Maximizing Group Exercise Instructor Performance

Your group exercise program can benefit from a well-designed evaluation and recognition plan for your instructors.

Quality instructors are the cornerstone of a thriving and profitable group exercise program.Their classes are innovative, motivating, safe, effective and popular among members. Through an organized system of performance appraisal, rewards, recognition and professional development opportunities, fitness directors can assure that all group exercise employees excel, bringing quality, prestige and energy to a fitness center.


Performance appraisals

Performance appraisals are the process of "measuring how well employees perform their jobs when compared to a set of standards, and then communicating that information to those employees," say Mathis and Jackson in their book, Human Resource Management: Essential Perspectives. And, when implemented correctly, performance appraisals improve the safety and effectiveness of instruction, minimize negligence, enhance quality and professionalism, and increase management efficiency, explains JoAnn Eickhoff-Shemek of the University of South Florida. Directors can also use them to determine pay increases and promotions, identify strengths and areas for improvement, and recognize outstanding instructors.

While 88 percent of fitness directors Eickhoff-Shemek surveyed assess instructor performance, many did not provide written feedback, and few included important criteria or performance standards. Without specific, measurable, objective and attainable benchmarks of quality instruction, feedback is difficult for group exercise instructors to interpret and incorporate for improved performance.

Before developing an evaluation system, it is essential that the fitness director has the commitment of the facility owner. Julie McNeney, chief operating officer for the International Council on Active Aging, and former supervisor at The Fitness Group in Vancouver, B.C., suggests that supervisors and owners work together to develop a vision and goal for the group fitness program, and then determine how performance appraisals fit into the larger picture. Full-time directors supervising five instructors will face different challenges than part-time directors supervising 20 instructors. Directors should incorporate an assessment plan that best fits the fitness center and group exercise program.

Spot evaluations

A time-efficient assessment that is easily incorporated into a group fitness program is a 10-minute spot evaluation. At impromptu times, directors can view an instructor's class, quickly record three components that were great about the class and three suggestions for continued improvement, and share that feedback with the instructor. This assessment is intended to provide feedback to experienced instructors who request assistance or who have received member complaints. Because the form does not contain performance standards or criteria, it is not ideal for a complete appraisal, but it is a good first step in implementing an evaluation system, and a useful component of a comprehensive plan.

New instructor assessment

The new instructor assessment is a more complete tool that is best used when attending a full class led by a new hire. Although more time consuming than the 10-minute spot check, this assessment is critical for providing positive reinforcement, molding new instructors to teach according to the fitness center's guidelines, and correcting undesirable behaviors early in the instructor's tenure.

The evaluationform includes a 1-to-5 Likert scale rating on the followingcompetencies:

* Quality of fitness class components (introduction, warm-up, cardio, strength, cool-down, flexibility)
* Instruction (cueing, phrasing, transitions, easy to follow, showed interest in participants, moved around room)
* Ability to motivate, communicate and educate

* Other (options and modifications, charisma, energy, variety, intensity checks, safety)

Ideally, a supplemental document will include a listing of performance standards for each item. For example, instructors receive a 1 if a participant intensity check is absent, and a 5 if they appropriately conduct an intensity check, explain its purpose, ask the class participants if they are within the desired range, and provide information on how to increase or decrease intensity. Instructors should be familiar with the performance standards prior to the assessment.

Year-end review

The most comprehensive and time-intensive evaluation is the year-end review. While each fitness center will find its best method for implementing systematic evaluations of all teaching staff, The Fitness Group developed two components to this evaluation: an organizational review and a performance review (see Table 2 for sample competencies). The fitness class that is evaluated is also videotaped, so the instructor can complete a self-evaluation. The director and instructor then arrange a time to review both evaluations, and discuss any discrepancies or areas of concern. Pay raises may be associated with this assessment.

Other evaluation methods

Participants, peers and instructors can also play a role in conducting performance appraisals. Participant evaluations provide both the director and the instructor useful information about their experience and satisfaction. However, participants may have difficulty rating technical competence, and should not dictate class features such as music speed or length of warm-up and cool-down, for example. As Lori Lowell, national group fitness director of Gold's Gym, notes, "In the past, we've let members tell us what they want instead of us telling them what they need. We need to design fitness classes giving participants what they need to achieve their fitness goals based on the latest scientific research." Still, participant evaluations can be an important piece of a comprehensive review.

