What Teaching Fitness Has Taught Me.
EVERY day, I “brave” the 10 (the freeway or I-10, for those who don’t speak L.A. Transit fluently) heading from the Westside to Downtown Los Angeles. And while I always get met with trembling voices and wide eyes when I casually mention this, I actually love that time in the car. But that’s another post for another day….
I’ve started teaching a new class, one that begins at the bright n’ early hour-ish of 6:30am at Equinox DTLA. Apparently, my first class sold out by noon that previous Thursday. And as I approached the overpass at Crenshaw Blvd the following Friday morning, I let the beachy vibe take a backseat and really sat with this kind of crazy notion from a city girl perspective. I’d never taught there before, nothing more than a one-time sub slot with ten people in the room. I’m going to be transparent here: while I know it’s a popular time slot, I was also receiving comments about how “excited” people were to have me on the schedule there, regardless of time. Which was flattering, but confusing. They don’t even know me, I thought…
The reason I got certified had less to do with a love of RPMs and more to do with a loathing of the classes offered at my then-local 24 Hour Fitness. There’s an audience for everything, sure, but for this here audience – it was horrendous. Like, musical-theatre-dance-remixes horrendous. The sculpt class I attended religiously was no different. Enough house beats to give you a migraine, coupled with coaching that might as well come from the mouth of Small Wonder.
Yet despite uninspired coaching and musical blasphemy, I was there almost every week – along with 50 others. No one particularly loved these classes. But still, they came. And then I’d go to the class of an incredibly talented teacher back at home, or I’d experience a sub who blew me away, and the classes would be empty.
This begs the question: if it’s not the music, not the innovation, not the inspiration, then what is it?
Quick note, I’m not saying those things are not important. Opposite, really. They’re some of the most important factors.
But none of the innovation, inspiration, or ingenuity will even be registered if there is no trust.
I’ve been doing a LOT of creative business research lately, and there is this age-old debate of Content vs. Design as king. The Contenters (as I’ll call them) argue that what hooks an audience is above-average content – what is actually being said or presented. The Designers (as I’ll call them, obviously) argue that what hooks an audience is stellar design – the look of what is being presented. I argue that what hooks an audience – or gets them staying put, actually – is trust. Content and design create value, trust creates dependability.
When you consistently deliver, you create trust.
When your playlist is consistent, you create trust.
When you set the stage and stay true to you, you create trust.
The reason I and so many others kept going to these sub-par classes was not because they were off the charts life-changing, it was that they were reliable. The teachers almost never subbed out. The routines were different enough to keep us from checking out but similar enough to be somewhat familiar. While the music was not preferable, it was predictable. Basically – we knew what we were getting ourselves into. When the act of taking a class is “risky” enough as is (elevated heart rate, getting to a vulnerable emotional state, possibility of a rogue fart), we as teachers must serve as an anchor.
Trust is underrated in business and art. But just like in a relationship – if you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything.
I used to teach at a studio with my friend, let’s call her Long Legs McGee. At this studio, we were required to theme every single class. Each would be different. LLMG knew that in order to hook people and allow them to open their eyes to the passion and professionalism with which she taught, this policy was not going to make her anything but expendable.
And so she found a way to beat the system: every Friday, she picked the same theme and delivered week after week. Hip Hop Friday became the most popular class at the studio, and the attendees became like family. She was always a brilliant teacher, but once hip hop friday became official, LLMG’s classes skyrocketed and stayed there. People knew what to expect. All hip hop, all the time. Questionable language. An outgoing personality. The same tone and vibe every time. A dancing toy snowman in Hammerpants.
I am certainly not the most talented, the most knowledgeable, or the most innovative teacher – and frankly, I love that. I love learning and I love that there is someone for everyone. Not every party is mine to throw, and I celebrate that we are all so very different in our styles and our approach. There are people who love my class, and people who have blocked it from their minds. But the classes that have really worked – the ones in which people not only show up in person but more importantly show up mentally – have always been rooted in trust. We all know what we are getting ourselves into. We depend on it.
I know what I like. Or at least what I like to play in class. Lots of people love all Top 40 all the time, but if I started playing hit upon hit I’d bet money that people would stop showing up. It’s not that I play one genre all the time – I mix it up, everything from classic rock remixes to hip-hoppy rap. But my through line is that every song evokes a certain feeling, and the 10-12 song compilation takes you on a very specific, very intentional journey. I throw in some Maroon 5 because I love them and some P!nk cause she’s a badass. But my own personal rule is that if it’s being played at the gas station or in a car commercial, it’s not touching my class with a ten foot pole. Does that mean those kinds of songs are crappy choices? Not at all. Different strokes for different folks. If you’re a pop junkie, let it rip! And that doesn’t mean you can’t throw some hip-hop or alternative into the mix, either. That leads me to my next point…
I acknowledge the curve-balls. Class is not a quiz or a practice in reactivity. It’s not my job to surprise my class members or throw them off, it’s their job to take what I’m giving as a guide and use that to surprise themselves in a way that feels authentic to them. Even if I don’t want to give away all my class secrets from the get-go (leave something to the imagination, heyo), I give them an offhand heads up that there will be a curve-ball thrown in. Whether that’s an out-of-character song or a “surprise” breakaway at the end of the hill, I try to let them mentally prepare for something different. Give them armour, give them the reassurance of knowing that you see it too, let them know that no matter what happens, you’ve got their backs. You’re in a secret-free zone.
The easy thing to say is “I don’t sub” – but that’s only step one, and SO not true. Obviously if you’re never there, you can’t build trust. But when I do sub, I sub only when it’s absolutely necessary, and give them heads up as soon as possible. If I have enough advance notice, I announce in my classes, and let them know who the sub will be. Students don’t usually like to see subs (unless it’s a trusted instructor), so put them at ease that they’ll be taken care of, then let them know when you’ll return. Furthermore…
I celebrate my colleagues. My opinion is that if they see you’re a team, they trust that you’re a team player, not just some rando on a bike on a stage. This is exactly why I created my Woman Against Negative Talk series on WANT and my Yoga Matters and Class In Session fitness profile series’ on The Chalkboard Mag: I LOVE celebrating the people in this industry who are doing something unique and authentic. People who are setting a positive example that goes way beyond marketing or class format or how chiseled their abs are. There are so many teachers I admire for so many different reasons – but at the end of the day, it all comes back to camaraderie and authenticity. And I think class members pick up on that. The more you can show you are a team player, the more they feel as if they are on that team.
As teachers and as creatives of any kind, we focus so much on the nuance and look. It’s in our blood. We love what makes us feel, we love the intricately woven details. Yet sometimes we get so caught up in them that we forget that any worthwhile relationship is based on trust. It’s based in that inexplicable feeling of safety, the soft-shoe dance between knowing what to expect yet not knowing what that will look or feel like. The unspoken knowing of yes, I am taken care of, yes, I am wanted, yes, this is familiar.
I hope you will trust me.