The New Student
The woman who came into class just moments before it began tried her best to find a bike at the back of the room in the most unassuming location remaining. She seemed unsure of herself, and didn’t adjust the bike in any way before getting on it. She was much larger than any of the other participants in the room and as the instructor led the class through a warm-up, the woman was already out of breath and clearly uncomfortable. She kept looking around—trying to make eye contact with the instructor, or any friendly face—but no one returned her gaze. She cracked a self-deprecating joke to her neighbor about being too out of shape for the class. The neighbor laughed politely and suggested she turn down her resistance. She did, and appreciated the advice.
A few minutes later the instructor began shouting out, “GO!!!”—which coincided with everyone wildly whirring their legs at a seemingly impossible cadence. Then it happened. The new, overweight woman in the back of the room, huffing and puffing, trying her best to do what the instructor said, fell off the bike. She was bright red, but it was hard to tell if this was more from exertion or embarrassment. The instructor prairie-dogged his head over the rest of the class to inquire as to her condition, but the woman, clearly embarrassed, was already picking herself off the ground and hurrying to the door. Once outside the room she fought back tears on the way to her car, disgusted with herself and vowing to never return to that class. A promise she kept.
The student came into the class, overweight and unsure of herself. The instructor greeted her and ushered her to the bike of her choosing. While setting her up, the instructor asked about her cycling background and learned that she used to be a regular “Spinner” prior to having her children. The student then apologized for her “current condition.” The instructor came around to the front of the bike, looked her in the eye, and out of earshot from other students told her how honored she was to have her in class, that she had nothing to apologize for. The instructor asked the student about her goals, which included making time for her own exercise program and getting back out on the road in time for the summer. This clearly excited the instructor, and she explained how the student should go about gauging her intensity, offered several modifications, and stressed that above all else she should listen to her body and respect what it was telling her.
The student had a great class and came back the next week, and the week after. In fact, she kept coming back, lost 100 pounds, purchased a new road bike, and at the finish line of completing her first century ride that summer, there was the instructor waiting to give her a hug. Both women cried tears of joy.
What do these two women have in common—the obese woman who fell off the bike in her first class and the instructor who helped a client to reach her goals? They are both me. What happened to bring about such a transformation? Another instructor.
A couple of years after falling off the bike in class I was diagnosed with early onset high blood pressure and told to radically overhaul my lifestyle if I wanted to see my baby daughter grow up. Begrudgingly I joined yet another gym, changed my eating habits, and hired a trainer.
Then a funny thing happened. I started to like exercise for the first time in my life. I liked how I felt after a workout, high on endorphins and possibility. I lost my weight, became a trainer, and had a colleague invite me to Spinning® class. “Whoa!” I said. “No way!” He asked me why I was so adamant about not taking Spinning and I relayed my story. He looked at me with disbelief. “You need to meet Michelle.”
Apprehensively, I ventured into the Spinning studio. There I was—a trainer, the most fit I’d been in my life, and utterly terrified about this class. I was the obese woman walking into class for the first time. My pulse quickened, my mouth dried out, and my palms were slick with sweat. I felt nauseated and can remember actually looking around for the garbage can “just in case.” Yet it was an entirely different experience than the one I’d had years before. Michelle welcomed me, set me up, and explained modifications. She dismounted her bike a few times during class to check on me, removing her microphone each time to do so. She gave me lots of encouragement and many smiles. That was it. I was hooked on this “riding to nowhere” thing, and quickly learned those things we cycle-addicted folks know about: favorite bikes and spots in class, the thrill of making it off the waitlist, the rush to sign up for the next class, the friendships born in sweat, the energy of the group.
The story doesn’t end there. I became a Star Three Spinning instructor, then Stages, Cycling Fusion, and Heart Zones. I opened my own studio (Cycledelic). I consequently lost my studio, and was plunged into bankruptcy. Now, I am back to “just” teaching again—my first love; a love I cannot deny even after losing so much near and dear to me. (My dear friend and mentor Tom Scotto wrote a lovely article about coming to my class this past October.)
As instructors we have incredible influence over our students, especially the newbies, and often more than we realize. With this influence comes great responsibility to wield our influence wisely and from a place of compassion. We have the power to assist in bringing about someone’s transformation and building them up to be stronger and better; likewise, we have the power to crush someone’s spirit and discourage growth from ever occurring. It’s a choice and an opportunity given to us each time someone new walks into our class.
I am thankful for the obese woman who fell off the bike; she made way for a window into the newbie soul that I probably wouldn’t otherwise have as an instructor. I am thankful for my lousy first instructor; he reminds me of everything I never want to be. I am thankful for Michelle, my instructor who took the time to educate herself and her class, to welcome me, and to ignite my passion. Most of all, I am thankful for the newbies who have come to my classes over the years. Each has offered me an opportunity to pay it forward and build something far greater than myself.
The next time you ever doubt the importance of your role in the experience of a new student, I hope you bring this story to mind and choose to be the instructor that inspires and brings hope. At the very least you’ll have a hand in making sure that person is welcome, safe, and comfortable…but you might just be paving the way to transforming a life.