Developing Your Style as an Indoor Cycling Coach, Part 1

Whether you are a brand new, recently certified instructor or you have a few years under your belt, developing your style as a cycling instructor is an important component of what you do at the front of your studio. Two of the most important characteristics in developing your coaching style is knowledge of your sport/activity and motivation/inspiration.

Good indoor cycling instructors are always seeking to increase their knowledge. There is no substitute for knowing the science and technical skills behind what you do. Instructors can improve this aspect of their coaching by reading books, attending conferences and workshops, and by joining an organization such as the Indoor Cycling Association.

You can have all the skills and knowledge in the world about your sport/activity, however this doesn’t mean much if you cannot impart that knowledge in a meaningful way or if you fail to motivate and inspire your students to go beyond their self-perceived limitations. Barking out orders in a boot camp manner is certainly one style of teaching, but moving beyond this harsh method will impact a far greater number of students. When you coach from a place of compassion and empathy, your students will achieve greater success in accomplishing their fitness goals. Additionally, the mental strength that you have taught them extends beyond the cycling studio walls. They can take what they learned about commitment and focus in your classes and apply it to other areas of their life, whereas boot camp–style commands do not effectively translate to personal growth.

This two-part series on developing your style will focus on how to become a more empathic and inspirational coach. The good news is that since you are an ICA member, you already have the keys to increasing your knowledge of cycling science, technique, and the practical aspects of being a good indoor cycling coach. This series will focus on the more mental and inspirational side of coaching and how to overcome the fear of being the empowering mentor you aspire to be.

Yes, it can be scary.

Personally, I don’t think instructors have the right to call themselves a “coach” until they have gone through the steps that will be laid out in this series. 

First, a short story.

Art was my first major in college before I switched to sciences (*at the end of this article I have another side-story on how I made that switch). While at the University of Santa Barbara, I took a drawing class. Our professor told us in order to learn how to draw, we must copy the masters to learn what they already knew so well; only then could we veer from the basics to develop our own style. This was how most of the greatest masters acquired their knowledge. Our homework was to go to the art library and copy from the best artists the world has ever seen, masters such as Ingres or Raphael.

Yes, you read that correctly, she told us to copy. In doing so, we could more quickly understand the essence of drawing, know on the deepest level how they used line, shading, texture, space, and form to convey mood. In art, this method isn’t called “plagiarizing.” The French call it hommage à, which means “homage to,” or respect or reverence rendered to someone. My professor’s definition (from an art perspective) of hommage was “thanks a lot, I need your help so I am copying you.” Below is one of my homework assignments from 1982, my rendition of “Portrait de A.M. Danseron” by Ingres (my signature in the bottom right says Jennie Ralph).

 JS drawing of Ingres from UCSB 1981

Drawing is the essence of all art. Once an artist understands the foundations of drawing, then—and only then—can he develop his own style. Of course Picasso could draw the most perfect human form; he learned that from the masters. He later chose to alter the human form as his style progressed.

I believe that developing your style as an instructor is very similar to learning to draw. I’m not suggesting you go take every profile and unique cues of other instructors and claim them as your own, nor am I saying that you should veer from what is known to be scientifically correct cycling technique or training tenets. But you can certainly develop your own coaching style by first emulating the masters, instructors who have been on stage at conferences and who have spent hundreds of hours listening to their mentors, practicing different approaches, and studying coaching and empowerment. Find out what coaching style is most attractive to you (or a combination of several styles), then practice what they do and how they say what they say. Later, like Picasso did with his art, you can add your own personal twist to their cues.

Let me tell you how I did that to nurture my growth as an instructor and as a master instructor for the Spinning® program.

Early on, I revered Johnny G and the early band of Spinning MIs such as Mike Michaels, Al Amado, and Doug Katona to name a few. I hung onto every word they said, frantically writing their cues down, filling the margins of my notebook with scribbles. I still have all those notebooks and cues two decades years later (hundreds of pages worth). I would rest my notebook on my handlebars during many of the rides at WSSC, sweat dripping onto them, bleeding the ink into indecipherable amorphous shapes. I wanted so badly to be like these master instructors; I wanted to be on that stage saying those powerful words!

I realized that what I wanted most was to be able to articulate the mind-body connection in a way that inspired my students; to be able to use powerful and inspirational words to convey mood and emotion. But I wasn’t sure how to do it, and I didn’t have the confidence yet to allow the message to flow directly from my heart. Filled with inspiration, I would go home after the conferences and try the cues I copied from my mentors with my own students.

