Make New Friends, but Keep the Old


Today’s early morning Spin class was a fun ride.  I can’t share the profile, though, because I had to make it up on the fly.  See, I was all set to have my regulars pound out a grueling 80-92% max ride using various flavors of jumps and very little rest the entire class.  To my surprise, however, a group of the early morning weight lifters decided that they would try Spinning out today.  With it being the start of the holiday weekend, we were missing quite a few which put our numbers at 5 newbies and 3 regulars.  The obvious tilt in the experience scale required that I switch things up and give everyone an easier ride than expected.  Yes, I was catering to the new folks, but in this situation, how could I not?  But what if those five new gentlemen had walked into my class of 20 regulars?  Now we are looking at a situation that reflects a more common occurence.  So how do you do it?  How do you satisfy the strong ones while encouraging the beginners?   In the words of a Girl Scout song, how do you “Make New Friends, but Keep the Old?”

No matter what genre of class you are teaching, it is imperative that you make yourself and your class accessible to “entry-level” folks.  Otherwise, you’ll find it very difficult to build your numbers.  This is one of the biggest challenges instructors face and there are lots of workshops built around teaching you how to do it.  Here, I’m going to share some of the techniques that have worked for me.

Introductions

If you are fortunate enough to have your new faces waiting for your class to begin instead of sneaking in after you’ve started, then take the opportunity to introduce yourself and get to know a little about them.  Find out what their experience level is by getting as specific as possible.   If I ask a new face how long has she been working out and she says, “Off and on for about five years,” do I really know anything about her?  Find out how long it has been since she last worked out regularly, how many times she has tried this style of class, what other types of activities she does.  It can feel strange to strike up a conversation and get personal, but always let them know that you are interested in helping them get the most out of your class.  If it’s hard to make yourself gather that information, remind yourself that in general, people do enjoy talking about themselves, especially if you come from a friendly helpful place.

Tailor your messages

So now that you know that Lucy was a runner in college, but has had three children and not set foot in a gym for 6 years you can give her quality attention.  Likewise, you also met Shannon who currently lifts weights on a regular schedule but wants to increase cardio by trying your class.  Two different types of beginners, so two very different ability levels.   Not to mention all the intermediates and advanceds who have been taking your class for months.  It’s a good idea to start of your class with a reminder that everyone should work at their own pace, to not feel in competition with anyone, and to view this as a learning experience.  Remind them that they are allowed to rest whenever they feel they need it and to watch first before trying various moves. 

Everyone has a different style for announcing modifications for increasing or decreasing the difficulty of a move.  It has been recommended that you stay away from saying things such as, “Beginner” or “Advanced” for fear of putting people off, but I have found that you need to be as unambiguous as possible.  For example, when preparing to do Teaser IV in Pilates class, I will announce something like, “Our next move is an advanced version of the Teaser.  We’ll start with a basic version of Teaser, and then those who have already progressed may take on Teaser IV.  After the basic version, I’ll demonstrate Teaser I and II for those who are ready for more than the basics, but need additional strength before going on.”  This morning, in Spinning it was easy for me to differentiate the beginners from the regulars, because the regulars are there every Tuesday and Thursday morning.  I said things like, “The next set of instructions are for the guys who were here on Thursday [meaning my regulars].  If you weren’t here Thursday [all beginners] continue on your flat road and work on fluid pedal strokes while you tune me out for the next minute.”  That made it simple to deliver two sets of instructions. 

Give them an Out

Always offer opportunities for rest.  This morning, the easiest and safest way to change on the fly was to perform an intervals workout.  This way, everyone is expected to rest, and your newcomers don’t feel singled out for needing a time out.  Intervals are short periods of intense work alternated with periods of easier or “recovery” work.  They are an excellent way for even the most committed attendee to push hard for 1-5 minutes and then work light for another 1-5 minutes.  Something for everyone!  If it is impossible for you to make your class an interval workout, provide your newbies with a reason to stop and watch.  I like to joke around, so I might say, “I hate to torture those I don’t know personally, so if this is the first time we’ve met, you are exempt from this next move.  Watch and observe what you have to look forward to as you progress toward a stronger, healthier body.”

 Be an Inspiration

Since it is quite possible that the workout will be tough for some folks, it is your job to encourage them to stay strong and not to give up.  My veteran spinners were very enthusiastic about sharing their experiences of overcoming the initial fear and discomfort.  If you want the new folks to return, you have to remind them that it will get better.  Also let them know that it takes persistence to reach your goals.  You know that one class will not transform your body, but they have been inundated with messages of easy and quick fixes.  They have to be told that they will only achieve what they’ve set out to do if they work out consistently.

 These are only a few basic tips to get you started on helping out the new folks that you see.  Trust me, I know that it is easier and much more fun to simply ignore them and assume that they’ll be motivated by the hard workers who are already there.  However, if you take this approach, you’ll soon be teaching to a room of one.  Keep an open mind about those new people, to ensure they keep coming back.

**Update: This entry was recorded on Thursday, May 24, 2007 but was not posted. I am posting in now with the additional information that ALL FIVE of those folks have returned to every class we have had since then. These tips work!!**

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