Your Superhero Cape and its Seven Special Powers

Last month a really rude guy came to an intro class that I was teaching. I dealt with him cordially and professionally but secretly hoped that he wouldn’t return. I was dismayed when I saw him enter the room a week later. I greeted him with a smile, helped him and the others with bike setup, and then started the class. He was at the back, sitting up while pedaling. I said, “Let’s put our hands on the bars and start checking in with our bodies, starting with our feet.” He didn’t change his position. Twice more in the next two minutes, I repeated a general request for hands on bars. After the third time, I said, “Peter, do you intend to ignore me no matter how many times I ask you to put your hands on your bars?” He replied, “Probably.”

I reached down to the pile of tickets that the students give me to prove that they have paid, extended one toward him, and quietly asked him to go downstairs and get a refund for the class. He immediately put his hands on the bars, was generally more cooperative than he had been the previous week, and signed up for an hour class the next week.

I have since asked three people who instruct in different sorts of settings what they would have done and all of them had substantially more exaggerated responses than mine. They admitted to feeling angry as they listened to my retelling of the story. Two would have escalated their reactions and one said she would have given him up as a lost cause and moved on.

I wondered what made me react the way I did and then I realized that I was wearing my “don’t-mess-with-me cape. I think every instructor should consider getting one just like it and donning it before they step through the doors of the indoor cycling studio. All instructors are entitled to deference and respect, but in the absence of a superhero cape, unfortunately respect is not as common as it should be.

My superhero cape gives me seven special powers.

superman-cape-reevesIt is a protective blanket. It allows me to divorce myself from some of the ugliness and not take things personally. Peter’s bad attitude had everything to do with him and nothing to do with me. Sometimes I need help remembering that fact.

It gives me special insights. Some superheroes have X-ray vision or the ability to see the future. I need to be able to assess the reasons for a student’s reactions before I react in turn. Peter’s actions were deliberate, not casual, much like an impertinent child. That meant that he was probably seeking attention and that it was important that my response not be reinforcing to him. The superhero cape gave me the time and insight to evaluate what he wanted and tailor my reaction to his behavior.

It gives me superhuman power. Peter’s “Probably” response to my question, rather than a “Yes” or “No,” suggested that he might be testing my control. The superhero cape gave me the strength to react to that test and to do so effectively and dispassionately.

It gives me courage. We have all had the “Darn, I should have . . .” thoughts after the fact. Sometimes we don’t think of the correct response in time, but more often we know what to do yet are afraid to react. The cape gave me the courage to do what I thought was needed.

It marks me as a superhero. My reaction to Peter alerted the other students to the fact that I have standards which I will enforce. Just like Superman and Batman and all the superheroes, I am fair but powerful. By observation, the others learn not to mess with me in the future when I am wearing my cape. This is how you establish and nurture the “culture” of respect in your classes.

It is evidence that I care. I could show up in class as Clark Kent but I make the effort to put on my superhero cape. The time and resources that I put into profile preparation and refining my teaching and delivery techniques are noticed by my students.

It is a diversion. My cape acts to divert the class’s attention away from their problems and concerns and become involved with me and the material I present. Diversions in the form of science-based training information, carefully constructed profiles, motivating cues, and entertaining games are woven into the fabric of my cape.

The story of how I acquired my superhero cape is worthy of its own movie. But that’s not the point. The real question is: How do you get yours?

You can’t buy one. You will have to make it yourself. Start with one element and work on that. The resources here at ICA are a good source of foundation material. Try the superhero cape on for size and make adjustments so it fits you perfectly. Experiment with your responses, class formats, and your attitude. Develop your style and flare. Practice makes perfect. Don’t rely on your indoor cycling classes as the only place where you can try on your new cape and experiment to see how it helps you cope with challenging situations.

When you are satisfied with your understanding and mastery of one element, move on to another. You will be motivated to continue working the first time you recognize the effect of wearing your “don’t-mess-with-me cape.” Your cape will never be perfect—this isn’t Hollywood. Every once in a while you will have to revisit some areas and patch up spots that have become threadbare.

