How to deal with aqua class critics

(with lessons to learn for ALL Group Ex!)

Don’t let criticism and complaints from participants dishearten you. By using the strategies of experienced instructors you can create a better experience for you and your class, writes Lori Templeman.

It was only a matter of time. My class was running smoothly when the chronic complainer made her appearance. Whenever she attends, I know I’m in for a challenging session. Every time we step up and teach a class, we become vulnerable to judgment, complaints and cruelty from our students. We have all experienced that crushing feeling of failure or attack on our abilities. Instructors invest money, time and energy into creating a fitness experience and are sometimes met with rejection. We are often able to shrug off the comments and share stories with our colleagues, but at other times it affects our confidence. Here, several instructors share their difficult participant encounters and offer strategies for handling these situations.

Julie See, the President of AEA, claims to be lucky with the students in her current fitness classes. The worst situation she can recall was with a student who was previously an instructor; ‘She liked to let me know – as well as all of the class – that she called the move something else or that she would have put the moves together differently or to make the workout harder she would do it this way, etc. Although it ticked me off in class, I decided to try to turn it around and I acknowledged her comments. For example, ‘You are right, some training courses call this move xyz’ or ‘Great idea for a transition, I will use that next time in class – thank you!’ or ‘Good suggestion, if you want to work a bit harder, try the variation that Susie is doing.’ After a few weeks of trying to impress the class and/or show me up, she became one of my biggest fans. Sometimes people are insecure and just need to be acknowledged, recognised and ‘stroked’.’

Tara Palmer-Schaeffer, an Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) Trainer from New York, still has difficult students showing up after 15 years of teaching; ‘I currently have one in my Wednesday class. I just change the subject and start a new conversation about the exercise we are doing. I talk over him.’ If a valid issue is brought up, Palmer-Schaeffer will confront it while maintaining control of her class; ‘If someone complains constantly and has a suggestion, I tell them I respect their opinion. I then use kindness to deal with the situation. Sometimes I will announce to the group there was some feedback and let the group decide. For example, if someone wants me to turn down the music, I ask the whole group’ she says. This technique shows awareness of the issue and willingness to address it, while maintaining a leadership role.

Music choice is a common focus of criticism. I play a wide variety of music catering to different generations and have sometimes missed the mark. I laugh it off, agree with them, or change the music and move on. Some participant comments I’ve heard over the years include ‘I should have brought my own iPod to class. This is terrible’; ‘You wasted your money on this CD’; and, when playing a Broadway musical remix, ‘What musical is this from? I’ll be sure to avoid it.’

‘Humour can be your best defence in class’ says Mark Grevelding, AEA’s promotions consultant; ‘Without doubt, I believe that my sarcastic wit and fun-loving spirit act like a shield in keeping the witches and warlocks at bay. Students can smell fear and hesitation and are more likely to pounce if they perceive an easy target. Humour promotes an aura of confidence and ease.’ Discussing difficult participants, Grevelding said ‘I have had someone confront me after my Arthritis Foundation class to tell me she liked my class but the Big Band music is so OLD. She claimed participants were singing newer songs played in other classes and to rethink my music choices. I considered her criticism and adjusted my playlists to include some other decades. However, any song she disapproved of would be verbally slammed while she tried to recruit other participants to agree with her. There is no pleasing some critics, and fortunately her behaviour made her a social outcast in the class and she has moved on.

Jenna Bruce from Port Angeles, Washington, recalls an angry swimmer who would not tolerate the music from the adjacent aqua class. The lap swimmer started yelling that the music in the class was too loud, inappropriate and wanted it turned off immediately. She complained to a staff member who was counting money in the office at the time. Because the money was out on the table, he could not respond immediately, so the swimmer decided to handle it directly. She ran across the pool deck, dripping wet, and started to adjust the sound system. After multiple electrical safety warnings from the staff, she was asked to leave. Her anger built and she yanked the electrical cord out of the socket, causing permanent damage to the sound system. In this case, the class participants stood up for the instructor. They told the swimmer they enjoyed the music, and she could buy earplugs or come at a different time. Remaining calm and professional, while challenging at times, is the best approach. Unfortunately, a patron needs to be asked to leave when a situation escalates, especially when a safety concern is involved.

Katrien Lemahieu, owner of KatAqua in the Netherlands, takes a customer service strategy with her classes; ‘I try to figure out if it is a complaint or someone who is complaining. When you see the difference, a situation is easier to handle. If it is a complaint, you can usually address it within your facility’s rules and resolve the problem. A chronic complainer will continue to find something wrong even after you fix or address each issue’ she says. With a chronic complainer you can address their behaviour.  Lemahieu suggests talking to the participant; describe what you have done to fix the situation, and see how they respond. She has asked, ‘If you were the manager here, what would you like to see happening with xyz? Tell me, and I will see what I can do.’  In her experience, the participant will tell her what they expect to happen, and she takes action within her limits. Then she makes an agreement to close the situation and move on. Lemahieu has had positive reactions and success with this approach.

Education is one of our biggest defenses as an instructor. Participants sometimes neglect our knowledge or miss the purpose of our exercise design. My students recently told me that a piece of equipment we use is ‘wimpy’. I quickly went into education mode, explaining surface area, muscular effort, as well as the progressions I give them to train for core stability, balance and coordination. I also mentioned some other types of equipment and their limitations. After justifying my purpose and training method, they had little to say. Unfortunately, if students have already decided to dislike a piece of equipment, I may not ever be able to change that. Fortunately, we have a wide range of equipment in the pool shed and I rotate what we use.

Lawrence Biscontini, an international aqua and land movement specialist, has also dealt with rejection. After subbing a class, a participant came up to him to share what the regular instructor does and commented, ‘If you are going to work here you better step it up’. Lawrence thanked her for the feedback and suggested that instructors are like Campbell’s soup – there are many different flavours to enjoy, and one flavour may not be for everyone. Although the participant replied, ‘Yeah, but at least with Campbell's you know they are all good!’ Lawrence tried to focus on the positive. He recognized that not everyone will love every instructor, and subsequently dedicated an entire chapter of his book Cream Rises to making substitute teaching a successful experience (for most participants at least), every time.

One of the hardest lessons to learn is not taking feedback personally. When someone has complained about my class, I have cried, silently fumed, or had an ‘I’ll show them’ attitude. Over time, I’ve learned to accept their opinions. It really is impossible to please everyone, and sometimes they give valid feedback we can learn and improve from. My intention is to bring my students the best I have each day, though some days are better than others. This gives me satisfaction in doing the best I can to make a difference in my participants’ health and wellbeing.

Even the most popular and loved instructors have dealt with difficult students. Through experience and continuing education we are constantly refining and improving our skills. Don’t allow the negative comments to tarnish the many golden compliments you receive. The next time you are faced with negativity, remember to call upon some of the lessons shared here to turn the situation into a positive outcome.


Lori Templeman
Lori is the owner of Fitness Temple in Sacramento, California. She is an AEA Trainer, group fitness instructor, and personal trainer working with a wide spectrum of populations. Lori holds certifications with AEA, ACE, AFAA, and the Arthritis Foundation. She can be reached at and