The Anonymous World of Fitness Studio Feedback (Or in real terms, if you can’t say anything nice, maybe don’t say anything at all?)

Imagine yourself in this scenario – you’ve been asked to give a presentation at work. You’ve given plenty before, and you’re confident you know what you’re doing without having to second guess yourself. The subject matter is something you’re really passionate about, and you really want everyone to learn to leave the presentation having had a really positive experience and feeling good about themselves. You care a lot about what people might get out of this presentation with you, so you spend a lot of time on the slides, the subject matter, and rehearsing exactly what you’ll say. It probably would be fine if you just turned up and spoke and used the slides as a prompt, but you care way more than that, and spend several hours making sure you’re really happy with it. You’re aware maybe not everyone in the room will agree with every single thing you’ve got to say, but even if that’s the case you’re confident they will at least see that you really care about what you’re presenting, and that you’ve put a lot of effort in and clearly have skill in this area, even if the subject matter isn’t totally for them. 

When it comes to the actual presentation at work, all goes well. Not perfectly because you’re only human, but well. Besides, won’t most people recognise that everyone makes mistakes and be completely reasonable and empathetic that you stumbled over your words on that one slide? Apparently not, as there are a fair few stony faces in the room, even someone obviously yawning, and another giving you side-eye, slumped in the chair with their arms folded. You try to connect directly with them, but they’re not interested and continue to look bored, not even trying to recognise

You get a round of applause at the end, most people are smiling as they leave, a couple even find you to say how much they enjoyed it. Overall you think it went pretty well, even though you can’t shake the thought of how miserable a couple of people seemed, and quite how rude their demeanour was as a result. On getting back to your desk there are a couple of emails from colleagues saying how great your presentation was, or that they loved how enthusiastic and positive you were. 

But then, an all company email pops up, one that everyone in your office can read, but the sender is anonymous. “Awful presentation just now. Presenter was so over the top and the slides were really boring”. The words sting but you’ve no idea who it’s from. Then another email arrives: “Did that presenter even know what they were doing? Stumbling their words and slides looked really old and dated, don’t recommend anyone else ever goes to a presentation by them.” Of course it’s hurtful to see these personal insults and extremely harsh and negative opinions about something you cared so much about and worked so hard on, but to know that everyone you work with, and even some people you don’t even know can read this about you? Not only upsetting but it really makes you question yourself, your ability, and even if you should be doing presentations at all…. And what must everyone else think about you if this is what people are saying publicly about your work?

Does this situation seem far-fetched to you? Because it’s not. Welcome to the life of a boutique fitness instructor, where ClassPass reviews and social media comments will make you question who you are and what you do on an alarmingly regular basis – all from the comfort of total anonymity. I’ve changed the context of course, but the above situation has happened to me – time after time after time. So I think this is my time to let you know that what may seem like an anonymous throwaway comment to you can actually end up cutting way deeper and having much more of a negative effect than you might even realize. 

Before anyone starts thinking “have you maybe considered you’re just not a very good instructor” – here’s a few genuine reviews I’ve received after my classes, and without wanting to sound arrogant or blow my own trumpet, the majority of feedback I get after I teach is along these lines. 

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Comments and feedback like this are the exact reason I do what I do – to support people, motivate them, help them push further than they thought they could, and provide a safe space for them to ride and forget the outside world. If I know I’ve given someone a positive experience, turned their day around, or made them smile then I’m happy I’ve done my job. And as I said, whilst the majority of feedback is along these lines, it somehow makes the negative, nasty comments stand out more and cut that much deeper. 

