This article first appeared in 2011. It is such a commonly requested topic that it is time to bring it back with some added advice. The series is broken it into five parts. Part 1 will give you an overview of why teaching an entire class off the bike can be so impactful. Part 2 and 3 will provide 12 tips for teaching an entire class off the bike. Part 4 will provide tips on how to better utilize occasional off-the-bike coaching to correct form and motivate your students, and how to avoid singling them out. Part 5 will focus on coaching intensity from the floor.
ICA member Mark Thomason from the UK tore his biceps tendon. Following surgery, his arm was in a pretty hefty cast for three months and he was not supposed to let it get sweaty. Mark had a great attitude about it (as you can tell in the photo above) and still planned on teaching his classes off the bike. He wrote to ask me for a few tips.
I found myself in a similar position early in my teaching career. In 1999, after foot surgery, I had both feet in soft casts for six weeks. I was a master instructor for the Spinning® program at the time, and was the director of Spinning at my club in Vail, Colorado, the Vail Cascade Club (now called the Aria Spa & Club). I didn’t want to give up my classes, and saw this as a great challenge, albeit a scary one, to hone my coaching skills. After all, we preached off-the-bike coaching in the Spinning program. I did hop off the bike from time to time in my classes, but, could I teach an entire class off the bike? Would it be interesting for my students, or would they be bored? Would I be bored, and could I do this for six full weeks?
My fears proved unwarranted, as the experience was quite amazing and helped catapult me to the next level of being a coach. One of the most important things I learned was to coach intensity from my students’ perspective and not from my own. In all honesty, I thought I already did that, but once I took myself out of the riding picture, I had to pay more attention to their response to what I wanted them to do on the bike. How hard were they going? How hard could they go? How hard was too much? Were my coaching cues sufficient to guide them to the intensity the profile required?
I was also able to notice when they were faking it. While there certainly are times when it’s OK to not to push oneself to the intensity asked by the instructor, as you know, some students want to get out of doing the work all the time.
As a result of interacting more on a one-on-one basis with my riders, I got to know them even better than before. I discovered their goals, both short-term and long-term, and what motivated them or discouraged them. This was a great benefit when I did get back on the bike.
I learned how to keep myself occupied and to not appear bored, which is one of the biggest challenges when teaching off the bike for an entire class. I mastered how to stay focused. I became skilled at walking around, and figured out when it was crucial to be more engaging, even dramatic, in my coaching, and when it was better to encourage silence.
At its core, coaching indoor cycling well requires that you become skilled at public speaking. You will be a better coach if you expand your knowledge and skills in public speaking. The great news is that this proficiency is enhanced when you are teaching off the bike. Why? Because essentially you are on stage, in front of your audience (or, as you’ll see, sometimes behind them) without the bike as a prop. What better way to improve your competence as a presenter?
It is a different situation teaching an entire class off the bike than when you occasionally get off the bike to motivate or correct your riders. Parts 2 and 3 of this series will provide 12 tips on how to teach an entire class off the bike, which is the more challenging of the two scenarios.
Why teach a full class off the bike?
You don’t have to be injured to teach an entire class off the bike. Maybe you are just tired or you feel illness coming on and need to respect your body. Maybe instructing is your full-time job and you teach many times a day, four or five times a week, and riding every class is not humanly possible (without destroying your health). If you are an athlete training for an event (triathlon, century ride, marathon, etc.), there are times when you simply must not ride! But it is so easy to get caught up in the energy of the music that you can forget your promise midway through and end up near or over your threshold.
Serious athletes know, when you need a recovery ride or you are approaching an important event, you cannot take that risk. However, there is no reason to abandon teaching your class in this case.
If your club or studio has a policy in which the instructor must give up his/her bike for an over-full class, you may find yourself without a bike.
Regardless of the reason, it’s best to be prepared before being faced with this circumstance.
My first exposure to off-the-bike coaching
In 1998, I took a class led by the world-famous Ironman triathlete and coach Dave Scott. He was a guest instructor at a club in Vail. There were twenty full bikes. Fifteen minutes before class was scheduled to start, Dave Scott was at the front talking to some riders, dressed in jeans, a polo shirt, and running shoes. Ten minutes later, I remember thinking, “Wow, he better go change soon!” But no, at the start of the class, he was still in jeans.
He then proceeded to teach one of the best classes I’d ever attended up to that point. He exuded COACH! He walked around, spoke to people directly, kept everyone engaged, and carried a stopwatch. He talked, but not excessively, leaving us time to work on what he had asked for (I remember doing a lot of cadence drills—the first time I had been exposed to them). He used his voice to motivate—it was apparent he knew how to keep a group engaged with voice inflection. No one ever seemed to notice that he wasn’t riding.
That taught me that not only was it possible, but teaching an entire class off the bike was a very empowering method of instruction.
When I was the Spinning coordinator, one of my instructors had to give up her bike to a member for the first time because of a reservation error by the front desk. She emailed me about her experience. She admitted that she was very nervous at first, but afterwards, she was amazed at how much she learned about her students and said that the experience really helped her grow as an instructor. I forwarded that email to all the instructors to show them how empowering this could be.
I welcome your input on this discussion. Have you been forced to teach off the bike for an entire class before, due to injury, an over-full class, or the need to recover? How did you feel? What did you learn? How did it impact your other classes when you were able to get back on the bike? Please leave a comment below.
Part 2 provides you with the first 6 of 12 specific tips for teaching an entire class off the bike in the most engaging and effective way possible.