Quarantining a Bad Attitude in Class

I’m sure we have all encountered negative people in our cycling classes. The question is, what can you do about it so that their negativity doesn’t rub off on our regulars, and so it doesn’t put a damper our own positive energy? We saw this awesome article by fitness blogger Nancy Korf at aerobigirl.blogspot.com and wanted to share it with you. It is not about a cycling class, but it is very relevant to any type of group fitness class. You’ll find some real gems in the advice she gives here on how to manage both the bad attitude of a participant so as not to spoil the energy in your class, but also on how to manage your own attitude and not let an unhappy member affect you and your delivery. Below is Nancy’s article in full. Thanks for the great insight, Nancy!

This blog entry is for my fellow fitness instructors and trainers on the power of positivity and its ability to continue upbeat energy in class.

We are all so different, and our members’ needs are so different, thus it’s impossible that every member who takes our class will like us. The more classes we teach, the more likely it becomes that someone will display a bad attitude during class or walk out.

Some time ago, as I was just about to start a weight training circuit class, two new members entered. As normal, I went over to introduce myself, explain the class, and ask if they had any injuries. Person #1 was smiling. Person #2 was frowning. She was upset before even entering my class, so I knew that deep down, whatever was going on with her wasn’t about me, but I took it upon myself to try and help her have a good class experience.

During warm-up, I chat with all of my attendees and see how they’re doing. It’s a small class, about 16 people, so I can make a brief connection with each person, check in on injuries, progress, etc. I found out that these two were new to the gym and that one of them had taken Zumba (another class I teach and love). Aha! An opportunity to connect with person #2, maybe helping her to warm up to me but if not to give her some customer service by letting her know about our fantastic Zumba program. So I started chatting her up, asking her who she’s taken from at our club. She stopped walking, looked me in the eye, and said, “Look, I’m going to be honest with you. I really just wanted to come to the spin class but we got the wrong time.”

Well, alrighty then!  No matter what I did, she was not going to like me. At least I gave her points for honesty.

What I wanted to say was, “The door is over there.”

What I actually said was, “Well, I’m sorry that my class wasn’t your first choice, and I hope you enjoy the workout.”

I’ve had people walk out of my class before. I’ve had people glare at me before. I won’t detail each behavior, I’ll just say that this was one of the rudest attendees I can remember in 24 years and over 11,000 classes taught. But there were 15 other people, most of them long-time regulars, so I remained my energetic, positive, goofy, professional self for the entire 30 minutes she was there, although the energy drain on me was huge. (Separate blog post; yes, I believe there is an overlap between goofy and professional and that my teaching style falls within it.)

The last half hour of class went smoothy, and it was a good class. A few times, I examined the group that had formerly included “Ms. Grumpy,” expecting to see signs of relief on their part that her negativeness was gone. Everyone continued just fine, not one peep, eye-roll, or sigh of relief. They were all so attentive to their own workouts, they hadn’t noticed her negativity, nor had they really noticed her departure.

OK, so here’s the moral. A bad attitude doesn’t have to spread, and by staying positive as instructors, we can keep it from spreading.

As hard as it was to be in the room with this person, her attitude didn’t infect the rest of the class. By continuing to teach just like normal, and ignoring the attitude, I quarantined her effect on the rest of class. While she was in the room, I had been absolutely certain that this girl must be draining other participants’ energy, at the very least the group of members who were in her circuit team, and they’d be just as glad as I was that she was gone. Nothing. No reaction. They were fine with and without her.

Quarantining a bad attitude so the rest of my attendees can have a great class isn’t a dreary part of my job; is part of my POWER and skill!

Here are some things to help foster this outcome.

1)  Non-competitive environment defined up front.
When we teach our members to work on their own goals and results, they don’t compare to others and will focus on themselves. No matter what class I’m teaching, I mention in my introduction an appreciation for each one’s uniqueness, abilities, and ask that they work at their own pace. If it’s a Zumba class, I say, “Dance your own dance.” If it’s a weight training class, I say, “Run your own race, work as hard as you want, and compare only to yourself.” If it’s a yoga class, I say, “This is a non-harming, non-competitive class where all are welcome.” The point is, each member is responsible for their own workout.

