Please Stop Calling Us "Aerobics" Instructors

Episode 4: Katy Coffey

Before you title for your next water class, Katy Coffey suggests you spend some serious time considering the power behind the word choices you're about to make...


...and in particular, if you're trying to combat the stigmas associated with aquatic workouts -- you know, that it's just a bunch of socializing "Nanna's with Noodles" -- you should probably try to avoid the word "aerobics" altogether!


And we couldn't agree more!


Katy is the Senior Director of Aquatics for the YMCA of Greater Boston, and has been working in aquatics as an instructor for over twenty years. She joined us for an in-depth conversation about what she believes is the most important way to create change in the aquatic exercise industry: stop calling it generic "aerobics" and start referring to what it really is -- a form of "FITNESS."


"When it comes to aquatics, I really feel passionate that 'fitness' is where we start to bridge the gap the health and wellness industry is missing," Katy explained. "There is power in the title of what you call your class. If you're calling it generic aquacise or aqua aerobics, I want to challenge [you] to say, what's the purpose of this particular class? Is it muscle or cardio conditioning? Is it full body fitness? Tell me what I should be expecting, and then start to think about what's the point of the class."


As you'll hear in the below episode, Katy is working hard to affect change across the aquatic fitness industry as a whole, from the facility and management side to brand new formats that will challenge the status-quo of water workouts.



Katy is also a strong proponent for aquatic instructors looking to attract new students to their pools. She does this herself by changing the dynamics in their classes. Here are Katy's "Two Rules" for how she starts off every class, preparing her students for what's to come.




"I let the ladies know every single time: My two rules are 'Your Feet Always Need To Be Moving Faster Than Your Mouths' and 'If You Don't Want Your Hair Wet, Don't Come To The Pool,'" she shared.


"It usually ruffles some feathers, but it sets the role of what my day will look like with them." And as she reveals, more and more of her students are wearing their WET HAIR as a badge of honor!





Up next for Katy is the launch of a brand new aquatic fitness course she pitched and developed with partners Aqua Body Strong™ called ABS Aqua Combat!


"It's a pre-choreographed mixed martial arts HIIT training class," Katy revealed, blending high intensity aquatic fitness moves with rounds of butt-kicking combat exercises, built specifically around one of our own favorite pieces of equipment, Aqquatix Combat Gloves. "It's super fun, and it's so empowering."


Don't have a pair of combat gloves yet? No worries! "What's unique about the program is we created the format around the aquatics gloves but we also understand that gyms are not spending money on things," Katy said. "So we were able to develop it so you can also use just your mits or no equipment at all...using inertia in the water and the velocity of how you're moving."


The gloves, of course, will make it much more challenging!


The ABS Aqua Combat program will be launching soon, starting with an online training portal so keep your eyes open for that! In the meantime, you can connect with Katy online using the below contact info!




Connect with Katy online:




Full Episode Transcript:


Jenni Lynn:

Joining us today is Katy Coffey. She's the Senior Director of Aquatics for the YMCA of Greater Boston and has been working in the aquatic fitness industry for over 20 years. In addition to being a master trainer and format expert with Aqua Body Strong, Katy is a lifeguard instructor trainer for both the American Red Cross as well as the YUSA and a faculty member for YSL. All that and she's one of our favorite people to follow on social media. So without further ado, Katy, welcome to the program.


Katy:

Thanks, guys. I'm so glad to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.


Jenni Lynn:

So happy you accepted.


AJ:

Yes, thank you, Katy. Where are you actually calling in from?


Unknown Speaker

So I am north of Boston in a great little quaint town called Beverly, Massachusetts. But it's just about 30 minutes post-COVID drive from Boston. The traffic has been wonderful since the COVID pandemic.


AJ:

Oh man. I can imagine.


Katy:

It was about an hour and a half drive before that.


AJ:

Wow. So, obviously this pandemic has affected people in different ways. How have you been affected?


Katy:

In many ways, I feel like our world has been flipped upside down. And then in many ways, I feel like it's definitely improved. Obviously, everything had to shut down. So in my job as the Senior Director of Aquatics, I work with the 13 branches in our association and we have about 27 bodies of water.


Jenni Lynn:

Wow.


