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