Understanding the Group Fitness Athlete

The summer months bring with it a wide range of sporting events, athletic challenges, and amazing examples of skill across a wide range of different sports and events. From individual sports like golf, tennis, and cycle to team sports like the NBA and Baseball, the summer months are sure to excite any sports enthusiast.  But in addition to these mainstream sports, the summer also gives us the thrill of some “alternative” sports, some amazing events, and the opportunity to see some of the world’s best compete for Gold at the Summer Olympics.

The summer of 2016 includes a lot of really great sporting events across all these disciplines, including:

Defining an Athlete

As you’re glued to your tv this summer watching these amazing performances, have you ever thought about what makes these athletes stand out and be world class?  Have you ever wondered what makes them all amazing athletes when their sports, abilities, and skill sets are very different?

No one would deny that these individuals are all athletic, strong, powerful ATHLETES.  But what makes someone an athlete?

Have you ever tried to define an athlete?

  • Is it someone who plays a team sport? If so then the Golf Masters is out.
  • How about those who use a ball to score points? Nope, that rules out Tour de France cyclists.
  • Could it be someone who tries to beat another person’s time? Maybe, but what about the floor routine for gymnastics or the SYTYCD performers?
  • Is it simply trying to rack up a certain score given by judges?  That limits it to artistic impression sports.

Is it possible to REALLY define what makes someone an athlete?  Is there ONE all-inclusive way to describe athletes and athletic ability?

Let’s go to the Google!

A quick google search reveals that there is much debate on what and who defines an athlete, athletic performance, and true athleticism.

From people discussing the difference between Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods to considering if dancers are true artistic athletics, the debate is ongoing, and in truth there probably is no one right or wrong answer.  There simply are individuals opinions and people countering back with their opinions.

Thus maybe instead of trying to define it, it is time to take your stand and determine where you stand in that great debate.

A quick jump back in time…

A quick glimpse into my past may help give a bit more of a basis for where I stand in this debate, and how I personally feel we should refer to our participants in our classes (if you don’t care, jump below and I’ll just fill you in on the topic of discussion!)

I’m not going to bore you with all the details (if you want more, check out my story page), but I will say that I grew up dancing.  My mom put me in my first tu-tu and got my first ballet slippers when I was just 3 years old.  I always remember loving it.  I wasn’t that great, but I had heart and spirit and I would go at it!

Dancing Queen

I danced on and off all throughout my childhood and adolescent years, and eventually went on to get a BA in Dance Studies as my second degree from UNCG.  Despite all these years dancing, I was still always the last kid picked for a team in gym class.

Now maybe this was because I was the smallest in my class.  Or maybe it’s because the moment a ball comes flying at my head I duck and run, and I can’t throw that ball back to save my life.  Or maybe it simply is because I never thought of myself as an athlete, I just saw myself as a dancer.

Endurance Running?!

Fast forward through my days as an amazing bench warmer on my high school field hockey team, and my experience trying to run hurdles on the track team, and let’s look at college.  In addition to that BS in Dance, I was studying to receive my BS in Exercise Science.  In this degree you have to complete 6 activity credits across a range of different topics.

Since my only real redeeming quality on any sports team was the fact I could run up and down the field for days, I opted to take jogging as my activity of choice.  It was in this experience that I first saw myself as more than simply a dancer, but also as a runner and endurance athlete.

Over the years I’ve run numerous half marathons, 3 marathons, and completed a half ironman distance duathlon.  I’ve placed in the top 3 in a few duathlons and 5k events, and won my age group in numerous other races.  Apparently running was my sport, and thus I could be considered an athlete….by some.

Reading discussions often say that endurance athletes aren’t ‘real athletes’ simply because we simply run in a straight line.  People will argue that there is not a lot of technical skill and ability required to run in a straight line for a long period of time.  So often when having a discussion on if I am an athlete or not I am brought back to being 8 and standing on the sidelines of summer camp and no one wanting me on their kickball team because I wasn’t ‘athletic’.

When I made the mental switch…

I still remember the day when I realized that this great debate was just that, a debate.  Just like some people believe that abortion is bad or that free health care will destroy America, we all have our own beliefs and opinions that guide who we are and the choices we make in life.

For me that day came when I was running my 3rd marathon, the Richmond Marathon, on my 28th birthday.  For anyone who has ever run a race, you know that often the best things are the support signs on the side of the road.  I always love reading them and seeing what inspiration they can bring me at that point in the race.

