  • Welcome newcomers and encourage them to return.
  • Be equal, not superior, in your approach.
  • Stroke their egos with encouragement and praise.
  • Use positive reinforcement.
  • Encourage participants to ask for assistance and guidance throughout the class.

idea fitness edge/September 2000

idea fitness edge/September 2000problem solver