Group Fitness Management: Creating a dynamic team

By equipping themselves with the skills to gain and retain an outstanding team of instructors, GFMs can build a truly successful group fitness program, says Kirsty Nield.

  • Group fitness helps form the social life and culture of many clubs, so the role of the Group Fitness Manager is a critical one
  • A group fitness program is only as good as its instructors, so a GFM needs to know exactly what to look for when hiring team members
  • In addition to having the right skillsets, instructors should be reliable team players that are social, energetic and passionate about their health and fitness
  • There are a number of ways to find great instructors, including contacts of existing team members, asking local RTOs, advertising and reaching out to current club PTs and passionate group fitness ‘front rowers’
  • Once you have a great team, you should strive to retain it by making it a priority to acknowledge their achievements, loyalty and reliability.

Most multi-purpose fitness facilities have group fitness as part of their service offering. This is a good thing for all concerned, because it is the group fitness program that helps form the social life and culture of the gym. By making fitness fun and social, it can keep club members coming back week after week and renewing their membership year after year. Indeed, the group fitness department can be the heart and soul of the club: kick starting relationships, providing memorable experiences and getting real fitness results for members.  Having a dynamic group fitness program which facilitates these experiences largely comes down to the instructors who teach the classes, the kind of classes on offer and the facilities in which the classes are held. However, none of this would happen without a great leader – the Group Fitness Manager (GFM).

The Group Fitness Manager

Due to the significance of group fitness, the GFM plays a vital role in the overall success of a club. Being a GFM is a challenging role. You’re on call seven days a week; you need to be versatile and have the skills to teach all sorts of classes; you need to be diplomatic and professional and keep a level head. But that’s not all – you should also be patient, compassionate, understanding, creative, intuitive and resourceful. More? You need to be tough yet kind, a good motivator, have good conflict resolution skills and be a technician. If this sounds like you, welcome to the role, you could be the next amazing leader at your gym!

In an ideal world the group fitness department at every gym would have a huge budget and an abundance of staff, space and resources so it could stay up to date, in good working order and able to run exciting new promotions and initiatives to keep members engaged. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case, and group fitness is often run on a shoestring, in small rooms with little equipment. For this reason it is vital group fitness is run by a manager who can be resourceful and cater for this important part of the gym’s business by providing great classes on a vibrant on-trend timetable, and sourcing great instructors – the ultimate key to group fitness success.

The instructors

Having the right instructors, with the right skillsets, who appeal to members and are passionate about their health and fitness, will build loyalty from the gym members and keep them coming back to see what they have in store for the next class. So, what features should the GFM prioritise when looking for instructors to join their team? The following attributes are pretty much essential for instructor success:

Reliability. Someone who can’t follow through on commitments and is continually running late or maybe doesn’t even turn up is a GFM’s worst nightmare. The GFM should look for someone who is always early, rarely needs covers, and will fill in whenever they can. These guys are keepers.

Being a team player. The GFM should look for someone who will go out of their way to help other instructors on the team, take part in launches and promotions, share ideas and help out whenever needed.

A burning passion for fitness. These instructors are always looking for new training opportunities and participate in other instructor’s classes. They teach for the love, not the money.

Being super fit. A great instructor is someone who walks the talk, is a great role model and the kind of person members will aspire to be like.

Being multi-skilled and adaptable. The GFM needs to look for someone who is confident and can turn their hand to anything. They will teach a stretch class when the yoga instructor doesn’t turn up and is happy to learn on the job.

Being a social butterfly. They can interact with and relate to members. They love a chat and to listen.

Outgoing and full of energy. No one puts a good instructor in the corner. A great instructor has understated confidence but doesn’t mind being the centre of attention. They are someone people are drawn to and want to know.

Having great musicality. Is it essential for instructors to be able to hear the beat and count a phrase. They know how to move to music and can inspire others to move with them too.

So how do you find great instructors?

The best instructors are not going to fall into the GFM’s lap. It can be difficult finding an instructor that not only has the skills needed to teach the variety of classes on the group fitness timetable, but can also cater for all the member’s needs. In order to find the right instructor, it might be necessary to try a number of different avenues.

Phone a friend…
Firstly, asking existing instructors if they have any friends or peers who are looking for classes is a great – and simple – way of finding new talent. These instructors will usually come fully trained and ready to hit the ground running.

