Performing Under (No!) Pressure

As instructors, we become accustomed to being the center of attention. Even if we’re never totally comfortable with it, it becomes routine. We implicitly agree when we take the mic that we will be evaluated by our participants. Do they like the profile I designed? Do they like my song choices?

We know, logically, that it’s hard to please everyone, especially in a group exercise setting.

But what goes through your head (and your heart) when you’re really being evaluated on your ability to lead? This is the true story of what happened to me and what I learned in this situation.

I coach an indoor cycling program that is designed to complement outdoor riding. The profiles each have a specific purpose related to training. My role as a coach is to execute the profiles, putting them to my own soundtrack while educating the riders on the purpose of the ride. Occasionally I’ll throw in some basic exercise physiology to help my riders understand the underlying reason why we are doing something. I’d been instructing at this club for about five months with very positive member feedback when I learned that the person who created the program would be dropping in to take my class in a week.

Suddenly, five months of teaching weekly classes felt like hardly any experience at all!

Only one week to get ready!

Here’s a list of how I prepared:

  1. Freaked out a little (full disclosure)!
  2. Met with my group fitness manager to go over the ride plan and song selection.
  3. Reviewed my notes/cues on training with metrics (rpm, watts) and how the intensity of the effort should “feel.”
  4. Practiced the ride myself.
  5. Posted in the ICA Facebook group for some song choice assistance (while I don’t always match rpm to bpm, I sometimes try to make them similar).
  6. Repeated steps 3 and 4.

In reality, the program lead wasn’t visiting the facility just to take my class. Because this is a new club, he was also meeting with managers and talking about other initiatives. On the morning of “the big day,” I was definitely nervous. He walked in, introduced himself, shook my hand, and said, “I’m excited to take your class.” I may have been shaking. But I took the mic and began class as I would on any other day. After the first few efforts, I relaxed a bit and felt as if I were coaching any normal class. Admittedly I would try to gauge, “Did he think that effort was hard? Did I just catch him wiping his face with his towel?! YES!”

After class finished, one rider stayed after and was chatting with the program lead. As they were talking, the rider turned to me and offered me some unsolicited feedback—he said he felt during some of the tough intervals he wasn’t sure if we had started the work effort or not! I thought I had been super clear in my cue, but the program lead said he noticed the same thing. We then started reflecting on the class and my instruction. He commended me on my music selection, starting/ending on time, coaching off the bike, engaging with the participants, and continually reinforcing the ride purpose in each drill. He suggested the following to work on:

  • Explain the overall workout plan at the beginning of class so riders can anticipate what’s next.
  • Clearly count up and down throughout the drills (“3, 2, 1, GO!”).
  • Maintain precise time via stopwatch.

These were all items that I assumed I did regularly but in the moment could definitely have overlooked. We are forced to multitask when coaching. Are the riders doing the drill as described? Is everyone safe? When does this interval end, on the 0:30 or the 0:45? How many intervals are left? Can I make it over to that rider and coach her a little while maintaining the time?

Overall, he said, “I’d give you an A.”

My advance preparation was helpful, but while performing, anything can happen. While the situation was a bit stressful, it reminded me that I have solid coaching fundamentals and we can all continue to work on technical adjustments. I still sometimes lose a few seconds on that stopwatch!

The takeaway lesson for all instructors reading this is to be open to constructive feedback and to be willing to accept that sometimes you may think you are being clear when you aren’t.

Have you been in a similar evaluation situation? How did you prepare? Once it was over, how did you continue your own fine-tuning?



  1. What a fantastic article. I think it highlights three very important facts:
    – the longer we teach, the harder it becomes to accept we could be doing something different/better;
    – no matter how long we’ve been teaching, having a master instructor/mentor/supervisor observing and evaluating is scary, and;
    – what we learn from these situations, and decide are valued, will undoubtedly stick with us for a long time.

    1. Author

      Thank you Karyn, this is a fantastic summary! Yes to all of these!

  2. A great read, thank you for sharing. At the moment my classes are all covering for other instructors who are unable to deliver them on the day, so I have no real client base or regular attendees. So I go through your stage one prior to every class which is interesting to say the least. I then have to try and think how hard do they usually work, what type of music are they used to, how do they like their instructions delivered etc etc. Once I have thought about all of this, I then usually revisit stage one and doubt everything I have already thought of.
    A serious conversation with mysel then takes place, I plan my session and pray to the indoor cycling gods that all goes well on the night.
    When you turn up and there are 25+ faces looking at you wondering where so so is, a quick revisit to stage one, mic on, cleats in and off I go.
    I too instruct as I would for road cyclists, so nothing fancy on the bike, just good form cadence and power. No matter what their expectations are, or what they would normally do at these classes, I am proud to say that I remain loyal to my style of instructing, my choice of music (I’m a child of the sixties no more to say) and my level of engagement and interaction with the group, which is very full on. The reason I am proud to say this is because it would be very easy in one of my visits to stage one to just adjust my style to try and be the instructor that I am covering for that day, and I am certain that if I did this the class would not be safe and effective but also would not be fun to deliver or participate in. By staying loyal to myself and following the excellent training I have received to deliver indoor cycling in my heart I know that the class will be safe, have an effective workout and leave with a smile on their faces with some cracking tunes in their heads.

    I hope the above isn’t too much of a ramble, but your post inspired me to want to share my similar experience with you and whilst I agree that we are all never to old to learn and or improve on what we do, I truly believe that I will enjoy everyone of my visits to stage one as they are my driving force to be the best that I can on that day.

    Ride Safe and Have Fun!

    1. Author

      Colin, your comments are a great read as well!

      I’m thrilled that the post inspired you. Thank you for sharing the wisdom of your experience with excellent reminders to stay true to yourself (and keep one’s sense of humor)!

  3. I appreciate your insight and your honesty. Thank you for sharing tips and your expertise.

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comments, Mallory! Happy that others can learn something that at first caused a bit of anxiety!

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