Always remember that your position as a leader in your classes is one you earn. The role is conferred on you by the students. Once you have stepped up to the instructor’s bike it is incumbent on you to continue to hold that position through respect, kindness, and support for all of your students. ICA provides you with many tools that will help you be more effective in your role as leader. Your cape is just another of those tools.

superhero cape greater goodSuperheroes are usually “everymen” with temporary superpowers that they only use on special occasions, and always for the greater good. Every person in your classes is a superhero in his/her own life. Each of them has developed their own expertise and coping strategies. You need to respect their skills and find a way to use their collective power to create an enriching experience for everyone.

It may sound silly to discuss your role as an instructor in terms of imaginary superhero capes and superheroes but I think it’s relevant. In Jennifer and Bill’s series on chatting and rules there have been many references to creating a “culture” in your classes. I can’t think of a better culture than one that is defined as both serious and fun. The image of a do-good superhero flashing her cape is a good way to sum up all of the important aspects of that culture.

By the way, I immediately verbally reinforced Peter when he put his hands on the bars. I then told a story about a serious cyclist who passed out because he was trying to lose weight and had not eaten before a difficult class. The bars saved him. My guess was that Peter would be more reinforced by the thought that he is smarter than that guy than by anything I said to him directly.  The use of reinforcement with groups and individuals is part of a series I am preparing on learning. In it I will provide you with some more tools for your superhero belt.


Let us know in the comments situations in which you’ve had to don your own superhero cape. Perhaps an instructor reading this will gain some courage to stand up to a rude student with respect yet confidence and weave their own cape.


  1. I liked your article and your “superhero cape”. Thanks for sharing your story. I often feel like I’m not ever good enough or that I need to entertain the class… just gotta get over that way of thinking. Confidence is tough and I sometimes can’t find my cape anywhere. LOL

  2. Christine,
    I read through all these comments with interest. I do not think what you did was wrong. But, it was what you felt was right for you and your class and with this guy and it seemed to work for you. Our club is expensive and my classes are at 5:30 a.m. and on Sundays early. My riders are sleepy, sometimes late, leave early, and I just try to provide a work-out worthy of getting up early that is fun. Most of my riders work hard and I can throw almost anything at them that they will try regarding difficulty. But they are a bunch of independent Alaskans so your approach for my class would not work without some sort of a riot.

    I think how an instructor handles their riders is case by case. Some classes have strict rules and riders sign up knowing that. It is more of an instructor-student relationship.

    My riders are private club members and do not consider themselves students regardless of how much I may actually be teaching them! Ha They want to be entertained while sitting on a bike going nowhere!

    Thank you for bringing up this topic and thank you for the rides you have shared in the past that my riders have enjoyed!

  3. Tommy, your #4 comment is right on. She took it personally for what ever reason and in my estimation assumption entered the picture. We all know what happens when we ASS-U-ME don’t we……. Lighten up my friends and enjoy what you do and never ever dress down a rider in front of others.

  4. Christine,

    I respectfully disagree with your approach. In fact, I stopped reading after “….I said, “Peter, do you intend to ignore me no matter how many times…”

    Again, respectfully, here’s where you went wrong:
    1. Never correct a rider “on mic” – unless what they are doing is dangerous – to themselves and riders adjacent to them. Imagine if this was you, and it is still the warm up routine and you did not do what the instructor asked. Then the instructor calls you out for the entire room to hear. It happened to me when I was a student coming back from an injury. Was trying to take it slow, but the instructor yelled at me to either climb or leave the class. That left a very bad impression. Which leads me to the second reason.
    2. Riders have paid for the class or membership. Which entitles them to, if they want, ride seated the whole time. Or leave early. Or eat a sandwich if they want (I know, I am exaggerating , but trying to make a point). Again, unless it is disruptive or dangerous, when they pay, that gives them certain rights.
    3. Being tactful and diplomatic is far more effective then confrontational. I’ve had numerous riders boxing the air, sprinting with no resistance, chatting, etc. Guess what, I dismount and talk to them individually or see them after class. They always come back. While you may have your way and win sometimes, confrontation is a lose-lose proposition. Which leads me to the most important mistake you made.
    4. You took it personally. Never ever ever ever take it personally. You don’t know what this person is going through that day, good, bad or otherwise. You don’t know their state of mind. Not trying to defend that person, but when you operate from a position of assumption, you make it about you, and your decisions will be flawed.