Contact local RTOs
GFMs can approach a registered training organisation (RTO) such as the Australian Institute of Fitness or TAFE to ask them for recommendations of promising instructors who have completed the Certificate III – and possibly also the Certificate IV – in Fitness. These new fitness professionals are a great source because they have all the appropriate qualifications, have already demonstrated a passion for fitness and are likely to be fit and healthy. However, most fitness courses these days only briefly touch on how to teach group fitness (if they address it at all), so any superstar graduates from these courses are likely to require additional on-the-job training to learn how to teach classes.

Look to PTs
It’s always worth looking to existing personal trainers in the club who may fulfil the criteria. These existing team members may welcome the opportunity to not only supplement their PT income by teaching classes, but also to mix up their daily schedule and make themselves known to a room full of prospective PT clients. The additional benefit of these potential instructors is that they are already qualified and familiar with the club’s culture and procedures.

Place adverts on employment sites, on Facebook groups or the gym’s email or blog. Often, employment within the fitness industry revolves around word-of-mouth. Most instructors are found through referrals from existing instructors. However, if looking for a specific style of instructor, such as a yoga teacher or aqua instructor, placing an advert can be very effective. Advertising for new instructors is also a great way of checking qualifications, references and reputation before actually meeting them. Les Mills instructors can be sourced by approaching Les Mills and asking for new instructors who have undertaken Initial Module Training and who live in your local area.

Look to participants
Invite existing club members to undertake the training required to teach classes. These are the people who come to class every week, interact well with the other members at the gym, are outgoing and have the attributes listed above. They have huge respect for the GFM and gym instructors, take pride in their fitness and love group fitness. Head hunting existing members is a great way of picking and choosing instructors who move well, have a passion for fitness and love their club. If deciding to approach a member to become a part of the team, it is important to let them know the requirements for qualifications and registration and upskilling, as well as the costs involved.

Build a library of resumes
GFMs are often approached by instructors who are looking for work. If the GFM is not looking for new instructors at the time, it is prudent to keep their details and resumes so they can be called upon later. This library may also serve as a source of covers in the meantime – a situation which would enable their skills and suitability for future regular employment to be assessed.

Auditioning and interviewing instructors
So, after identifying some instructors with great potential, should GFMs just take them on and hope for the best, or should they give them a test run first? Whether undertaking a formal interview, a casual meeting or audition of a new instructor, it is important to establish if the individual is cut out to be a good instructor, will fit in well with the existing team, has the skills to compliment rather than compete with the team, and will be a reliable and accomplished instructor.

When first meeting or interviewing a new instructor, it’s important to spend some time getting a feel for them and how well they will fit into the team. To establish whether things are likely to work out with the instructor, consider the following questions:
  • Did they arrive on time?
  • Did they come prepared with copies of their qualifications?
  • Did they dress in a neat and presentable manner?
  • Did they look fit and healthy?
  • Did they make eye contact, and were they open and friendly?
  • Did the conversation flow easily?
  • Were they were confident, but not too cocky?

So, assuming the interview went well, it’s time for the next step. Before handing over a class to a new instructor, it’s important to check that they teach with confidence, are super fit and will work well on the team. Ask them to participate in a class, and then watch how they move and how fit they look. It’s also a good idea to either ask them to teach a few tracks in an audition, or to shadow an existing instructor to see if their technique is up to scratch.

Mentoring new instructors

On occasion, the GFM might find a new instructor who needs to learn the art of group fitness instruction from scratch or needs to get practice teaching a new program. These instructors could be taken on as trainees and assigned a mentor. An instructor who has been mentored at a particular gym is more likely to remain loyal to that club m and will become a useful long term resource. Some quality time spent mentoring new instructors is a good investment and will pay off.

When training new instructors it is important they are allocated a mentor who they can connect with and relate to. Ideally, mentors will be the best and most experienced instructors and will understand the finer details of teaching group fitness. They must be patient and understanding and have the time to stay after class to give feedback and answer questions. They must also be prepared to give up sections of their classes from week to week until the new instructor is competent to teach on their own. This can be frustrating, and some instructors may not be cut out for it.

When it comes to teaching, some new instructors take longer than others to understand cueing, learn choreography, work to a phrase and develop good stage presence. Therefore, the mentor needs to be patient but firm and allow them the time they need to get up to speed. However, it is important to keep in mind the potential frustration of class participants who are used to a high standard of instruction. An eight-week mentoring schedule should be the maximum amount of time allowed.