Sometimes they worked, sometimes I failed miserably.

I tried burning candles in some of my classes, and for a short time, incense (bad idea!). (Note: Soul Cycle claims they are being revolutionary by burning candles in their classes, but Johnny G did this almost 20 years ago.) My boss joked around with me that I had drunk the Kool-Aid and asked if I was planning on getting a Spinning tattoo. (Just for the record, I never considered it. I may have been passionate about Spinning since day one, and still am, but I did not blindly follow a philosophy.)

I discovered I could tell pretty quickly when a direction I was going with my words was not authentic, and at times even felt foolish. While I admired Johnny G, I realized that I could not say the things he said without feeling silly. It wasn’t the true “me,” but his words were helping me to develop my authentic self as a coach.

Around this time I began devouring books like Body Mind Mastery by Dan Millman and Thinking Body, Dancing Mind by Jerry Lynch. (See a more extensive list at the end of this series.) Books like these helped me understand on a much deeper level the concepts of mental strength and commitment, and the importance of being in the present moment as an athlete, even on an indoor bike. Every book I read supported me in further developing my own coaching style.

From those early days in 1998 and 1999, I soon become that presenter on stage I so desired to be, able to employ powerful and motivating words that had so inspired me, but this time they flowed from within me.

By trying different coaching methods and phrases, I discovered what worked for me and what didn’t. Tapping into the mind-body connection while riding became one of my strengths, but I admit that was not apparent at first. My self-doubt and lack of confidence tried to make me believe that I would sound silly saying those things, or that I would never be like those I admired. Thank goodness I didn’t listen to my subconscious! I never would have gotten to where I desired had I not taken the six steps I’m going to lay out for you in the next article.

Part 2 will highlight the steps to developing your own style and provide a list of recommended reading.

When one teaches two learn


*As a short aside to my story about being an art major in college, it is actually what led me to finding my passion for exercise science. I originally took an anatomy class at UC Santa Barbara to help me with my understanding of the human body for figure drawing. My very first day in the lab working with cadavers was a lightbulb moment for me; I was fascinated with muscles and tendons and how they attached to and moved the skeleton. I found myself excited to study anatomy and spent almost all my available time in the lab digging into the cadaver. The next semester I took an exercise physiology class. The textbook was written by Katch, Katch, and McArdle, and all the photos in the book of physical testing in labs were from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I looked at those photos and thought to myself, “That’s what I want to do!” So, I applied and transferred to UMASS the next year. Thank you to my drawing background!

Maybe when I retire I’ll take up figure drawing again. 

6 Responses to “Developing Your Style as an Indoor Cycling Coach, Part 1”

  1. MoniqueSparks says:

    I love this article and cannot wait to read part two! I am not new to instructing, but this ‘authentic connection’ is probably the most difficult piece of the puzzle for me to fit in. Like the former you, I find myself trying to channel those instructors who are so incredibly inspiring, yet their words aren’t always authentic to me…I will continue to search deeper for the motivating teacher I know I am…she’s in there!

  2. Bill Roach says:

    Jennifer. Thank you for sharing your personal story so honestly. I hope it helps instructors, especially new instructors, understand the importance of finding your instructor voice. It is not easy but it is one of the most rewarding things you can do. Wonderful article from the guru.

  3. Melinda Massie says:

    What a great article, Jennifer! My mentor told me to “find my own voice,” and it took a while and it’s changed over the years as I’ve grown as an instructor (thanks mostly to ICA), but I still carry that thought with me. Your article gives people a road map to personally keeping it real.

    • thank you Melinda!

      I love sharing this story, as I think/hope it will inspire other instructors to seek mentors and sources to expand their cueing and coaching. That truly is the best way to find out what style works best with you, especially when it’s one that impacts more people!

  4. Thanks Sandra. Yes, it is quite rare but the science crowded out the art. It’s probably why I failed in art school (well…not “failed” per se, but struggled)! Oh, I could draw. I could make an exact replica of almost anything I looked at (horses and wild animals were my favorite things to draw as a child). But when art professors wanted abstract, I couldn’t deliver. Color field, no way. I remember crying in my dorm room because I couldn’t do what they were asking!
    I loved studying the body though. =)

  5. Sandra Ballardini says:

    Thanks Jennifer. Well said. And what talent you have. Having two daughters that are BFA’s grads I appreciate you came from a completely different direction. Ususally art and science minds are a rare combination!

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