Katy:

Now all of them got shut down, right? That was inevitable. And our entire organization started flipping into how do we stream, and health and wellness in the digital world. For me though, I'm a fish, my pools got shut down and I was less chlorinated than normally. So personally, I was doing a lot of teaching on the side out of my normal full time job. And so unfortunately, I have not been able to see my dedicated group of ladies. They call themselves the Aqua Divas, and I miss them very, very dearly. But in addition, I also do some health and wellness coaching online. That increased dramatically because everybody was desperate for something. And so being able to help a whole bunch of people from around the country working with digital fitness has increased, so it's been an interesting few months, let's put it that way.


Jenni Lynn:

Yes, you are pivoting well.


Katy:

Yes, we're trying, we're trying to make do.


Jenni Lynn:

I can definitely tell that you're a fish because seeing your social media, pictures of you and your full wetsuit in the lake - was it a lake or the ocean?


Katy:

So I live a block from the ocean, the Atlantic Ocean.


Jenni Lynn:

I mean, that is a true Mermaid. I mean, one hundred percent. I really love those posts. But on that note, being that you are a fish, and I'm sure you've been swimming most of your life, but what is your background? How did you actually find yourself becoming involved with aquatic fitness?


Katy:

So I started my aquatic industry about 20-something years ago, and doing the lifeguarding, the swim lessons, the aquatic manager, the head lifeguard. I started my career with the Y about 13 years ago, full time. And it started as just being a Program Director. And I'm the type of person who, I don't like not being able to sub if my staff suddenly can't show up, because that ends up being more stressful trying to find somebody to cover.


Jenni Lynn:

Oh, yes!


Katy:

So one of the things that I kind of prided myself on is whatever I was in charge of, I was going to figure out how I could teach it. And so when the aquatics department really fell under me, because I had the experience in lifeguarding and teaching, there was this wonderful thing called "aqua aerobics" in the corner. And I was like, "I have no idea what to do with that group," because you could only find one instructor who could actually do it.


Jenni Lynn:

Wow.


Katy:

And she ended up being my mentor, the instructor. Her name was Marley. She was a trainer for the United States Water Fitness Association. So she said, "Well, why don't I train you?" And I was like, "I don't know if I can do this". And I did it. And I loved it, because they were such a rewarding group of people. And then along the way, my career continued to grow, and the aquatics ended up being the main focus of what we did. There was the opportunity, and I took over a pool. And they had two teachers, and it was the same routine every single day. And all of the ladies hated it, but they liked the instructor because she showed up religiously for 20 years.


Jenni Lynn:

Hmm.


Katy:

And what started from that was me starting to have a conversation that said, "You know, I think we can be more than just our standard aerobics. Why don't we start to really trend towards fitness?" And the instructor didn't like it, and she quit on the spot and I was like, "Oh no..." Suddenly I was teaching five days a week, two to two hours each day. And I had never like fully taught besides just the occasional stubbing and I faked it till we made it! I had a land Zumba class training. And I had my water fitness and I was like, "I can make something work." And the ladies loved it, and we just laughed, and I failed often, and it was great.


When I asked questions and I sent out polls to the ladies, they were so honest, but they were honest because they knew they were being listened to for the first time. And we went from having 15 people to 50 people in probably a period of six months. Really stepping up the way we do it, and then I loved it. It was like, "I want to do this for the rest of my life." This is the most rewarding part of my job - the clients. I love them. So that is really what launched me into water. "Fitness" is where I believe we as the health and fitness industry really needs to be focusing on.


AJ:

Yeah. You know, you and Jenni have a very similar story in how you were both thrown into the water, no pun intended. But you also, in addition to that, you share a strong desire to change the stigma that's associated with aquatic fitness. In fact, you're using certain and very specific words. What started off as perhaps an "aerobics" class has now become a water "fitness" class. Why don't you talk a little bit about that and why you think it's needed so much?


Katy:

So one of the things that I was trained originally on is to understanding that there's power in the title of what you call your class. And as I really started to dive into that, you know, when you call it a general "aerobics" class, what is the very first thing you think of? And it's usually, Nana's with noodles having a good time, socializing some, and by that I mean a lot, but sort of moving.


Jenni Lynn:

Yeah.


