Small Class Phobia


Mark Grevelding is a Personal Trainer, Group fitness instructor and free-lance writer in Rochester, NY.  Certified by AFAA, AEA and FITOUR, he trains and teaches on land and in water, and presents motivational nutrition courses for a local health organization.  




The combination of a small class and the fragile ego of an instructor are often the ingredients of an aerobic nightmare.  For some, low attendance in a class is met with a shrug of the shoulders, but for others, a small turn out is like a knife in the heart.  Why do some instructors happily teach to four people while others re-coil in horror?   Are we just prima donnas, or is it more?


Recently, I had another one of my embarrassing ďdiva moments.Ē  It occurred during my aqua kickboxing class, which normally draws good numbers.  Emerging from the locker room into the pool area, I was greeted by the sight of a nearly empty pool.  Upon seeing only five people in the pool, my mood immediately darkened and Iím sure my facial expression reflected the black ink shooting through my veins.  The fact that the pool area was abnormally stifling didnít help matters.  My tantrum began by barking at the lifeguard not to remove the remaining three lap lanes, as we would OBVIOUSLY not need the space.  Barely able to crack a smile, I started the music and pouted through the first 15 minutes of class.

THE NEUROTIC THOUGHTS OF A SLIGHTED INSTRUCTOR:  ďWhat is it?  They donít like me?  They donít like the class?  Ok, so itís snowing.  Big deal.  Iím here.  They   should be too.  How dare they forsake me!Ē  It amazed me that I was able to cue at the same time my mind raced over the injustice of my perceived abandonment.  As an instructor for six years, I have repeated versions of this shameful performance more times than I would care to admit.  Fortunately, common sense always prevails just in time to recover my dignity and the remainder of the class.

THE CONTRITE THOUGHTS OF AN EMBARRASSED INSTRUCTOR:  ďOh Mark.  You are such a jerk.  These people trundled through snow to see you and all you can do is focus on the 15 people who arenít there.  Pull yourself together and give these people the respect they deserve and the class they showed up for.  Youíll be lucky if ANYONE shows up next week after this little display!Ē  As always, I overcompensated by being Mr. Ultra Personality for the second half of class, and of course the five people all thanked me after class, making me feel like more of a jerk.  The following week the pool was brimming with people once again and all was well.  But was it really?  Why do small classes fill me with dread?

Iíve given this a lot of thought, and I cannot help but draw a parallel to the same issues that doom me in relationships.  Without a doubt, I have major phobias concerning rejection and abandonment.  Looking back at my relationships, it is easy to identify the wreckage caused by my fears of not being good enough.  Whenever I perceive someone might be losing interest or not paying enough attention, a warning bell goes off in my brain and I scramble to cut the line before they can reject me.  Perhaps this explains why I constantly change choreography, format, and style in my classes.  Iím like the Madonna of aerobic instructors, constantly re-creating myself because Iím afraid if I donít, my students will loose interest and abandon me.

Yes, the ability to adapt and change is essential for an instructor, but I question my urgency, frequency and motivation for keeping the classes exciting.  Do I facilitate new formats in my classes to improve the functional fitness of my students, or do I desperately create and concoct to impress and ensnare, ensuring they will never leave.  (Please refer to my previous article, ďConfessions of a Choreography Monster.)  Naturally, my students love change, but most would be just as happy doing an established routine.  God knows I could sure use the reprieve from choreographing all the time.

In the world of group fitness, we strive to be our best, hoping to pack a classroom, and withering when our best doesnít seem good enough.  In my six years as an instructor, Iíve witnessed some pretty nasty character assassinations on fellow instructors.  Attacks launched by class members, peers, and even group fitness directors.  Due to our position in the spotlight, we open ourselves to all sorts of unkind treatment.  Member surveys, number tallies and performance evaluations rank us in pecking order, validating the popular instructors and depressing everyone else.  During my first few years as an instructor, I used to study the class number tallies like they were the NASDAQ Composite.  The whole time plotting and scheming my ascension to the revered spot of having the class with the most students.  In my warped mind, big numbers meant I was good enough.  God rue the day when a popular instructor should walk by and see me teaching to a small class.  Just kill me now please!

