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First Session Ice Breakers

Tannis Kobrinsky Teaching Pilates“Who is this masked client?”
By Tannis Kobrinsky

You’re teaching a session to a new client that you know little, if anything, about.  Your good reputation may have led them to you, or they’re just curious about Pilates and picked you to instruct them at random. In either case, this first meeting can be the springboard to a long-lasting instructor/client relationship, or it can be as awkward as a bad blind date.

Whether this stranger is a tri-athlete looking for a rigorous workout, or as one of my clients labeled himself, “a stiff, old, white guy” who’d been inactive for 30 years, you want their first session to be rewarding. Whoever they are, and whatever their goals, you want them to be comfortable enough to air their concerns and alert you to their special needs and goals quickly.

Of course you won’t find out everything you need to know about this person during a first session, but if you quickly melt the ice, they’re more likely to decide to return for their second session and become a standing client. Here are some pointers to get you to that second session.

Profile Your Client
If possible, prior to session one ask a new client to fill out a profile that includes not only pertinent medical information, but optional personal information. This will clue you in to who they are; what interests and motivates them. You’ll get a glimpse of what physical activities they enjoy and/or want to train for. Knowing about their lifestyle, responsibilities and hobbies may reveal reasons for postural issues, certain medical conditions, and your commonly shared interests. Here’s a sample “Personal Questionnaire:”

Personal Profile
•    Age and birth date and sex
•    Who referred you?
•    What is your profession, and how long have you been working at it?
•    Current residence and for how long
•    Place of birth
•    What are your goals related to Pilates practice?
•    Have you done Pilates? If so, for how long?
•    Do you practice yoga or other mind-body methods?
•    Do you participate in sports?  If so, what sports?
•    Marital status
•    Do you have children – if so how many?  Have you recently had a baby?
•    Are you pregnant, or do you plan to become pregnant in the near future?
•    What are your hobbies?

Analyze First Impressions
Before delving into a new client’s profile you need to traverse the crucial 3-second first encounter. In the 2005 bestseller Blink! Malcolm Gladwell posits that humans make decisions in the blink of an eye using “rapid cognition.”  Many behavior experts agree first impressions are made in 2-3 seconds. Gladwell also believes we use “the power of thin slicing,” a psychology term, to make sense of something based on the thinnest slice of experience, and that often these snap judgments are more valid than those made after in-depth study and consideration.

Be aware that you and your client will “thin slice” each other the first few seconds you meet. If you’re observant and sensitive, your correct conclusions can move you from thin slicing to deep cutting through the ice. For example, an elegant woman arrives for a first session and dismissively greets you. You could respond poorly to what seems like her negative judgment of you, or if you use your keen “rapid cognition” and look beyond her façade you might observe her shallow breathing, tense shoulders and inability to make direct eye contact. She’s not judging you, she probably feels out of her element, and once you acknowledge this she’ll relax. Let her know that in this first session you’ll gently introduce the fundamentals of Pilates work and adjust to her pace. Emphasize that customization is the big plus of private Pilates sessions. If certain movements don’t work for her, you’ll be able to provide alternatives, and you welcome her questions and input.

This is, of course, a two-way process. You want to make a good first impression as well. Present yourself professionally without being austere. Be attentive. Be at ease. Guide the client to a chair or a mat where you can talk before jumping into the session. If they’ve never been in a Pilates studio before, explain the purpose of the different apparatus. All those springs and straps can look a bit too “Medieval” to Pilates newcomers. Assure them that Pilates is a gentle and effective rehabilitation modality, and can also be a hardcore workout. You can adapt it to meet their goals and needs – which may change through the course of a long-term practice.  

As you’re doing this, assess them. Look beyond their outward appearance for the subtle, non-verbal signals they’re sending you. Although we’re not usually aware of it, we send and receive non-verbal signals all the time. According to UCLA Professor Emeritus of Psychology Albert Mehrabian’s communications model, 7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken, 38% of meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said), 55% of meaning is in facial expression and body language. During those first few seconds study your client’s body language. Are his arms folded protectively or is he at ease, his overall stance relaxed and open? The more open individual will probably welcome your instructive touch during this first session, but you may want to hold off using hands-on cuing with the more defensive person. In either case, explain that Pilates works best if you can use hand cues as a teaching tool, and ask permission to do so. Simply asking this will break the ice and demonstrate that you’re respectful of their boundaries.  

Now take a look at their written profile. Take one answer that stands out and have them elaborate on it.  Again, their body language can help you decide whether to get a bit personal, inject some humor that results in that wonderful core exercise, laughter, or keep it safe and focus on only Pilates-related goals. If you spy a shared interest in the profile, talk about that. You’re now relating to one another on a human level, and that’s where real caring and compassion begins, and a Pilates practice transforms into something more than just a physical workout.

