I’ve been taking group fitness classes for four years, and teaching them for the past year. Hundreds of students attend my barre, pilates and flow classes every week, so I really do see how sports changes lives everyday. However, it takes courage and strong conviction to enable this experience on the other side of the crowd. Here are the parallels that I’ve found between teaching fitness classes and being a confident leader at work.
One study published in Human Kinetics in 2017 looked at how athletic participation affected students’ leadership skills. Student athletes scored significantly higher than non-athletes in overall transformational leadership, particularly in people and self management and dealing with feelings or emotions, especially unexpected ones (what we call resilience nowadays).
Seeking to serve
As a teacher of fitness classes, I’m responsible for building a space for my students, no matter who they are or where their fitness level is at. I guide them, inspire them, educate them on the body’s anatomy and functionality, provide a safe environment, empower them, and encourage them when it gets tough. And I do all of this while keeping my own motivation high, counting sequences and being empathetic to my class. So ask me about multitasking!
From this mix I’ve learnt that being a teacher means I am an enabler, not a boss. The parallel with leadership is obvious: my job as a teacher is not to show how to do a chair pose, diamond shape, or set the music; my job as a teacher is to create the right space for my students to challenge their limits and find what feels good. The same applies for the workplace: as a leader, you’re not just the driver, but also the fuel, the seat, the car, and the air freshener all at once.
Learning to drive teams and projects with humbleness and a desire to serve seems obvious, but it takes many on-the-spot challenges to understand how to switch from leader to enabler. It has taken me many fitness classes and much self-reflection, but practice makes the master, so don’t be afraid to test out scenarios or situations. Letting go of control allows me to serve others better and lead by example rather than just words.
Building a community through fitness classes
I teach fitness classes to dozens of people every week, and yet I know the names of most of the students that come to my classes for the second time. If you’re new, I’ll shake your hand, introduce myself, and give you a rundown of what to expect from the session. I’ll encourage you to ease into the workout and find playfulness while trying a new class. I’ll ask you how it was once the class is over, and I’ll say thank you for coming and really mean it. My goal here is not just to be nice, but to influence students to enter a safe space to improve, instead of feeling judged.
Practicing sports and later teaching them to wider crowds has given me a strong grounding on what it means to be in a team – on both practical and emotional levels. Students and team members need to feel connected and safe to push their limits; how can you find a nice emotional state if you’re not feeling welcome in that environment? Both in the studio and in the office, I have learnt how encouraging and connecting with team members to pursue team goals rather than individual ones is the only path to success.
How fitness classes teach you to embrace change
Another leadership skill is being observant and highly adaptable – like a sponge! As a teacher, I need to meet my students where they are; as a leader, I need to understand where my teammates stand and I don’t resist if they’re not meeting me where I want them to be. If a certain method or sequence does not work for them, I will offer alternatives and be prepared to explain how or why it is beneficial to them, instead of micromanaging or judging.
In the studio, I’ve had to learn that even if I have the best playlist, the most comprehensible explanations or the most well-rounded sequence, weird things will still happen. In these instances, I have to adapt the whole plan in a split second for the class to run smoothly again. Think about a song that gets stuck, an exercise that no one gets, or a student who needs my attention for the whole song. At work, the same might happen if a team member disagrees, a date falls through, or an external blocker impedes progress. How do you deal with that much uncertainty?
Well, you don’t. I haven’t learnt to deal with unexpected circumstances, because that’s what unexpected means. You cannot learn to solve what you don’t know can happen. Therefore, my secret recipe is to accept that anticipation is never applicable to humans (we’re not robots, therefore unpredictability Is part of our DNA) but you can get comfortable with uncertainty. Try to widen your perspective and see things from several angles, question yourself and develop tools to unstick yourself quickly.
Refilling my cup
Leading, whether that’s fitness classes, a football team, a company, or a project, requires a sharp minded and strong focus. However, a little too often I end up over stimulated and over worked, unable to show up for myself or others because I have had no time to rest and enjoy life beyond work. When you’re leading, you’re serving a purpose, but seek it too obssesively and you will end up not only losing the objective, but also your team along the way. I couldn’t have internalized any of the learnings I mentioned before if I didn’t take time for the most important one: rest, recharge and reset.
To be kind, empathic, create a community, motivate others and have razor-sharp vision, my mental and physical states are always crucial. For me, developing strong leadership skills started with self-exploration of what works and what doesn’t, and spending time away from my responsibilities to find new ideas, rebalance and gather energy to lead.
Focusing on the team over yourself, enabling safe spaces, navigating the unexpected, building relationships with your teammates, and striking a balance are just a few of the leadership traits that teaching fitness has taught me. Keep in mind that being a great leader doesn’t happen overnight and will always be a work in progress – figuring out what makes me a good leader in the studio or the office and merge those skills are a part of mine!