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Before anyone thinks maybe it’s just the studio that you work at…. it’s really not. Take a look at any of the review pages for any boutique studios and you’ll see similar scathing words – these below are taken from 4 different London studios – with Instructor and Studio names blanked. Every single one of these reviews was isolated – as in there was no other feedback backing up the negative things being said in any of these situations. If there genuinely has been a problem in a class say for example music not working or instructor not turning up – there are usually 5 or 6 negative reviews in a row mentioning this – so you can genuinely see there was an issue on that day. But reviews like this to me smack of nothing other than mean, unnecessarily personal feedback that is just one persons’ very negative opinion.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be able to leave feedback about classes they’ve taken. I’m also not saying people shouldn’t have an opinion on classes or instructors. Far from it, I think participant feedback is useful and often valid – and how are studios and instructors meant to hone their offering if they don’t know what their clients want and enjoy? Constructive feedback and reviews can be very helpful, and if there was a genuine issue with my class or with my teaching I would welcome the opportunity to identify it, work on it, and rectify it. Similarly, if any fitness class – mine or anyone elses – is unsafe, unwelcoming or unprofessional then absolutely clients should feel not only that they can, but that they should speak up. Aside from being an instructor I’ve paid for and taken classes and most boutique fitness studios in London (as well as in Dubai and New York) and have seen some horrendous technique demonstrated by instructors, as well as classes where I’ve had no clue what I’m meant to be doing, or even seen instructors insult clients when they’re unable to do something. This behaviour is absolutely not okay and should be reported in the appropriate way. But similarly I have also taken classes where I’ve just not enjoyed the workout because that instructors’ style wasn’t for me, classes that have been too challenging, too easy, where the music is too loud, too quiet or just not to my taste – but I always appreciate the effort other fitness professional put in, and the energy, hard work and effort running a class takes. Just because something isn’t to my personal taste doesn’t make it bad, and if a class is professional, safe and welcoming then I’ve got nothing but respect for the person running it, even if it might not be for me. I remember once taking a spin class in New York and the music was only hardcore hip hop for the entire 45 minutes – and without wanting to sound like a grandma, to me it sounded like the same song that went on for 45 minutes straight. Personally I thought it was the worst soundtrack possible for a hardcore cycling class, but almost everyone else around me was whooping, lip syncing or whipping their towels around and I thought you know what fair play – this isn’t for me and I won’t be coming back – but I’m clearly in the minority and these people are living their best life and I’m happy for them. It didn’t even enter my head to rush back to my hotel room and write “1* – the music was awful and I hated it and it sounded like the same song for 45 minutes how boring” – because why would I? That’s someone’s livelihood, someone’s reputation, and I fully suspect hours of someone’s week putting that playlist together, and really, how is my negative opinion on an experience that other people were clearly enjoying really going to help anyone? Did I really want to ruin that instructors’ day by letting them know that whilst most people in that room loved their class, one couldn’t wait for it to be over?! I could clearly see that was a case of keeping my thoughts to myself. 

And yet, not everyone shares this what I would deem to be fully respectful opinion. Is you disliking an instructors’ musical taste really a justification for leaving them a scathing personal review on a public online forum? Is giving people ten minutes within a workout class to spend some time on self reflection and personal focus actually “boring” and a “waste of time”? Or is it just not what you want to be doing at that exact moment in time? Because I’d argue that if all you want to do is hammer the bike for 45 minutes straight and see anything other than panting for your life and being drenched in sweat as a “workout fail”, then that says more about an inability to let go and a discomfort about focussing on nothing but yourself – which possibly explains such negative energy towards an instructor post class. 

You see in my mind – here’s the thing – it’s possible to dislike something and not shout it from the rooftops and make one less than favourable opinion seem like something was an absolute disaster. In a world of 24/7 social media, of a review culture where we share our opinions on every single little detail of daily life, it is okay to not like something and keep it to yourself. As I’ve mentioned, yes if you dislike it because it’s not safe, you felt uncomfortable, the staff were rude to you, or you’re not getting a service you paid for then fair enough please speak your mind, but when it’s a case of belitting someone elses hard work for no real reason other than a clash of tastes, does the entire internet need to know about that? 

Because let me tell you, for every single negative review or comment that I’ve seen about my classes, not once has anyone ever approached me privately afterwards to mention any of this in person. Not even a social media DM. To me there has to be something about the safety of the anonymity that review platforms (and if you’re taking it to extremes, faceless social media accounts) provide that give people an “invisible shield” to say rude and inappropriate things. If you wouldn’t have the nerve to tell an instructor they were “annoying” “questionable” or “boring” to their face – or even in a private message later on – then why is it okay to do it anonymously online? Fully knowing that review will be published and anyone can see it? I’m genuinely curious as to whether clients know their review will be public – and if so therefore what the motivation is for posting criticism that is wholly unconstructive, unhelpful and just plain rude. If you go to a workout class and don’t like the instructors personality or music choice, or even the structure of their class (even though you could see how for some people it could be beneficial) – would that mean you overlooked the fact that they kept everyone safe, motivated a whole class for the entire time, delivered an effective workout, and probably spent hours planning it before standing up in front of everyone to teach? Would you just forget the fact that this is someone’s job, professional, reputation and career? Just go ahead and say something scathing anyway, knowing they themselves will read it? 