Katy:

And I brought this to a group of operations directors and I challenged them. So I said, "Let me ask you a question. If I asked you to think of the word 'aerobics,' what do you think of?" And they go, "Oh, 1980's Richard Simmon, step aerobics, spandex, all of these things..." I said, "Great. Now if I tell you the word 'HIIT' or 'Tabata,' what do you think? And they were like, "Oh, well, you think of fitness and health and many different levels." And they started going into it. And then they stopped. And I said, "Now tell me what you think of when you hear 'aqua aerobics'?" And they all went right back to, "Nana's with Noodles, and people talking, and the meanest members in our group. And the ones who complain the most, and I said, "Exactly, because they know they're the most underserved.


Jenni Lynn:

Yep.


Katy:

And so I really feel passionate that when we get into water fitness, "fitness" is where we start to bridge that gap and what the health and wellness industry is missing.


Jenni Lynn:

Mm hmm. Absolutely. So well said. I mean, this is part of the reason that I think I was so drawn to you when we first worked together. Oh my gosh, how long ago was that? Two years ago?


Katy:

Maybe two or three?


Jenni Lynn:

Something like that. I just remember you were so enthusiastic and so passionate, and I could tell because I am kind of OCD in the sense that I pay attention to people's words. But the way you talked about things and the words that you chose to use was so distinct and selective that I was like, "She feels the way I feel!" And then we definitely kept in contact and you're more heavily involved with the AEA and you are doing all these things...


But you really got behind what I feel about my S'WET program and making sure that people understand that, yes, there's a place for every single person in the aquatic industry. There's a place for all of it, and we need different types of classes for every single type of population we serve. But this is a format that's been so unappreciated for so many years, that until we're seen more in the social media light and represented in a way that's like this is a format that deserves equal opportunity, so to speak. You know, as I've said to many, many, many people, because I get frustrated with some of the managers who aren't backing the aquatic programming, I tell them all the time, "You would never let someone go into a yoga class more than halfway through and just keep talking on their cell phone, throw out their mat and chug some water," you know? It wouldn't happen. And so within the water industry, you have to give that, you know, equal--


AJ:

--respect.


Jenni Lynn:

Yeah, it's a respect thing.


AJ:

Yep. Absolutely. And you know, Jenni has clients ranging from early 20s to late 90s. And just because there's an age difference doesn't mean necessarily that you can't provide an equally intense and full bodied workout, and you need to be able to offer both.


Katy:

Yep.


AJ:

And so as we were talking about branding, and what words to use and how to present yourself, it's so important that people who come from aquatic fitness accept and understand that there is that stigma and then work against it, actively work against it.


Katy:

Absolutely. And I think that just simple things, like changing what you call it. If you're calling generic "aquasize" or "aqua aerobics," I want to challenge you to say, well, "What's the purpose of this particular class? Is it muscle conditioning? Is it full body fitness? Is it cardio conditioning?" Tell me what you should be expecting. And then start to think about the point of the class, and that starts really getting managers to think about it with a little bit different of a lens.


Jenni Lynn:

I love it. I'm so happy you're in the position you're in. So happy. You mentioned that you have two rules for how water instructors can change the dynamics in their classes. I'm very interested about this. What are they?


Katy:

So I have two rules and I let the ladies know every single time. My two rules are (1) Your feet always need to be moving faster than your mouth. And (2) if you don't want your hair wet, don't come to the pool. And that usually ruffle some feathers, but it kind of sets the role of what my day is going to look like with them. And I would say 70% still keep their hair dry. I'm actually pretty impressed with their ability to keep their hair dry...


Jenni Lynn:

Right?!


Katy:

But more and more our clients throughout each week are starting to wear their wet hair with a badge of honor, and I like-- especially when they figure out that they can tread or they figure out they can go under, come up, gasp for breath and keep going. Yep, that's a big win for me.


Jenni Lynn:

"Your feet have to move faster than your mouth"...Man that's gonna go over so well in my arthritis class. I can't even wait. That's probably a class not to do it.


AJ:

Yeah. Jenni always used to say, you know, if you're talking, you're not breathing. And good luck with that. You know? When you're getting a high intensity interval workout and you're doing this, you need to breathe and if you're able to talk then you're not working hard enough.


Jenni Lynn:

Oh, gosh, no, absolutely. No, no, no. The only words that you should be able to mutter are things like--


Katy:

--I need water!


Jenni Lynn:

Yes! Now you're a strong advocate for better collaboration between gym owners and instructors. Which is amazing, in particular getting support. Can you expand on that a little more?