Well in this particular race, there was one simple looking sign plannted in the ground during a horrific hill that couldn’t have come at a better moment for me.  I was struggling, legs burning, lungs gasping, and just wanting to stop.  But I looked over and saw this sign that simply said:

“This if for all those kids who were picked last in PE class.”

That sign spoke to me, because I was that kid.  At that moment I wondered what all those athletic kids I grew up with were doing now.  Were they running marathons, or were they living their corporate America lives and sitting in front of computer screens most of the day?

For the next few miles I just continued to think “what made them better than me?”  I started to realize that so many years ago, I LET these people believe that I wasn’t an athlete.  I let them tell me that dancers were insignificant and didn’t have any real athletic ability.  I allowed their thoughts, feelings, and opinions to guide the choices I made in regards to my athletic endeavors starting at the age of 8.  Then I started to get MAD at them for doing this to me.

By the end of the race that sign had really impacted me.  I realized that instead of letting others define what and who an athlete could and would be, I needed to let people realize it for themselves.  I wanted people to see that the potential to be an athlete was inside of them, it’s just a matter of finding THEIR sport.  I decided from that day forward that my clients and group exercise participants were no longer simply going to be ‘people’ or ‘participants’, they were going to be athletes.

Discovering your inner athlete

This switched made a profound difference in the way I talked and coached my classes.  I completely shifted away from any mention of physical appearance as it related to fitness, and instead talked about improving skills, abilities, and finding their individual why.  I made people set performance goals for classes.  I inspired them to understand that they have the potential to do more and be better than they thought they were.

To further my decision that everyone was an athlete, I started referring to my classes as a “team”.  I worked to develop ways and mentalities to develop a team atmosphere and have people encourage everyone on their team to be the best possible.

Training for the sport of life

That was 5 years ago now, and that mental shift has made a huge impact in my classes and with my clients.  I talk about the sport of life and the concept that “training is your sport”.  Referring to the fact that sometimes you may not be training to win a specific event, but you are training to win in life and achieve max benefits in YOUR sport, hitting the gym hard and training.

In realizing that athletes come in all forms, have different abilities, and are not defined by specific physical characteristics (such as age, gender, or size), I started to create different categories for group exercise athletes.  I gave them different goals, and allowed them to work towards their specific performance needs.  Ultimately knowing that everyone is able to unleash an inner athlete, redefine their limits, and win at the sport of life.

While there are still days I struggle to 100% believe that I am an athlete when I start talking to my coworkers who played college sports, I come back to that sign on the side of the road, and the notion that dancers are artistic athletes, and realize that we all have our own place in the big world of athletes and athletics…

Whew, that got deep!

So that gives you a glimpse into my thought process.  It shows you how I came to develop my “everyone is an athlete” philosophy, and why I stand behind it.

You can choose not to agree with me, and I allow you to have that belief.  But before you throw me to the wolves, let me show you how I employ these beliefs in my group ex classes…

Teaching the group exercise athlete

One of the fun challenges of being a group ex instructor is the notion that we never know who is going to walk through the doors on any given day.  You could end up with a huge group of regulars, or see brand new faces, and you have to be able to adapt quickly and respond to everyone who stands in front of you ready for an amazing class experience.

If you teach a regular class, at a regular time spot, then you may have a good grasp of who will come, but it is still important to always think about “who is my audience, and how can I best help them achieve peak performance in today’s class?”

Instead of thinking about people as “beginner, intermediate, or advanced”, look at them in a different light and consider categorizing them based on their goals and performance desires.

Group Exercise Athletes

Here are the six (6) different ways I like to think about my group ex class team members.

Return to Play Athletes

Everyone has to start somewhere, whether it is coming back from an injury, returning after having taken a leave of absence from exercise, older adults, or those who simply want a lower impact and lower intensity workout, creating appropriate class designs is critical to long-term success of these athletes.

These guys can often be the “fragile eggs” of a group exercise department because they want to be part of the group workout experience, but often are not able to work at the intense levels of many of the classes offered.  They get frustrated because they can’t keep up, and may feel put off by other participants or even the instructor.

Many will attend classes, never to return because they felt the class was too hard.  Everyone, but our return to play athletes especially need some more guidance, attention, and support throughout their journey.

Corporate America Athlete

This is our ‘typical’ group exercise participant.  The business man/women who works a busy 40+ hours/week, has a family, and other commitments that may take over their fitness commitments.

These guys may not have a lot of extra time in their lives, but when they are at the gym, they like to push hard and challenge themselves.  They like the opportunity to gasp for air, discover new muscles, and challenge the person next to them to a good old fashin’ competition.