Peer evaluations are also a useful assessment component. Time-strapped supervisors may train their most experienced and highly rated instructors to help with the performance appraisal process, and conduct new instructor assessments and year-end reviews. Trained and competent peers may be the sole reason a fitness center with 30 instructors can feasibly implement performance appraisals. Peer assessments also encourage instructors to attend other instructors' classes, think more critically about what constitutes effective teaching and feel that they are an important part of the facility's group exercise program. Requiring each instructor to complete a 10-minute spot-check once per year is an effective way to involve all staff in the mission to improve the quality of the group fitness program.

Finally, instructors can play a critical role in evaluating management. Asking instructors to complete an anonymous assessment of the communication skills, follow-through, organization and leadership capability of their supervisor provides invaluable information to the fitness director and facility owners. The review of management can also ask staff to rate how well the organization achieves its mission, functions as a leader in the industry and serves the needs of members. Providing instructors an opportunity to be the evaluator demonstrates the director's commitment to quality improvement, and enhances communication among instructors and their supervisor.

Recognition and rewards

In addition to a performance appraisal system, an outstanding group exercise program includes a commitment to continuously recognize and reward exceptional performance. Positive feedback not only is an important motivator to maintain quality, but it also fosters a strong relationship between staff and management.

To optimize the effectiveness of positive feedback, The Fitness Group developed a motivation and recognition form that each instructor completes at hiring. The form asks instructors to articulate what motivates them, and what challenges they face in achieving their goals at that fitness center. Then, instructors rank, on a scale of 1 to 13, what motivates them most: name and picture on a bulletin board, impromptu thank-you notes, thank-you cards, name and picture in the fitness center's newsletter, verbal recognition (one-on-one), verbal recognition at staff meetings, letter of appreciation, money, gifts, discounts on fitness center amenities, registration costs at conferences, team parties, or a specific job or responsibility. The fitness director and facility owner both keep a copy of this form, and use it to appropriately recognize instructors who have done outstanding work.

Whether a formalized system or simply a commitment to thank instructors when a job is well done, recognition increases job satisfaction, builds morale, demonstrates that management cares about its staff and improves the overall quality of the group exercise program.

Professional development

An excellent way to assure that directors are given ample reason to recognize staff, and that instructors meet the fitness center's performance criteria, is to organize regular in-service trainings. Areas identified in the performance appraisal as the most in need of improvement are ideal topics. Directors can hire their best instructors or other experts in the field to lead sessions, such as how to design an effective warm-up, the proper execution and cueing of difficult exercises, and emergency procedures.

Providing partial or full reimbursement of some continuing education expenses is another useful way to recognize staff and improve the quality of the group fitnessprogram. Although costly, the investment pays for itself when instructors return from the training rejuvenated, ready to share their new knowledge with their peers, and more committed to the facility and its mission to provide the best group exercise classes for its members.

The caveats

Developing a high-quality group exercise program clearly demands a large investment of time, money and energy. The outcome provides the fitness center and its members an excellent and worthwhile service, but not all facilities will benefit equally. For example, legally, it is important to recognize the difference between an employee and an independent contractor. Employees can be required to undergo an evaluation process, complete assessment forms and attend trainings; independent contractors cannot. In addition, McNeney and Lowell both emphasize that a group exercise program can only reach its maximal potential when instructors are 100 percent committed to the fitness center, and teach exclusively for one company.

Find what works for your facility

Each fitness center is unique. The most effective quality improvement plan slowly incorporates a system that is feasible and best utilizes the facility's resources and talents. Instructors excel when group exercise programs value constant improvement, employee satisfaction and ongoing education. In return, more members meet their fitness goals and facilities become one step closer to achieving their mission of being the best.

[Editor's note: The four tables associated with this article can be faxed if you send a request with the article and author name to]


Mathis, R., and J.Jackson. Human Resource Management: Essential Perspectives (3rd ed). South-Western: Canada, 2005.

Eickhoff-Shemek, J. Conducting performance appraisals of group exercise leaders. Lecture presented at the American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Summit, Orlando, Fla., 2004.
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