If you have been teaching for a long time you will have seen this on numerous occasions: those people who come to your classes and seemingly pay no attention to your instructions, take no notice of their bike setup, and just seem to plod along looking miserable. It’s hard to not see them, and as an instructor I find it irritating.
Or used to, I should say.
I love teaching indoor cycling and I give 100% every time I stand in front of my riders. I will do my utmost to ensure that every person in that studio gets the best out of those 45 minutes. I go through bike setup every class, I structure my sessions well, I give clear targets at the start, and do my best to use various ways of motivating and conveying the intensity levels throughout the class.
If I see that someone is not following my instructions, I assume they struggle to understand what I want them to do. I will seek eye-to-eye contact with them to guide them and if that fails, I will approach them for a bit of one-on-one coaching.
While people are filing into the studio, I have made it a habit to announce that if anyone needs to take it easy for whatever reason, say because of an injury, to let me know so I will leave them in peace. People do take me up on it.
I would, however, get really wound up by riders who just walk in, usually last minute, plop on any bike without even checking if the adjustments are locked and with complete disregard for the setup guidelines, and proceed to do a big fat nothing in terms of a workout for the duration of the class.
As an instructor, I would always feel conflicted when such a repeat offender would come in. On one hand, my professional conscience is clear since I have tried educating them and helping them out, yet they decided to ignore my suggestions and instructions and still turn up like clockwork. Should I ignore them completely and after four or five classes not even bother adjusting their bikes again? Is that ethical to just let them be? Should I even waste my breath and thought on riders like these? They clearly don’t care!
I discussed this subject with a few fellow instructors and even some riders, and the consensus was that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, so I should not worry myself with them. By ignoring me, they are being rude and so I should ignore them and focus on the rest of the group. It didn’t sit well with me, but I decided to test my new approach and pretend I didn’t see them in my next class.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a brilliant podcast called Fitness Career Mastery* on how to motivate class participants and the do’s and don’ts of group ex instructing.
One of the things talked about was that as important as motivation is in group exercise classes, it’s equally important to acknowledge that some people just want to have some time away from their hectic office or personal life schedule and the intensity of the workout is not important to them. They mentioned an example of a yoga instructor who would say at the start of her class that if the participants wanted to stay in child’s pose for the full hour, she was fine with that.
That took me slightly by surprise, but it was real food for thought. This is not something I would even think of doing as a participant, so it was hard for me to get my head around it. The crux of this approach was that if I, as an instructor, ask the riders to acknowledge their reason for coming in and that reason turns out to be simply escaping whatever else is happening in their lives, then they accomplish their goal by just being there. I shouldn’t add to their stress by trying to make them work harder, albeit with good intentions, or tell them that by going easy they are wasting their time or even worse…failing.
To be honest, this went against my instincts as an instructor, but it made me wonder if I had it all wrong.
Coincidentally, two days later I was covering a class in a facility where I have two such seemingly apathetic riders. I saw a woman walk in with a double carriage and what looked like a baby and a toddler. She smiled at me and I thought her face looked familiar, but I was struggling to work out where I knew her from. She then pointed to the carriage and said, “This is the reason why I am always late to your class and why I have to rush off at the end. And it’s why I cannot work any harder—I am totally exhausted!”
Only then did I realize that she was one of those two riders! I never got a chance to talk to her before or after the class, she always avoided eye contact during the class, and I have never ever seen her smile before! I suddenly felt so bad for thinking she was being rude, obstinate, or just could not be bothered with my instruction.
From that moment on, I have been making a conscious effort in groups where I have riders like that, or if I notice someone who fits the bill, to say something along the lines of the following:
“I want you to think about why you came into the studio today. What is your reason? Is it to get a great workout? Is it to work on improving your FTP? Is it to sweat off the stressful week in the office? Or is it simply the only 45 minutes in a week that you are free from your kids and responsibilities? If this is your 45 minutes of freedom and you want to take it easy—please do. I only ask you that you relax and enjoy it, maybe give me a smile from time to time so I know that you doing it your way for the whole 45 minutes is a choice and not a result of you not understanding what I am asking of you. If this is your escape, we got you!”
The first time I said that, there was a great vibe and energy in the room as if people found this message refreshing, and some took me up on that offer, but they felt free to do that without trying to hide from me.
And next time I see that woman in my class, I will go up and apologize.
*Fitness Career Mastery, Episode 93: 12 Top Tips from a Professional Class Reviewer for a Five-Star Class Experience