    As an instructor for more than 10 years, I have learned a lot. But the most important thing I’ve learned, is that as long as a rider is not doing something ultra-stupid, ineffective or dangerous, I will let them be. After all it is their ride, not mine.

    With much respect….Tommy

    1. Author

      Tommy –

      Thank you for your response to the article, particularly about addressing someone on-mike. I am the queen of quiet personal conversations with riders and can count on the fingers of one hand when I have done anything but supply reinforcement while miked. But there is hardly ever an absolute ‘do or do not’ answer – context is everything. I wrote the article not so much to address those grey areas but to provide newer instructors with some information that might help them respond when they faced a situation that really mattered to them. In this case, I had had an intense one-on-one class with the individual in question and there was no doubt at all in my mind that he was being deliberately confrontational. That attitude was extremely offensive and disruptive to my closeknit class (less so to me – I have been instructing and coaching professionally for over 40 years and have a very thick skin) and it was my judgement that he needed to be met head on. The other people in the class were unable to address him directly so it fell to me. As it turned out, my call was the right one. He stayed and he has returned.

      With respect, I am not sure about the “their ride, not mine” sentiment that I often hear expressed. While that is certainly true in the abstract, one of the magic aspects of group exercise is the experience of being part of a group who are all working toward similar goals and living through common moments of joy and stress. To the extent that it is feasible, I think one of an instructor’s roles is to create an atmosphere where the group can coalesce around certain standards of behaviour and performance. Obviously, each individual will always be on their individual path but I have had great success in creating an atmosphere where I set expectations and students are happy to meet and exceed them.

  5. I must say that I disagree with confrontation during a class setting unless there is a serious safety issue. Following class, I have found, is a very effective, less punitive manner in which to discuss class participant behavior. Particularly when you do not know this individual, it is probably prudent to chat one-on-one when possible to prevent further disruption of the class as well as to avoid a misunderstanding that may be able to be resolved in a more positive manner. I do know that teaching/coaching for 30 years has led me to understand that this is not “instructor/coach/trainer against the participants” environment. These individuals are the single reason that we are in this business and when we experience a disruptive participant, which in my experience is very rare, isolating this individual, when possible, to effectively resolve the conflict tends to yield more positive outcomes. Additionally, confrontation during the class then tends to set a “negative” setting for everyone in the room, consequently, whenever possible, we should attempt to avoid this approach to keep the setting positive and productive, and of course, enjoyable for all.

    1. Author

      Jacqueline –

      On the whole I agree with you. As you may know from reading my posts on ICA I am a very strong proponent for the use of reinforcement and addressing ‘problem’ behaviours in that way, or through extinction. I think it is too easy to fall into focusing on what we don’t like to see rather than attempting to create more appropriate behaviours. But we always need to balance the needs of the group against those of the individual. In the scenario I described I felt that it was important for the group that I be direct with an individual. And that was particularly the case because I judged his safety to be at risk (especially since I didn’t know him well). My solution was the least confrontational approach available to me while still maintaining focus on the group and a safe environment for all.

      I think the points I made in the article remain valid, even if you distance them from the trigger and response that caused me to write the piece. You will note that in the comments I made reference to the use of reinforcement to address another similar issue. That is _almost_ always the best way to go.

      BTW, the individual’s wife continues to attend my classes and he comes along occasionally.

  6. Good story, Christine. And a great way to make some important points. What a good way to make the point. Thanks.

  7. Thank you for this! I have been struggling with how to address several members who, despite my instructions, find a way to ride dangerously in almost every class. Some ride crazy fast with little resistance or ride crazy fast while not holding onto the handlebars. Others ride standing with one arm behind their backs, and another guy sits up and “boxes” the air to get his heart rate up. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

    1. Author

      I’m glad you found the article helpful, Carla. I realize that not every instructor has the the freedom to just ask someone to leave the class but I hope some of my points will allow you to develop your own strategies.

      As for the one arm behind the back, I had one of those too! I asked her not to do it and explained my rationale. Then I reinforced her vigorously when she put her hand back on the bar and kept up a pretty steady flow of reinforcement for the next few classes. She didn’t do it again. But the behaviour crept back in last spring, about two years later. It showed that my reinforcement schedule had become too ‘thin’. Sometimes we can’t permanently change behaviour, but we can manage it to the advantage of our students and ourselves.

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