Katy:

Sure. I think that one of the things that I have found, regardless if it's land fitness or water is sometimes the instructor is an advocate for themselves and their students, but not understanding the nature of the facility. And I think that there's a fine line between that, and what I have learned over the years because water fitness in the aqua world is often so poorly understood, that sometimes it can be a very "Us versus "Them" scenario. And I mentioned it before that often, your stereotypical clientele are very angry. But they're angry because they know that they're under utilized. And they're under-served.


Jenni Lynn:

Yeah.


Katy:

And so trying to help understand that, as an instructor, you work for that facility, but you also work with that facility. And working with the facility to help create change, and not necessarily being like, "Oh, I'm going to sick all of them and I'm going to make all of them angry and then send them to the manager..." Because that drives the manager insane. Yes, being the manager, I've been there before. And often, it's a vicious game of telephone where one person said this, one said this, and then all of a sudden, you're emptying the pool and turn it into a parking lot.


And what I found is because I do work in fitness centers, that is not my full time job. I try exceptionally hard to try to bring the manager on board with me and help introduce the manager to our students, and then speak to them. "Have you thought about this?" And not being the villain and being on the other side. And I find that more change can happen that way, you have to be a little more patient. And it's definitely not an instant you get what you want immediately if you throw a hissy fit.


Jenni Lynn:

True.


Katy:

But change can happen, and change can happen with the numbers behind your classes, the support from you, from your members. But you speaking to the members and helping them also understand the greater needs of the whole building, sometimes they forget that. So working together as a team is going to be the best way to create change in your facility.


Jenni Lynn:

And it's really important too, coming from someone like yourself who has been on both sides. You know, you can really take a really deep look into it and give very sound advice and I really appreciate you talking about that, because it's a huge topic for so many instructors.


Katy:

And I think there's a time and a place for everything. There have been times when I will down right put my foot down. And this is for either my safety or my student safety. For example, we had some new management at one of the facilities I worked at. And really quickly there was some big change. And they thought it was an exceptionally valid point to just take a lane away from us when we had already been using six out of our eight lanes, and then throw some three year old preschoolers in for swim lessons who were super excited. So loud music and everybody being crammed in next to three year olds screaming isn't a great fix, right?


Jenni Lynn:

No.


Katy:

And so there's definitely a time and place that you have to be like, "Look, by pushing that class back by 15 minutes,. we can serve more members this way." So I kind of have to bring it to them, make them think about the financial gains on serving both sides of the community. Right? And then...and then if they don't listen, then maybe you can sick your students on them!


Jenni Lynn:

But it's true with with managers and things like that you really have to give it to them in dollar signs because that's the only way they're gonna be like, "Oh, okay." So yeah, it makes sense. You have to be strategic. So on a lighter note being that you are a very versatile instructor, and that's unbelievably amazing and I love, what would be your favorite format to teach and also what would be your favorite class to take for yourself?


Oh, that's a tough one. So my biggest crowds come to my Aqua Zumba classes. And I have a lot of fun with that because you can just ham it up and perform and have a great time. That being said, I love teaching Tabata because -- and don't tell anybody this (as I say it on a live broadcast) -- sometimes I can make it up on the spot.


Oh girl, I'm the Queen of Freestyle, pulling it out of my swimsuit that day.


Katy:

So for me, Zumba takes a little bit of effort beforehand because you need to just know your choreography and your music, where Tabata, if I can just put a Tabata based soundtrack on, I can be like, "You know what we're just going to do Tabata today." We don't need any equipment. I can destroy them. I got enough stuff in my back pocket.


Jenni Lynn:

Exactly. I mean, that's the beauty of Tabata, because it's just hitting it all out and it doesn't even matter what move you're doing. It's intense.


Katy:

My classes also know that if I ate really unhealthy the week before that they were gonna pay for it. And classes are going to be exceptionally difficult. So whenever I come back from vacation, they're like, "How many cookies did you have?" And I'm like, "They'll find out in just a few minutes...."


AJ:

Post-Thanksgiving workouts are the worst for students of Jenni's.


Jenni Lynn:

Absolutely. So in that case, I guess what would be your favorite type of class to take for yourself?


Katy:

Alright, so ready, here comes some brown nosing around here. I actually love classes like the way that you've done it. I like the classes where I am going to learn. I love strength training, whether you're using different formats of materials. And just, I want to come out huffing and puffing, and being like I don't know what just happened to me.


