Dealing with Class Disruptions

Advice from Veteran Instructors

No matter what your gym calls you—coach, trainer, instructor, group leader—you are a TEACHER. It takes far more than simply expertise in health and fitness to effectively manage all of the different personalities and preferences of your class participants. And as with any learning environment, there are disruptions, too. Talking in class. Late arrivals. Failure to follow instructions. Sheesh. It sounds like high school!

Clubs are customer service-based businesses, and the guest is always right. . . to a point. So how do you tactfully call out a participant who is compromising safety or creating a poor experience for other students? Several veteran instructors offer their advice.

Problem: Chatty Cathy and her friend Gossip Gal are having an ongoing conversation while you are trying to cue body alignment. You can tell that other students are distracted and annoyed by the competing conversation. You try to catch their eye, but they are completely oblivious. What do you do next?

Possible Solutions: Vicki, an instructor in Bethesda, Maryland, points out that many people join clubs for the social aspect. It is helpful to have camaraderie and support while working out, but there needs to be balance. She recommends making a lighthearted comment like “Am I going to have to break you two up?” That usually makes the class laugh and the talkers stop.

Ramping up your non-verbal communication is another possibility. While simply making eye contact with the talkers often successfully halts a secondary conversation, you may need to take it a step further—literally. If your class format permits, move closer to the talkers as you continue to instruct the class. Once you reach a certain proximity, the talkers will take notice. Give them a friendly nod and smile. They will get the message!

If talking persists, you may need to adopt a more serious tone. Vicki offers a diplomatic suggestion for framing the problem from your perspective rather than casting blame: “Sometimes I just say, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t concentrate on what I’m trying to teach the class while you are talking.’” If the conversation is urgent, she requests that the talkers step out of the room to continue.

Problem: Tardy Tim comes in after class has begun. Do you say anything to him?

Possible Solutions: Instructors vary on their approach to this one, depending on the type of class and the individual involved. If the latecomer is a “regular” and his or her arrival is not disruptive, most will turn the other cheek. Suzanne, an instructor in Charlottesville, Virginia, remarks, “There is nothing like public humiliation to set the tone for an hour-long class. Also, if that person is new, you want them to come back. What if they had a bad morning just trying to get to the gym with their kids? Making their gym experience stressful is counter-productive.” Vicki agrees. “In most cases they have been held up in traffic, at work or with a kid-related issue. More than anything, they need that class they tried so desperately to get to on time!”

B.J., another instructor from Charlottesville, mentions that at a certain point, however, safety becomes a concern. She jokes with late students about having warmed up as they raced to the gym but asks that they avoid jumping in at full speed. She tells them, “I want to make sure it is safe for you to participate. Spend a little time warming up and take it easy to start with.”

Sometimes it may be necessary to turn someone away from class. Many gyms have signs posted that remind participants not to enter more than 10 minutes after class has begun. The worst-case scenario cited by instructors is a new student who tries to join class 15 or 20 minutes into instruction. The student may have watched through the windows for a while, trying to build up the courage to walk in the door, but he or she has missed the warm up and valuable instruction. “This is a toughie,” says Vicki. “You don’t want to turn someone off, but you also don’t want someone to hurt themselves.” Most instructors agree that they would try to accommodate the student as long as it was safe and did not negatively affect the other students’ class experience.

Stay tuned for the next blog entry: Dealing with Class Disruptions, Part II. Read strategies for helping Old-school Oscar benefit from new exercise research and keeping Ambitious Alice from taking on too much in your class.