Teaching Intimidating Students

Teaching Intimidating Students

Working with new instructors, I sometimes observe a particular fear about teaching intimidating students. Intimidating students can be an issue even for an experienced instructor, and for a new instructor, they can be paralyzing.

One reason is that the instructor may fear the judgment of these intimidating students. While the majority of the class presents no particular challenge, these students are a real threat to the instructor’s confidence.

As I talk with instructors and read the online forums, there seem to be two general types of intimidating students.

One version—often but not always female—is the workout “pro” who seems to go to multiple classes a day and has for years. She is good at all of them. Sometimes, she can come off as a little bit of what some instructors might refer to as a “diva.” It may seem that she “owns” the gym as her own private preserve. Her responses to instructors may seem to indicate that she knows more than they do.

The other version of the intimidating student is likely to be an outdoor rider or triathlete. These students seem to perceive their outdoor experience in a way that expresses their superiority over the rest of the class and even the instructor. They come to class in full kit celebrating events they have done. Even if they do not say anything, their display of experience can make them an intimidating presence, especially to a newer instructor. They may insist on riding in an “aero” position.

To be sure, these are big generalizations, but you may recognize a version of an intimidating student in your classes from these descriptions. How do you feel about those students? Do they intimidate you? How do you deal with that feeling?

Here are three strategies I suggest.


  1. Thank you for this excellent article! It’s very helpful and insightful. I think we all deal with this to varying degrees as instructors. I’ve had to work through the mental and emotional challenge of intimidating students since I started. As you said, knowledge definitely helps. The more I learn, the more confident I feel about my instruction and about the class profiles that I create and bring to my classes. And ICA has been one of the main ways I have gained the knowledge, understanding, and confidence I have now. (thank you!! :))

    I wanted to share one experience though that might be helpful to others, and perhaps you have feedback for me. I have had one long-term “intimidator.” He has come to my class for years, He has a commanding, large, intimidating presence, and he’s very competent in his own fitness knowledge. In many ways, he’s made me a better instructor, because I’ve had to rise to the occasion to hold my own with him and to feel confident about the classes I bring being valuable, beneficial, purposeful, and fully appropriate for the riders who attend. Although the intimidation has mostly been within my own insecurities, he did step up his game a couple years ago and started to call me out in class occasionally. On one occasion, he was over-the-line. He blurted out, “I hate it when you do that…” whatever it was, it was unjustified, aggressive, and very hurtful. In the interest of ending the class on a positive note for the other riders, I did not make a big deal of it at the time. It was my last class for the week and it ruined my weekend… I was so hurt and angry. I decided to confront him the next class. Dreading it but determined, I caught up with him after the next class. Thankfully, he had also had time to think and started by apologizing for his behavior. This made it easier, but I did not let him easily off the hook. I told him that it did hurt badly and was not appropriate. I told him that from that point forward if he had feedback for me, that he needed to show the respect to approach me privately before or after a class and never again during a class. He agreed and seemed to genuinely regret his behavior, thankfully. He continues to come to my class, and I honestly still have a level of intimidation in regard to him that I have to deal with within myself. However, I try not to let that come out, and I try to channel the “fear” into becoming the best instructor I can possibly be.

    Thank you again for your article, Bill, and for all that you and others provide to help us out here in the field. 🙂

    1. Author

      Thank you SO much for sharing this helpful story. You were brave to discuss it afterwards and it paid off for you. I think your story will help instructors understand that this is a real thing and that we need to have strategies to deal with it. Congratulations on a good job and thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you~! I’ve been in these situations before, some of my own design and some (maybe) having merit! Thanks for reminding me to get better educated, as itis usually what I need to know better that they teach me!

    1. Author

      Good comment, Laura. It is hard to get thrown off balance if you know that you know your stuff.

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