The Extraordinary Group Experience, Metaphorically Speaking
You have the power to create meaningful change with thoughtful, well-placed cues.
Group fitness has become a pop-culture pathway to physical and emotional health. Consider the many opportunities you have to color and shape people’s lives, off the bike and beyond the mat. Although you’re paid primarily for teaching safe and effective exercise, your influence extends much further, since your class may very well be the best part of your students’ days. So, beyond the workout, why do your students return? It’s about the experience, and about how you help them think and feel.
Many instructors assume they need to “wow” attendees each week with an intense or complex exercise—a thrill!—so they keep returning. But aren’t students more sophisticated than that? Isn’t it possible they need more than a difficult sequence or a playlist with the hottest new songs? Think back to an extraordinary experience you’ve had. How did it make you feel? You connected with it. It spoke to you; perhaps it highlighted your humanity. Well, the fitness world is about as human as it gets, and it taps into both our physical bodies and our psychological selves, so rise to the challenge and create a uniquely intimate, endorphin-releasing, empowering, transformative workout. Your power is in your coaching.
Whole-body fitness doesn’t just focus on the physical; it also enhances emotional fitness, especially for overworked, stressed-out members. Perhaps you already acknowledge students for showing up: “The hardest part of the workout is getting here. Congratulations, you’ve made it back to your bike.” Now develop your new sharp point: “The next hour is about feeding your body and mind, so that it’s easier for you to come back.”
The world can be a tough place, and for many, maneuvering through their own thoughts is becoming more difficult. Why not lift your message to new heights? Instead of focusing only on the workout, offer more in your introduction: “I’m going to guide you through physical exercises and also give you some mindful exercises. I’m here to correct your physical form, but only you will know what’s going on in your head; you won’t need to share that with anyone.”
The goal is for students to practice increasing their tolerance and becoming more adaptable, focused and clear from the inside out. You help this process by shifting your teaching strategies and incorporating framing techniques; namely, by using metaphor.
The word metaphor derives from the Greek metaphorá, meaning “transfer.” A metaphor is a figure of speech that transfers the meaning of one thing to another. It creatively compares a difficult concept to a more common idea; likens something boring to something fascinating; or draws a simple comparison between two unrelated things. The value of metaphor lies in the meaning and feeling it creates. “Metaphor matters because it opens the door to discovery,” said author James Geary in a TED talk titled “Metaphorically Speaking.”
Metaphors speak to the right brain, flooding the mind with images that don’t always make perfect sense (e.g., “It’s raining cats and dogs!”), but a metaphor’s poetic language helps you describe situations in a way your students can imagine, feel and know. They may lower their defenses when metaphor overrides rational thinking. Using metaphor as a tool allows you to create images, describe movement qualities and speak to students’ emotional states. For example, here’s how you might introduce a class using metaphor: “My workout is a washing machine: It will twist you, spin you and knock you around, but in the end, you’ll come out cleaner and brighter than when you started.”
See, Feel, Manifest
There are many practical ways of using metaphor to describe how alignment, posture or movement should look in an exercise. Give your students a colorful perspective. This is incredibly helpful for visual learners—especially when they can’t see their technique in a mirror. Here are some examples:
- “Your entire leg is a solid, stable tree trunk from your hip to your ankle.”
- “Your spine is stretching long and flat, reaching forward and extending backward like Highway 66.”
- “You are tightly rolled like a snail retracting into itself.”v
- “Your fingers reach like tiny branches extending toward the sun.”
Of course, you can also use metaphor to describe how an exercise should feel. For this purpose, choose language that conveys the quality of movement: force production, deceleration or flow. Metaphor creates expectations and is exceptionally helpful during body weight exercises when students aren’t receiving feedback from equipment. Below are some cues to try with different moves:
- Burpee: “You’re spring-loaded.”
- Minimal running: “You body’s a buoy effortlessly floating up, weightless.”
- Alternating side planks: “Gracefully flutter down, like a leaf from a tree.”
- Full-body stretch: “Energy explodes out of every particle of you, like a firework.”
Using cues that compare exercise and emotions can also help you connect with students. These cues let clients contemplate their struggles and desires without discussion, while enabling you to be an empowering, inspiring coach. Exercise releases endorphins that interact with serotonin and dopamine, chemicals that enhance mood. During the natural release of these chemicals, guide your students through colorfully inspired and productive thought processes—it’s your recipe for helping them cultivate willpower, clarity and self-esteem. The combination of endorphin-releasing exercises and guided metaphors will keep you and your students physically, mentally and emotionally committed to the entire workout experience.
Like a pebble dropped in a pool of water, metaphoric language keeps sending out ripples of meaning, the more people think about it. Try these in your next class:
- One-legged balance: “You’re the tree that stands alone and grows deep, penetrating roots. You are stable, grounded and connected.”
- Overhead press: “Push the weight of the world off your shoulders.”
Push-up: “Only you can drive away your bad habit.”
- Climbing while cycling: “Your obstacle is a giant mountain in the eye of the storm. Let’s conquer it together.”
- Pacing: “Life is a journey, not a race.”
- Rowing: “To make it across the ocean, you’ll need the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
- Pulling: “Draw in what you deserve; your shining moment is on your horizon.”
- Working harder: “Dreams don’t work unless you do.”
Weaving metaphors into your cues is a powerful way to develop your own teaching style. If this approach resonates with you, use it to bring your coaching to life with authenticity and passion. Your workouts will become more memorable and persuasive. The next time you want to impress your class participants with a thrilling, intense exercise or the hottest newest dance song, think twice. Instead, develop an experience that will resonate in their bodies and their minds.