2)  My own attitude shift from victim to powerhouse.
Honestly, there were several times when I wanted to ask this person to leave because she looked so unhappy in my class, and her half-hearted movements weren’t doing her any good. But she wasn’t hurting herself or anyone else, so I spoke to her as often as I spoke to everyone else and kept the energy up. I did not change my behavior for her, because everyone else was depending on me to be…well, me!

This represents a huge shift in my own attitude. When I was a newer instructor and someone didn’t like me, I let it get under my skin and would feel devastated when I heard criticism in or out of class. My next step in developing a thick teaching skin was to let the negative bounce off me, or toss a funny but passive aggressive comment back at the offender to preserve my own ego.  The problem with bouncing attitude back is that there can be casualties; it can then draw the attention of others who weren’t previously aware of it. Now I’ve let a drama of one infect others in my class. Not any more. My new plan, continuing on with the quarantine analogy, is that I’m going to act like a white blood cell. When bad attitude hits me, it will sizzle out like a match in a gallon of water. pfffft. I won’t take on the drama—I’m too powerful for that—and I will insulate the rest of my class so they can get the good class they deserve.

3)  The following mantra: “It’s not about me. It’s not about me. It’s not about me.”
This person was frowning before she ever entered my room. Since I wasn’t her favorite spin instructor, it didn’t matter who I was. It’s hard, sometimes, when we’re in the front of the room to remember that the expressions on members’ faces aren’t always because of us. That goes for the happy expressions as well as the sad expressions. That’s not to say that there aren’t these amazing moments in class where we feel like we’ve got them all in the palm of our hands and they’re hooting and hollering and we helped them get there. That stuff happens, and I’m grateful for it. But I also try to remember that sometimes people bring in baggage that they can’t set down for an hour and I have to honor that, or at the very least not let it affect the others who are depending on me.

4)  Even when it is about me, it’s really not about me.
Most of the time, a member’s baggage is their own, and they bring it in with them. But sometimes, it’s our teaching personality and they actually don’t like us. I’ve heard that I’m too loud, I talk too much, I tell too many jokes, I whoop, I cue like an air traffic controller, I act like a know-it-all, etc. My favorite criticism of all time is that I’m too short, as though I’m going to be able to fix that!

Those critiques are all based in truth. I teach with a lot of energy and I send it outwards, sometimes with whoops, hollers, and the occasional floor drumroll. I tell jokes, but the moment after I tell a joke, I might make a very technical form correction and explain that by engaging their deep external rotators they’re protecting their medial knee. I choose to make big visual cues because I have young adults with special needs in my Monday morning classes and I love that they’re there. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My teaching personality is what it is. I am who I am, and I’m not going to beg people to like me—especially because people keep coming to my classes, year after year. Those people are the ones to whom I cater, the long-term members who enjoy my class, and me, for who I am.

Awesome classes to all!


  1. I really needed this! A member left kickboxing this week after comlaining the music was too loud. I took this class from an uber popular instructor and altough I have had to improve my kickboxing teaching skills (I had barely taught it), I’ve also needed the mental toughness to endure being told my class was boring, the music wasn’t loud enough, changing enough, etc. i calmly took off my mic. Fortunately the people who have yried to passive aggressively bulky me were together. I told them enough is enough. I can’t turn the music up and down, that I won’t change the music every single week, etc. said me,ber glared at me and left the room.

    I then had to pick the class up and go! So I did.

    1. Author

      sometimes you’ve just got to stand up for yourself and for your participants! Good for you.

  2. I simply love this article.I am not a group exercise leader, but this is a perspective that works in so many parts of life…

    1. Author

      It sure does Jan! I had one person message me on Facebook saying this would be perfect for the teachers at her school! So it doesn’t matter what you teach…there will always be negative people, and always the need to find ways to not let that negativity spoil the experience for the rest in the group!

  3. Very helpful perspective. I’d take a class from her anytime.

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