In over 12 years of group fitness training and personal training, I have come to recognise the vital role an instructor can play in delivering lessons that go beyond the hour you spend with students. It is the difference between instructing while holding attention for a single class, and delivering knowledge that lasts a lifetime.
A teacher has many opportunities throughout class, and via social media, newsletters, online videos and digital channels, where they can sow a seed of curiosity, build a relationship with students and instil appreciation for our bodies. Instructors can also play a part in cultivating mental strength and resilience, the ability to take ownership of our fitness, and our cognitive processes around movement, mobility and endurance.
After two recent classes, the highly skilled and highly respected teachers admitted to me that they worried they may have spoken too much or used anatomical terms or energetic cues that might be “too much” for participants. In fact, I have learned that many – perhaps all – students attend group fitness classes because they ARE curious about their own bodies, they ARE passionate about movement and fitness; they want to know more. People don’t necessarily need to understand the myofascial system or the insertion and origin of muscles to fully appreciate when you tell them to work the full range of a muscle or give a cue regarding physical or energetic systems of the body (ie: in yoga, relating the breath or areas of the body to their spiritual or traditionally held beliefs around where emotions are held or the spiritual aspects of breath relating to movement).
Sow a seed that enables the curious students to consider. Don’t be afraid to share what you know and to do so confidently and invite interest.
There will always be instructors who have 10 years more experience than you. There will always be instructors who are labelled “Master” instructors in what they do, but that doesn’t mean your experience and knowledge and particular approach is not relevant, meaningful and impactful. When you enter the room as an instructor, you are charged with the responsibility and credibility to teach what you believe is right and valid. Just as in any discipline from quantum physics to medicine to sculpture, there are constant discoveries and developments so it is only natural that there are differences between teachers as to approach and ideas. As long as you can explain the what, how and why, you are doing your job.
How: The cues, alignment and technique (ie. Stand with heels outside hips, sit weight back and down with knees wide)
Why: The purpose and benefit of the move (ie. To work the glutes, postural chain of muscles, engage strong thighs and challenge core strength and raise the heart rate)
Think about your role as a value proposition. There are thousands of instructors who could teach under the same label (yoga, pilates, BodyPump, step, etc) but what experiences have you had, and what particular strengths and interests can you share and communicate with your class? Have you rehabilititated your body after an injury? Have you found a particular cue or mental focus during exercise really invigorates and motivates your own activity? Share that. Students want to connect with you. Let them!
Think of different classes as being like different languages. While each language, from Japanese to Inuit, has its own rhythm, sound, cadence and calibre there are universal laws of communication. Listen to the people you’re speaking to, measure your expression and delivery for your audience, consider what your body language says just as much as what you’re saying, and pay attention to the timing, volume and message of your words and actions.
Find the right balance though and take into consideration the different venues and classes you take. There is definitely no place for “over-sharing” or giving lectures as if it’s an Anatomy 101 class, unless of course you are taking a specific workshop or advanced class that is prepared and open to this sort of teaching. Consider context and circumstances, always.
There is a balance to be found between giving the standard instructions (timing, direction, alignment) and then building the blocks that really deepen the effectiveness of your teaching and the actual structure and sequence of your class.
This is where you develop your teaching beyond the a) What; and
to explain the essential Why.
Why does a particular pose or sequence work? Which muscles are being activated and what role do they play both in the class and then in life? Why does it matter to have strong glutes?
Armature Pilates owner, Pilates teacher trainer and herself an instructor, Stephanie Glickman identifies an “ability to keep a large and diverse group moving and in good form with attentive and individual correction” as a skill key to memorable and inspiring instructors.
“It’s important that an instructor is able to give constructive feedback and cueing because they have a good eye, not just saying “good work” all the time...but giving corrections that the client wouldn’t get elsewhere,” she elaborates.
The key to having a good eye can come back to having a strong commitment to your job but also, importantly, your own personal practice and experience.
Good instructors “have their own solid personal practice and commitment to what they are teaching; they truly know and understand the work in their bodies themselves,” Glickman says.
She nominates the following qualities as those that make a teacher stand out from the rest:
- relates to clients personally - knows everyone's names, asks how they are, remembers their "issues" and injuries and is attentive to them; goes up to clients they don't know and talks to them, finds out about who they are and what they need
- technically clear and accurate cueing, not too complex to be confusing but still challenging exercises
- considered pace and control of exercises throughout class
- programming that considers participants' weaknesses, make them do things they need but may not like
- a mix of giving the clients what they need and what they want
- making clients feel good about themselves and excited to come back to class
- friendly, nice, humble, not rude, pretentious or precious
Glickman also emphasises the importance of knowing your own strengths and interests so that you can master what you’re especially good at rather than trying to cover all the bases or mimic other instructors. Her essential lessons for instructors seeking to elevate their “instructor” role to “Teacher” as follows:
- Find your own "thing"/style/way of teaching and just stick to that and keep improving on that; don't be pressured to follow fads or trends
- err on the side of solid basics rather than high complexity and try to extract the best from your clients without over cueing or correcting them or making them feel overwhelmed
- have your "set" things that you know work that you can always draw on and then add to that more creative or different things
- have some jokes up your sleeve
- don't wear low waist leggings and demonstrate cat stretch - embarrassing wardrobe malfunction!