A year of disruption takes its toll on instructor-participant dynamics, writes Group Fitness Instructor Mel Morony. So, when it comes to re-establishing rapport, what can stay the same, what needs to be tweaked and what will need to take a back seat?
THE QUICK READ
- When it comes to making a good first impression, the cleanliness of a facility, adherence to social distancing, and personal hygiene will now be the first things that many people notice
- OHS training and implementation is based on the probability of a hazard posing a risk and the processes of mitigating that risk – so even if COVID precautions can seem over the top, adhering to them is best practice for you and the facility
- If you tend to use touch in your greetings, in the form of high fives or a hand on the shoulder, you’ll need to put those on pause
- Stand a little further inside the room when you greet and farewell participants, and let your body language and verbal communication do the work
- Some fun remarks throughout the class can go a long way to building rapport
- Some participants may feel self-conscious about weight they have gained during their time away from classes, so be considerate in the language you use.
It’s something of an understatement to say that 2020 has been nothing like what any of us envisaged. On New Year’s Eve 2019 I envisaged a year ahead packed with teaching group fitness, travel to the US and Canada for an aqua conference and tour, and some trips to bushfire-affected parts of Australia to ‘do my bit’ in helping out their struggling economies.
Obviously in March everything stopped. For those of us who live in Melbourne that interruption to our normal lives went on considerably longer than the rest of the country – with the exception of a few weeks in June/July. Now, restrictions around the country are easing to varying degrees, and we’re certainly in a better position than most countries. While the possibility that a few front-runner vaccines will start to be administered soon is very encouraging, it isn’t a silver bullet for life returning to pre-pandemic normal, since distributing pharmaceuticals, particularly those requiring specific refrigeration conditions and durations, is a major logistical challenge.
“It’s going to seem like we’re getting to know our participants all over again”
An extended time of absence from our classes can result in us having a question of ‘how’ do we get back to where we were. After so many months, it is going to seem like we are getting to know our participants all over again. This will be particularly so if we have new classes and patrons to connect with. So, what is the way forward from here? When it comes to rapport building, what can stay the same, what needs to be tweaked and what will need to go AWOL for a while?
Clean first impressions
In the months since the pandemic was declared, most of us have become accustomed to a normal that is very different to that pre-COVID. Personally, I have become accustomed to seeing and using hand-sanitiser when I enter a shop, business or waiting room. I’ve become completely accustomed to avoiding touching high-touch surfaces any more than I need to, and my perception of what is too small an amount to put on card has reduced significantly as more businesses encourage us to tap and go with contactless payments.
In this 2018 Network magazine article on rapport building I referred to the way that we welcome our patrons to our classes. While this is still important, in the world of a pandemic that isn’t the first thing that people notice. Instead, it is now preceded by some other things that we, as instructors, may contribute to but are unlikely to have the final say on, namely the cleanliness of a facility, adherence to social distancing, and personal hygiene. These will be the first things that many people now notice.
Taking these issues seriously and getting them correct is, therefore, of paramount importance. Even if you don’t believe in the threat of COVID-19 and regard it as a ‘bad cold’, keep in mind that some of our patrons could be immune-compromised to the point where even a ‘bad cold’ could be fatal. Thus, writing off a disease over which a pandemic has been declared as being of little consequence could be taken as viewing the lives of those patrons as expendable. I will let you decide if that is likely to keep people returning to your classes or centre.
Connecting from a distance
We all build rapport in many different ways, but it seems likely that certain methods of connecting with our participants and members will have to be put on pause for the foreseeable future. If you tend to use touch in your greetings, in the form of high fives or a hand on the shoulder, for example, you’ll need to rethink, as this is an obvious casualty of the pandemic.
If, like myself, you like to stand at the door of your room at the beginning and end of the class to greet and bid goodbye to your participants, you may also need to consider whether this will be adhering to social distancing requirements.
While these precautions may seem completely out of countenance for some, it is important to remember the reasons for them. Consider the impact if you had unknowingly been exposed to the virus, you gave someone a high five and then a couple of days later you developed symptoms and tested positive. Suppose that after the high five the patron touched their face, caught the virus and then ended up in hospital on a ventilator or, worse, the disease proved fatal. Consider the practical and reputative implications for yourself, the facility and the industry – not to mention the emotional toll such a chain of events would have on you.
While it may be tempting to downplay the likelihood of such a thing happening, we need to consider that all OHS training and implementation is based on the probability of a hazard posing a risk and the processes of mitigating that risk. While COVID is a new risk to work with, the principles of mitigation are the same.
Yet, there are aspects of rapport building that have not been ruled out. If you like to stand by your door at the beginning and end of class, stand a little further inside the room and let your body language and verbal communication do the work. After all, we can still make eye contact and we can still smile (you can tell by their eyes when someone’s smiling, even when they’re wearing a mask!). We can also, of course, still greet participants by their name, welcome them to our classes, thank them for coming and bid them goodbye.
In an ever-changing situation, focusing on what we can do, rather than on what we can’t, can empower us to move forward. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but change always involves a degree of discomfort. Yet without change, there can be no development and growth.
Laughter is the best medicine
“Last one, I promise – Instructor’s honour, why does no one believe me?”, “I need a gravity-less capsule to demonstrate this aqua move in!” and “That’s easy as pie! Speaking of pie…”. These are just a few of the one-liners that I use in my classes, and they get people laughing. The saying goes that ‘laughter is the best medicine’ and this is particularly true in a time of change.
Given that laugher increases our intake of oxygen to our heart, lungs and muscles and causes our brain to release more endorphins, we could say that used in conjunction with fitness we are giving our body a double dose! Granted, we are not comedians, and you do want work-time in a class to be work-time, but peppering a few fun remarks throughout the class – as long as they aren’t at the expense of others – can go a long way to building rapport and seeing people return for the next session.
The language of consideration
People deal with a crisis, and particularly isolation, in different ways. One of those could involve turning to food or cooking as a coping mechanism – certainly since that was one thing that they could turn to for some variety in their lives. As a result, some returning, and new, participants may feel self-conscious about the kilos that they’ve put on and their changed body shape.
While it would clearly be considered unprofessional to comment directly to a patron about it, keep in mind that indirect comments may also be construed as offensive. Throwaway lines such as, “They’ve put on the iso-kilos” or a “He could do with coming to this class” about people who aren’t present, such as public figures or people in our lives, could increase the discomfort that a participant has with regards their own body image.
Body image issues can be linked to mental health challenges for some people. Considering that mental health is a benefit of exercise, and something that we now often refer to when promoting the importance of the fitness industry, adding to those mental health issues could call into question whether we actually believe these claims.
Moreover, there will be people in our classes whose goals don’t include weight loss or body change. Insinuating, by our comments about these things, that gym attendance must be indicative of their desire to lose weight or change shape, could create further issues regarding inclusion and ‘fitting in’ for those people.
Connecting moving forwards
There is no doubt that the pandemic has changed a lot of things – and that the fitness industry has been one of the hardest hit. Some ways of doing things will be lost, others may slowly return, and yet others still will emerge and present themselves as new best practice. By rolling with the punches and adapting the way we do things, we can ensure that our group fitness classes will once again not only survive, but thrive.
Mel is a group fitness instructor based in Eastern Melbourne. She is passionate about raising standards in the area of group fitness, for both participants and instructors. She is currently participating in COVID-19 vaccine trials.