Coaching through Tragedy

Our small community is grieving over a recent tragedy. The members of the local fitness center where I work are friends and relatives of the numerous victims.

Searching the Internet for recommendations on workout intensity level or other guidelines for participants impacted by grief found a limited body of knowledge for group fitness instructor guidance. The gist of the information acknowledges that grief may have a physiological impact and exercise is recommended for dealing with grief.

This limited availability of information for group fitness instructors was the impetus for my writing about this experience, so I could share my thought process and encourage a dialogue so that others will have information to draw upon if faced with a similar situation.

The week following the tragedy, registration for the Saturday cycling class hovered at just four people. The studio has fifteen bikes and at this time of year we begin to experience capacity classes. With four participants in a grieving community, class design questions emerged in my mind: What type of class should this be? Should the tragedy be acknowledged? If so, what would be the mental/emotional impact on the class? Would they find the mental strength and tenacity to carry them through the workout?

Serendipitously, ICA had just published the Quick Profile “Let’s Go!” and it was a perfect uplifting theme. With a recurring mantra and repeating intervals, the participants could easily follow each interval even if they weren’t fully engaged. The next and important step I took was to carefully review all the songs and eliminate any tracks with lyrics that would trigger thoughts of the tragedy. The key was to keep this class as upbeat as possible. For example, the song “Emergency” by Icona Pop was changed. While the beat of the music was ideal, the words wouldn’t have been appropriate at this time.

Concerned that the participants may be experiencing stress-related physiological fatigue, I developed a backup plan; a lower-intensity aerobic “Recovery” ride was designed with soothing, mellow music. My determination of which class profile to use would be made in the moment, after greeting the participants and assessing the overall needs of the class.

At the last minute there was a surge in class registration. There were now ten participants. Greeting each person, it was clear to me that the ICA profile would be used for this class although there were a couple of participants struggling emotionally. I paid particular attention to those participants by acknowledging positive things like form, cadence, and effort—anything to make eye contact and distract their thoughts. Intermittently teaching off the bike facilitated individual communications. As the instructor, it was imperative that my countenance be positive, transcending any personal feelings of grief for the duration of that class.

The cool-down songs I selected were intended to finally acknowledge the tragedy. “Together We Are Strong” by Jools Holland, Sam Moore, and Sam Brown and “Friend Medley: Stand by Me / Lean on Me / Time after Time / I’ll Be There for You” by Anthem Lights helped to transition the tone to one of gratitude and thankfulness; that in spite of their grief they came together, much like a team, to support one another during this difficult time. Hugs were exchanged and the participants expressed their gratefulness that class was held.

As we experience more worldwide natural disasters and other human tragedies, mine is just one scenario that may provide some guidance should you find yourself in a situation where you need to coach through a tragedy.



  1. Thank you Laura, for sharing the story of your community’s loss and how you managed through it. While I haven’t had this experience yet, I’m glad to know there is a resource should I need it.

    1. Author

      You’re welcome – glad you find it useful.

  2. I lost two personal training clients in the last 9 months. My work is at least partially with people who have medical conditions and so, to some extent, it has to be anticipated.

    At the same time, it is an extra loss because I have been a part of the fight to extend their lives. In one case, the family called me over to say goodbye in the students last hours of life. In the other, I have been privileged to become a supporter for the surviving spouse.

    Just as these loses have been extra hard, they have been extra rewarding. There is such a bond that comes from being even a small part of this profound end of life experience.

    The dynamic is similar for indoor cycling as for personal training and I have lost students or students close family members from cycling classes as well.

    I have been thinking of writing about these experiences for some time but I think I just wasn’t ready to share about it yet. I appreciate this dialogue which has allowed me to reflect further on my own personal loss and grief and how I can do it better in the future.

    One key lesson, addressed here, is to understand that every person’s needs are different and about as personal as they can be. We need to listen to see what is needed rather than try to apply any of our own preconceived notions.

    Once I told an acquaintance that I was an indoor cycling instructor. He was baffled as to what I did. He said, “So what do you do? Stand at the front of the room and yell for them to go faster?”
    I understand someone could see our profession that way but these life situations paint a totally different picture.

    My wife was a mental health therapist during her career. While she would be the first to caution about appropriate boundaries and scope of practice, she also says that our work gives people some of the benefits of therapy: individual attention, a long term relationship, and the driving force of shared hard work.

    Those relationships can be very powerful and as such sometimes we need to take the good with the bad.

    Thank you for raising this issue, Laura. I hope that the discussion has helped you deal with your own loss as it has mine.

    1. Author

      Bill, So sorry for the loss of some people who were truly special to you and thanks for this very thoughtful comment. You truly have some very beneficial and interesting insights to share with this community.

  3. thank you for this. Our Studios, too, had to deal with this last year as our city was devastated by wildfire that took the lives of 24 and destroyed 5500 homes in our city. As fitness professionals the question was how to act upbeat in the days following this tragedy. I think you hit it perfectly Sara. Read your group. Make mention of the tragedy and then allow students to work out their grief their own way. Exercise is such a healer that we found just coming together in class after the tragedy helped immensely.

  4. I think this article will help more instructors than we know. It certainly brought to mind times when I have had to teach in the face of an unhappy event. Thank you, Laura.

  5. I have been continuing to think about this story. It makes me sad but it also makes me think what wonderful communities we can create. To me, that’s the best thing we do.

  6. I’ve read this about 5 or 6 times, and each time it brings me to tears. Your class, your community, is so blessed to have you there for them, Laura.

    1. Author

      Thank you for your kind words, Jennifer. Truly, I feel blessed – between my local community and the ICA community – we all support one another. Thank you for providing all the knowledge and resources that we can draw upon.

  7. Sensitive and thoughtful, Laura. You did a great job. Hard as it is I think the tragedy has to be acknowledged. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. You showed wonderful sensitivity in finding the way to do it that was right for your participants that day. It’s obvious how much you care about your folks. Thank you sincerely.

    1. Author

      That was my thinking as well – the proverbial elephant in the room. Thank you, Bill. I appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

  8. This is a thoughtful piece, thanks for sharing your insights. I hope to never be in a position to have to teach to a community in such deep, unfathomable grief, but they are lucky to have you.

    1. Author

      Thank you Sara. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this loving, caring and compassionate community.

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