Literally this time last year the world of social media was full of posts so sad and so shocked at the death of Caroline Flack. A young woman who was known to have endured online trolling and relentless negative comments on her work and social media posts, and who tragically took her own life. People vowed to be kinder, feeds were full of posts about not knowing what others might be going through and that none of us should be so quick to judge. That there was no place for online hate and unnecessary cruel words, and that a throwaway comment to one person could result in someone else spending hours in tears doubting their own self worth. From the outside it would appear that people are more focussed on mental health awareness than ever – and yet the effect their negative words might have on another human being somehow seem to be forgotten.

A month later covid hit, and we were separated from family and friends, isolated at home  and again filling social media with posts about how we’d never take anything for granted, how we’d appreciate every takeaway coffee, every meal in a restaurant, every purchase at our favourite clothes shop, that euphoric moment when we could all be in a dark workout studio with loud music and other people again. Oh how we’d never moan about little niggles ever again because we’d be so grateful for life, for everyday, for the things we had missed every long and lonely day in Lockdown!

Days after Lockdown 1 ended, the first ClassPass review I had about my first spin class back after a 4.5 month break was a negative one about my music being too quiet and not motivating. How quickly that joy and gratitude evaporated! The last two reviews I received back in early December, before fitness studios had to shut their doors for a third time, were both negative. And now, almost 3 months down the line, I wonder if these people would actually be grateful now to be back in that dark room with me and my “dated, poor music”…?! Because for me personally, that’s the last thing I can remember anyone saying about my classes. Not just my fun little hobby on the side, my job, my work, my career. Something I have over 10 years experience in, something I am truly passionate about. Something I know for a fact I do safely and effectively. Every single class takes hours of preparation for me to put together. I deliver everything with the very best of intentions. But all of this clearly means nothing to some people. I say some people – because thanks to the anonymity of the internet I’ll never know who they are.

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I can even see it starting with the new at-home on demand and live fitness app I’m working with. We’ve only just launched, but I’m already seeing comments online about “instructors talking too much”,  “music being too generic”, “classes aren’t hard or fast enough”…. And whilst you can take at least some form of constructive feedback from these sort of comments, how long is it before they turn into personal insults? How long before us instructors that effectively are the face of this brand and just doing what we love and what we’ve been trained to do for so many years start to get called boring, annoying – or worse? 

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I absolutely do not expect everyone to like me. Far from it. My personality, my music, my teaching style – all of it is a matter of taste. And if you can look me in the eye and say any of that is not for you and you probably won’t take my class again, then I will be nothing but respectful of your opinions and your honesty and wish you well on your way. But if you look bored throughout the entire class, blank me when I say thank you or goodbye to you afterwards, ignore me asking for questions or feedback privately afterwards and then write something negative, personal and unconstructive online for anyone to read then yes, I’ll be hurt, disappointed – and absolutely will question my ability as an instructor. Is this an over-reaction? Possibly, but it’s also a sign that I care hugely about what I do. But ask yourself – if you had to deal with this on a weekly basis in your line of work, how would you feel? If every time you gave a presentation, chaired a meeting, delivered a product in your job, the general public could leave reviews about you and your performance? Can you honestly say it wouldn’t bother you even a bit?

There are plenty of people who say to me don’t read the reviews. Don’t look at what people say. In fact even my managers at the studio where I teach tell us not to take notice of the mean things people say online, and if there’s a genuine problem they will raise it directly with us. But again – be honest – if you knew people were trash talking you and your work on a public forum online, wouldn’t you want to know what was being said? Or would you just let the haters hate and be happy to be none the wiser? And by not reading the reviews or viewing the message requests in my DMs I’d miss out on the good feedback and the positive words, which are often so touching they make my day. 

I absolutely love being a fitness instructor – I love the people I meet, seeing the progress they make, knowing I have the ability to make a difference to someone, the energy, the sense of community, the loud music – and I can’t wait to get back to teaching in May when studios open again. But do I have the slight concern in the back of my head that means the negative reviews, comments and messages will start up again? Absolutely I do. It happened after the last Lockdowns, so why should this one be any different? And is it right that something I care so much about, that I will spend so long preparing for, that some people in my class will spend literally weeks counting down to, should also be causing me even a little worry over the personal comments that might follow? I know what I think – and I’d love to know what you think too. And if you know any fellow Instructors who’ve experienced this situation too, please share this post with them. Even more so, if you know anyone who likes to leave negative and personal reviews about group fitness classes they’ve attended then please, please share this post with them. I’d really love people to know that whilst a 1* “Class was boring Instructor was annoying” might be a throwaway comment to them, but it might cut the person they wrote it about a hell of a lot deeper than that. 

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