My personal experience with member surveys has been mostly positive, but Iíve seen some instructors reduced to tears by inappropriate and unjustified remarks.  I understand the need for providing members with a forum for voicing their likes and dislikes, but Iíve seen surveys which invite responses in areas which class members simply are not qualified to critique.  It becomes a slippery slope when we focus more on what members want, as opposed to what they need.  I remember once teaching an ďauditionĒ kickboxing class at a local corporate facility.  The group fitness director stood at the door after class and grilled the students on what they thought of my performance, in full view and earshot of me!  The consensus was that they liked me, but they didnít get their heart rates up enough.  Apparently the previous instructor kicked, jabbed and jacked to beats exceeding 140BPM, and the director suggested I might try the same.  No thank you.

As for class evaluations, when done right, they can be very helpful.  Again, Iíve had mostly positive experiences with these.  The most helpful evaluations were the ones that pointed out areas where I could improve my delivery and execution of functional fitness skills.  Hopefully, most group fitness directors focus their evaluation on whether or not the class is designed to improve health and fitness, rather than nitpicking on silly things.

And then there is the bane of all insecure instructors, the nefarious number tallies.  ďDare I write this shameful number down, or should I fudge it?Ē  Certainly a moral dilemma I faced often during the first few years I taught.  Some clubs keep tallies, some donít. Of course, group fitness directors have to take numbers into account, but numbers donít always tell the whole story.  The instructors delivering the best overall workouts arenít always the instructors with the big numbers.  Upon closer inspection, it might be revealed that very few people go to Susieís class because they think she spends too much time warming up, cooling down, and her music is to slow.  They would rather go to Maryís class because she steps to a super fast beat, doesnít waste time cooling down, and does a million crunches.  Is this a fair comparison?

I hope Iím not sounding like I have an axe to grind.  In the end, education, longevity, and an excellent rapport with my students, ultimately provided me with the kind of success I had always hoped for.  But as always, my thoughts and words simply reveal the trials and tribulations of our profession.  I assume that what I experience and feel is felt by others.  At least I hope so.  (GreatÖsomething else to be neurotic about!)  For the most part, I have been blessed with an abundance of wonderful feedback.  But Iíve also had my feelings hurt and have spent far too much time wrestling with the demons in my mind, the demons that turn a small class into an indictment of my unworthiness.  Kind of heavy stuff I know, but it needs to be said.  This is dedicated to all the instructors who have left a classroom dejected and feeling not good enough.  You are not alone.  And this is written for all the group fitness directors so that you might understand your instructors and their egos a little better.

Thankfully, I am in a much better place than I was a couple of years ago.  I no longer burn with shame or seethe with jealousy at the sight of another instructorís packed class. Itís much easier to bless that instructor.  I have matured as an instructor and come to the realization that not everyone will like my class despite my best efforts at charm and creativity.  I canít please everyone.  Some people would rather walk over hot coals than attend one of my choreographed step classes, and thatís ok.   I no longer take it personally.  I canít own peopleís personal preferences, but I can own my reaction to them.

In our quest for a big class, we are always tempted to imitate otherís success, hoping to recreate it as our own.  We are foolish if we think our students canít see through this ruse.  If WE canít be ourselves, what kind of message are we sending to our students who look to us as role models?  And if we continue to think that another instructorís popularity detracts from our own, security and satisfaction will forever elude us, and our star will never shine.  There is a slice of pie for all instructors, a place in the front of the classroom for all different types of personalities, body shapes, ages, and skill levels.  All that is required is an honest desire to want to help people change their mind, body and soul.

I am reminded of a passage in a book by one of my favorite authors.  In her book, ďA Return to Love,Ē author Marianne Williamson states, ďWe canít fake authenticity.  We think we need to create ourselves, always doing a paste-up job on our personalities.  That is because weíre trying to be special rather than real.  Weíre pathetically trying to conform with all the other people trying to do the same.  A tulip doesnít strive to impress anyone.  It doesnít struggle to be different than a rose.  It doesnít have to.  It is different.  And thereís room in the garden for every flower.Ē

We donít have to be special.  We donít have to be a star.  We just have to be real.  For me, I must try to remember that every class, regardless of size, is an opportunity to deliver my ministry of health and fitness.  I wish I could say that Iíll never again experience neurotic thoughts at the sight of a small class, but by owning my issues and my reactions to those issues, hopefully I can avoid future ďdiva moments.Ē

Spring is FINALLY here!  Enjoy.  Take the time to appreciate the tulips and the roses, and all the other flowers in the garden.




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