It is really important to not throw your new instructor in the deep end before they are ready. If they are not yet confident with teaching on their own, give them more time. A bad group fitness experience can set a new instructor back and stick with them for ever. In some cases, when the new instructor just can’t seem to get it and the mentor and class are frustrated, it might be necessary for the GFM to ask a new instructor to step away from the mic, have a break and try again later or with a new mentor. To ensure processes are in place in case of such circumstances, drawing up a training agreement at the start of the arrangement is very useful.

Keeping your great instructors

So, the GFM has built the best team of instructors they can find. Classes are buzzing and group fitness is doing well. It is important that the GFM doesn’t just sit back and rest on their laurels though. The best way for GFMs to ensure that they have the support and respect of all their instructors is to reward and acknowledge them. Most instructors don’t teach classes because they have to; they do it because they love it. Getting paid is often just an added bonus. However, this shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Recognition of achievements, loyalty and reliability should be an absolute priority. Reward doesn’t need to be in the form of financial incentives. The following simple and cost-effective ways of showing appreciation and acknowledgement are often enough.

I have to praise you
Simple praise is free, it’s easy to give and will always be appreciated by the receiver. A handwritten thank you note or a private conversation detailing how much the instructor’s efforts are appreciated is easy and free. Having a stash of Freddo Frogs and popping one in someone’s pigeon hole when they help you out, or posting a message on Facebook thanking them is simple and low (or no) cost.

Having a whiteboard in the staff room and using it to acknowledge instructor achievements and occasions, such as ‘Happy Birthday Sanuli!’, ‘Well done for receiving your BODYATTACK Certification Sam!’ or ‘Congratulations on your engagement Tom!’, lets instructors know the GFM is interested in them and their achievements and wants to share it with the team.

Tokens of appreciation
Management may be able to supply the GFM with vouchers that they can give to instructors who have gone above and beyond. These could include coffee vouchers, supplement samples or free visit passes for the gym for them to share with friends. Finding one of these tokens of appreciation in your pigeon hole will always put a smile on an instructor’s face.

Trust and responsibility
The amount of responsibility instructors are given directly correlates with how capable the GFM believes they are. Selecting instructors to take the lead on instructor training, or giving them the ability to make their own judgement calls without the manager’s involvement, demonstrates to them that they are valued and are up to the task of leading other instructors.

Provide opportunities
The best instructors are the rock stars of your gym. Providing them with the opportunity to lead by example will reinforce their value to the club. This can be done by asking individual instructors to lead a specific program, and giving them a corresponding title, such as ‘HIIT Leader’, ‘Head of Aqua Fitness’ or ‘Seniors Program Leader’. These people can be put in charge of updating other staff regarding the latest trends in their area, helping mentor new instructors and letting the GFM know if there are any problems with equipment or complaints regarding their program. As well as making them feel validated, this will also inspire other employees to compete for the top spot.

These various approaches will create a long-lasting dialogue about performance while keeping instructors on the right track and improving engagement.

The best group fitness program in the world

Having a good relationship with, and respect from the gym’s team of instructors, will result in them being keen to support their manager, which in turn makes the GFM’s job much easier. Look after your people and they will look after you. The instructor team will be willing to help out with covers, will contribute to launches, will want to attend meetings and training opportunities, and will be reliable and loyal to the gym.  The top three ingredients to a killer group fitness program are great classes, great instructors and an amazing manager. Hiring the best GFM, finding or training up the best instructors, and treating them like royalty, will ensure that the rewards will come back to the club in the form of huge group fitness success.

Network's course 'Group Fitness Management: Creating a reliable and skilled team', designed by the author of this article, group fitness guru Kirsty Nield, ​equips you ​with the tools​​ to become a skilled manager of ​GFIs or PTs. If you've ever wanted to ​become a GFM​,​ or you're currently in the group fitness space and want to learn ​how to create a reliable and skilled team, this course ​can help you do that.
  • Innovative ways to lead your team
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  • How to make group fitness the heart of your club
  • How to find and retain the best GFI’s
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Kirsty Nield is a Group Fitness Manager, instructor and presenter with over two decades industry experience. Passionate about making people fitter, healthier and happier, she has a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment and is trained to deliver five Les Mills programs, Pilates, Gymstick, aqua and ChiBall.