Hone Your Reformer-Side Manner
Pilates is conscious movement that brings balance and well-being to a person’s life. Done with focused intention it is movement as medicine. With that in mind the main ice breaker a Pilates pro has in their medicine bag is good bedside, or Reformer-side, manner. According a 2006 Reuters article, “People appear to judge a good doctor based on old-fashioned bedside manner rather than technical knowledge and skills, according to a new study. Researchers found that patients agreed on a number of qualities that define an ‘ideal’ doctor — including honesty, compassion and respectfulness. In describing their worst experiences with a doctor, patients often cited providers’ arrogance, dismissive attitude and ‘callousness’ in discussing their condition. Technical expertise, on the other hand, was rarely mentioned in patients’ assessments.” 

In a recently published article in “Academic Medicine,” Dr. Branch, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine says, “When people feel secure they feel that the people caring for them do care for them and do want to understand them, they will get better. This is a healing and therapeutic aspect of care which makes a difference in terms of how quickly people recover and how well they do.”

Compassion and caring are the ultimate ice breakers—both require active listening. Here are some stats: people speak at 100 to 175 words per minute (WPM), but they can listen intelligently at 600 to 800 words per minute. When getting to know your client, stay tuned in to their words and pay attention to the non-verbal communiqués they send you. They’ll know by the end of that first session that you’re committed to them, and if they’re ready to move ahead with their practice they’ll most likely set up a time for a second session. All because you melted the ice, went beyond the thin slicing of that first 2-second impression to a deeper, more human level with this whole person who was once a stranger.

More Ice-Breaking Tactics
• Go beyond first impressions, by finding out as much as possible about your client.
• Use a good “Reformer-side manner” to let them know you truly care about them.
• Show off the top-notch Pilates instructor qualities you possess.
• Be comfortable in your own skin.
• Share your movement educator expertise in understandable vocabulary.  
• Be an enthusiastic coach and compliment them on their efforts.
• Guide with sincere words and, once you have their permission, helpful hands that cue with an informing touch.
• Realize that people learn differently; some are cerebral, others more kinesthetic, and everyone grasps new information at a different pace.


Tannis Kobrinsky holds a B.A.S.I. Pilates certification, as well as certifications in GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS®. She has taught dance, movement and fitness for several decades. Currently she teaches at ATP Specific Training in South Pasadena, Calif., as well as group classes at several Los Angeles-area YMCAs, yoga studios, and at St. Vincent Medical Center. In 2003, she founded Health Habitravels which offers 3-day to 2-week U.S. and international mind-body-spirit retreats and journeys. Visit her website www.healthabitravels.com or email tannis@healthabitravels.com.

Posted on Tuesday, December 5, 2006 at 11:00PM by Registered CommenterAmy Leibrock in | Comments3 Comments

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Reader Comments (3)

Shown by that photo would you do that with a first time client??? My experience is that trainers do not even know body types and train everyone the same. Nor do they know postural problems for example they are doing rollups with kyphotic students Why? I believe the fist time is your time to do full body anaylis with goal setting and addressing postural issues and concerns
December 6, 2006 | Unregistered Commentertannis
Thanks for opening up a dialogue, and pointing out that during a first session an instructor should do a full body analysis, address postural issues and go over goals and concerns with a new client. Absolutely, that must take place. For 6 years I've instructed at a Pilates studio that works in conjunction with a Physical Therapy clinic & Sports Rehab gym. A great number of my clients move directly from weeks of Physical Therapy that took them through Pilates based rehabilitation treatments. Since I work with PT's on a daily basis, I consider it standard practice for instructors to be as informed as possible about clients' physical conditions, postural issues and special concerns and needs . The certification course I graduated from emphasized assessing a client in this manner at a first session. So thank you for making the point that instructors should take this step at a first session. I'm sorry I didn't include mention of that in this piece, but my focus was on how to make an emotional connection with a client. I suggest that in addition to having the client fill out their medical history, which should include information on restrictions and goals, that an instructor should also include an optional, more personal, questionnaire like the example in this article. Information from such a questionnaire can help an instructor open channels of communication on an emotional level with a client. The photo accompanying the piece is definetly not an example of an exercise to do at a first session. It is intended to illustrate that when you make a emotional connection with a client you establish trust that enhances a long-term instructor/client relationship. Thanks for opening the forum for discussion.
December 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTannis Kobrinsky
Thanks for this article. I have been teaching for several years now and a majority of my clients have been with me a long time. I was starting to find myself in a comfortable rut with my long time clients. Knowing them so well, it is easy for them to talk to me, and very easy for me to be around them. That I was forgetting how to deal with newbies. This was the kick that I needed to get out of that too comfortable spot, and remember that I need to break the ice;)
January 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTonya Marcuccio

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