When working with this group it is important to remember that while they want to think they are professional athletes, their work and life commitments may not allow them to have maintained all the foundational levels of fitness that are required to safely and effectively push themselves to those max levels.  Make sure that you don’t forget their needs for mobility, stability, balance, and coordination training when trying to give them the best workout in the shortest amount of time.

Artistic Athletes

You know the people, the ones who just want to get into class and have fun.  The ones who are there to shimmy, shake, and dance their way to happiness.  These artistic athletes can be some of the most fun to work with as they really just want to find new and different ways to workout.

From dance fitness, hula-hoop, aerial yoga, and more, our artistic athletes want to feel what it’s like to be on the performance stage.  Whether they hide in the back corner the entire time, or they are in the front shaking everything they’ve got, make these guys and gals smile and enjoy their workout.

It is important in all the fun to ensure that they are completing safe and well-rounded workouts.  All because you are making something fun doesn’t mean you all of a sudden throw science out the window!  Learn a bit about the science behind dance, then check out these tips on how to create great dance fitness classes, before discovering your favorite style of dance fitness in this great infographic.

Performance & Recreational Athletes

It’s not common that you will have elite level performance athletes (think NFL, NBA, Tour de France, etc) in your group exercise classes, but you will probably end up with recreational adult athletes in your classes on a regular bases.  These are people who participate in running events, triathlons, play basketball, tennis, or golf recreationally.  It is possible that they will pull out some age division wins, but most of the time their participation is solely for enjoyment and personal challenges.

Many times these recreational athletes also fall into our “corporate America athlete” profile, and thus it is important that in addition to preparing them for the demands of their chosen sport, we are creating balance for their crazy work/personal lives.

These individuals are often very personally driven and will take a challenge in a class to the extreme levels.  They are the ones who may forget about the value of rest and will compromise technique in an effort to go further/faster/stronger.  Keep a close eye on these competitive recreational athletes as you want to make sure they are getting the workout they NEED that fulfills their goals and keeps them injury free.

Ensure they have a solid foundation of mobility, stability, balance, and posture before automatically jumping to the most advanced level of a movement or exercise simply because they have performance goals.  Remember, the foundation is key for a great athlete.

Warrior & Tactical Athletes

It’s not common, but often you will be lucky enough to train our brave men and women in the armed forces, serving our communities as firefighters, or policemen.  When training these athletes, your challenge is ahead to create well-rounded fitness programs that best prepare them for the demands and challenges of their jobs.

More common is working with individuals who want to train like this.  Individuals looking to do obstacle races that include many of the movements used in military training.  Focusing on the movement patterns necessary to carry, crawl, run, and defend themselves are critical for success with these heroes of tomorrow.

Tactical fitness turns average people into strength and power workers who are prepared to save themselves or their families from burning buildings, cars, or get out of the way when danger is around.  Take these athletes serious, as they want a workout for a specific purpose and mission.

Retired Athletes

Ahh, the glory days of being retired and getting to play when you want, how you want, and where you want.  For these athletes it is all about maintaining overall health and fitness as they continue to mature in age.  Many have been active their entire lives, but the glory days of hard pushes and high impact activities may be behind them.

Retired athletes come to us at all different levels and abilities.  Some have been out of the game for a long time and are just getting back in as part of retired life.  Others have maintained a level of high-intensity exercise for years.  Creating well-balanced programs that allow these guys to mentally stay sharp and in the game will be critical for their success.

Many of our retired athletes, or “active older adults”, don’t want to think of themselves as old or in a “senior” population.  Thus it is important to structure classes in a manner that still allows them to push themselves, but in a safe and purposeful manner.

The goals for our retired athletes should be to maintain foundational levels of fitness, have good mobility and ease of movement through the different movement patterns, and a solid base of mental toughness and reaction time skills.  Discover ways to challenge these athletes in your bootcamp classes with agility, coordination, and vision drills!

There you go..

So there you go, those are the five main athlete profiles that I think of in my classes and with my clients.  Again, you can choose not to agree with me, and think my philosophy is complete BS, and if you do that, I will politely tell you that we can continue to agree to disagree.

I have found that personally l like to train the Corporate America Recreational Athlete.  Who is your favorite group of athletes?  What other categories might you consider?


Understanding the Range of Group Fitness Athletes

“I hope we make you challenge the status quo, rethink what you know, and discover new group fitness experiences”

-Summer Sides,
Founder of GXunited

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