What does the national conversation about the #MeToo movement mean for us as indoor cycling instructors? It’s important for us to pay attention. The world has changed in just the last few months.
We want all of our students to feel welcome in our class. We don’t read minds. We don’t know what students are thinking or what might make them uncomfortable with either our touch or our talk. The recent public discussion has reminded us that a wrong touch or a wrong comment can feel creepy even if the intention was innocent.
While personal touch may not be as common in indoor cycling as in yoga or personal training, there are still occasions when touch might be used. Instructors who teach more often off the bike are more likely to encounter these situations than those who teach primarily from the bike. Examples include bike fitting, form correction, and encouragement. But none of these reasons justify an unwanted touch.
While some of the publicity around the #MeToo movement has focused on overt acts of sexual aggression, attention is also being given to more subtle forms of unwanted touch or talk.
This is an issue that we must all face, regardless of our intentions or goodwill. It is an ongoing process involving daily judgment calls about what might be welcomed or not welcomed in any given situation. And we just don’t know what may or may not make someone else uncomfortable—some people just don’t want to be touched at all.
The one clear rule is that you are never wrong to ask permission to touch.
But the issue doesn’t even stop with touch. What are we saying in class that might make some students uncomfortable? Is everything we say encouraging and supportive? How is our filter for what is appropriate? What sharing might be uncomfortable oversharing? All of these questions are raised by the #MeToo movement and we should take notice.
It’s good to start with some introspection. We are professionals. Professionals observe boundaries. Doctors do this. Physical therapists use touch a great deal in their profession. They touch in a very deliberate and purposeful way that conveys respect. We can learn from them.
Our students may have a wide range of sensitivities to touch. Some people are “touchers” themselves so they don’t mind it; others find it uncomfortable. We don’t really know which are which. Some people may have cultural boundaries that are different from ours. Or they may have had personal experiences that make touch uncomfortable. Or they may just feel that being touched draws unwanted attention to themselves. We don’t know without asking them.
What we do know is that it is our job to make all our students feel welcomed regardless of their backgrounds or sensitivities.
Let’s talk more about touch.
The guidelines are not always simple because the issue is situational. Is the student male or female? Is the instructor male or female? What is the context of the touch? Is permission stated? Implied? Where is the touch? What is the student wearing? Is the touch to bare skin or over clothing? How well do the student and instructor know each other?
No two situations are identical so we always need to be applying our best judgment. We need a good antenna or filter to assess how the student might feel or react to our touch, which also requires emotional maturity. Simply, we need to think of the student and the impact our touch might have.
As I’ve said, there are legitimate reasons to touch a student, and it is always OK—even recommended—to ask permission to touch. Here are some examples:
Bike fit. When you do a bike fit by best practice, you hold the goniometer at the rider’s knee to measure the knee angle. To align the upper angle of the goniometer properly, you must find the greater trochanter. That bony protrusion at the hip can be hard to find in some students. Palpating to find it can feel more intrusive than simply touching their knee. It’s best to let them know what you are doing and why. How about saying something like this: “In order to give you the best fit, I need to measure the angle at your knee, and to do that I need to find a benchmark in your hip. Is it OK if I touch you here to find the place I measure from?” Make sure you get consent before proceeding.
Without a goniometer, you still need to pay attention to the knee angle and make sure the hips are level, but you can probably proceed without touching the rider as much.
Form errors. Sometimes students who ride with tense upper bodies are so accustomed to that tension they are unable to even recognize it. Lightly touching elbows can remind them to not lock their arms. To the individual with poor body awareness, even repeated entreaties to “drop your shoulders” can land on deaf ears. A simple touch to the shoulders may be enough to help them understand how they are riding. As you walk around the room, you can say: “I’d really like you to relax your upper body so your legs can do more work. May I show you where your shoulders should be?”
Or alternatively you can have the student, or the entire class, raise their shoulder to their ears and then release them to feel the difference that way.
Encouragement. Touch can be an effective motivator. But its power can also be just as powerful in a negative way. I know instructors who like to come by and silently offer a simple touch of the hand or arm as an encouragement for good effort. It’s harder to ask permission in this situation, so why not just touch the handlebars instead?
Notice the pattern here. If you can tell the student why you’d like permission to touch and then ask for that permission, you’re probably going to be OK. If you feel you can’t do those things, perhaps another means should be found.
As instructors, we may need to make some changes in our assumptions. This is especially true if you are someone who is personally comfortable with touch. You may want to reassess your use of touch moving forward, especially with your new students.
Paying attention to what you say. Let’s also consider the words we say in the classroom. Discomfort can be created by inappropriate talk. It too can be intrusive and off-putting. As an observer in classes, I’ve noticed three types of examples.
Off-color or offensive stories or comments. I’ve been in a class where the instructor bragged about how drunk he was the night before and how hungover he was that day. Really? Use your filter. Think before you talk. Does your talk serve the class or only make you look immature? You might think most of the class is your “tribe,” but if there’s a remote chance of offending even one person with your comment or story, better leave it unsaid.
Sharing too much personal information. I’ve been in a class where an instructor shared way too much personal information about her life. Frankly, I felt like I was an audience to her therapy session. Yes, you can share stories about yourself with your class. But please, be discreet.
Offensive music. We’ve written on this before but it is fair to note that offensive music can also set a tone of insensitivity in a class. Pay attention to the culture of your class and the rules of your studio.
This whole issue involves an ongoing series of judgment calls. The #MeToo movement has increased our sensitivity to the importance of the decisions we all make on a daily basis. My advice is to stop and think before you do something that might make one of your students uncomfortable.
Issues that we might not have given a second thought to only a short time ago now require that we use our best judgment. Thanks to the #MeToo movement this should be important to every instructor, every studio, and every club. It seems to me that it comes down to three words: awareness, intention, and permission.
As a man writing on this issue, I’d like to hear from our women readers. What are your experiences either as a student or as an instructor? Is there something you can share that may helps other instructors reading this article? What lessons do you take from the #MeToo movement? We need to have this conversation so that in the future, fewer women will say #MeToo.
Club Industry has covered this topic as well.
My love language is touch. I’m very touchy feely & I know some ppl cringe inside. I try to be vigilant & aware of my behaviors, but sometimes I get excited. For example, a student is sprinting. I’ll hop off the bike, stand by them, & coach them through it…then when it’s time for that person to recover I’ll say recover as I barely touch their hand. Touching the handle bars instead is an excellent suggestion.
This could get me into trouble. Timely article as I need reminders from time to time.
Hi Shaera. I totally get your comment because I too am a toucher. So is Jennifer, for that matter. We all just need to remind ourselves to be aware of our touch. Clearly you love to coach. Getting off your bike to stand nearby is fantastic. Thanks for the insightful comment.
A very good and timely article Bill.
I once forgot to ask permission before correcting a participant’s posture in an exercise class and was justifiably and roundly told off about it in no uncertain terms! A mistake I will not make again.
As for bike fit, I agree that knee position can be adjusted without much touching but it doesn’t hurt to ask. I’ve never been refused permission in this situation.
On the other hand, I had one exercise class participant mock me for asking permission. I have since changed that particular exercise for one that is not as complex.
Thanks Robert. Good to hear your experiences. We can all learn from each other. I appreviate you being thoughtful about this.