Jenni Lynn:

You are such a hard worker, I have to say. I've had you in my class. Well, I loved when you and your friends came to my class here in New York. That was absolutely amazing. And I will completely confess that I was nervous. Normally, I mean, we all get the pre jitters class thing, you know, when you're standing up there and that sort of thing. You're trying to remember your material. But knowing all of you girls were gonna be there and you know, you have these expectations. I was like, "Oh, I gotta perform here." And of course, the day they show up is like a packed class. It was...it was fun.


Katy:

It just made it more fun that way.


Jenni Lynn:

Absolutely. I mean, but you worked your butt off, your whole face was red, your arms were read, everything was working. It was amazing to watch.


Katy:

Oh, I loved it. It was so fun. We had a girls weekend and the rule was everyone got to choose one thing that they had to do, that the whole group had to say yes to. And so, you know, we're doing the Empire State Building. We're doing this...and I'm like, "We're gonna go to the pool!" I was that friend that made them bring their bathing suits and go get their butt handed to them in a water workout. It was awesome.


Jenni Lynn:

On a Saturday morning, which I freakin love. You're like, this is my activity. Let's go.


Katy:

We had a great time.


AJ:

Makes me miss the pool so much.


Katy:

I know. So close.


Jenni Lynn:

We're so close. We're getting there.


AJ:

Okay, let me ask you. Speaking of a butt kicking format, you use some equipment. Jenni, I know that you use them in some of your classes, the Aqquatix Combat Gloves, which we absolutely love. And you have that as part of ABS Aqua combat?


Katy:

Yes. So I'm super excited to announce that coming in, I hope in the next month, we're just waiting on getting finalized. We are launching a brand new aquatic format called ABS combat. And it was something that I pitched to the company. And so all of those pictures of me investing in a wetsuit in 41 degree water was because I needed to test it, and I didn't have a pool to my use. And I am so excited. We did our live taping last week.


Jenni Lynn:

Oh, wow.


Katy:

And what we're excited about is that the ABS combat format, it's a pre-choreographed martial arts HIIT training class. And so what it does is it takes rounds -- we've created a 12 round series that lasts about 52-ish minutes. And what you're doing is you're blending high intensity aqua fitness with many mixed martial arts formats in between. And it's super fun and it's so empowering, and you feel like you want to just kick everybody's butt at the end of it because you're so amped up. I'm really excited to see how it's gonna come out and it's coming soon, so...


AJ:

I'm very excited about it. Wow.


Jenni Lynn:

Oh my gosh. It doesn't look like I'm gonna be in a pool anytime soon so I might just have to come up there to get my butt kicked.


Katy:

You should! We're going to be launching the online portal first because we understand that most people can't get into a live training anytime soon. But what's unique about it is we created the format around the aquatics gloves. But we also understand that gyms aren't spending money on things and so we were able to develop it that you can also use your mitts or no hands at all in the interim, and knowing that every instructor will get a better benefit out of it using the gloves. But in the meantime, working with their students, they can just use, you know, the inertia in the water and the velocity of how you're moving.


Jenni Lynn:

Right.


AJ:

I love that.


Jenni Lynn:

Oh my gosh, this is...I am so pumped. Those gloves are amazing so I can't wait to see what this is all about. So yeah, it kind actually goes into my next question which is, you know, what does the future of aquatic fitness look like for you? And you know, where are you taking it to next?


Katy:

Well, there's a lot of things. So I partner with Aqua Body Strong. So I'm a master trainer for their Stand Up fitness. They're launching their trampoline soon, which is super exciting. But I also have the pleasure right now of interning with AEA, and so I'm hoping that I can continue that process with them. I was very sad that we didn't get to go to Daytona this year. But maybe next year.


Jenni Lynn:

Yeah.


Katy:

My hope is, and where I would love to be if given the perfect world in front of me, is being able to help create change in the water fitness industry, and really helping fitness centers understanding that this is the most underutilized part of their building. And how many more members they can serve by really helping us change that stigma of water fitness. And so that's where I would love to be at this point. COVID has changed things a little bit, and it'll be interesting to see what happens when the pools do open. And then in addition, my hope is I'm kind of working on my own brand right now. And still playing around with some things but doing more of a strength training and HIIT format. So we'll see, we'll see. Hopefully, that can come into fruition at some point in my life.


AJ:

I love that.


Jenni Lynn:

You are such a hard worker, you're gonna make that happen.


Katy:

We'll see how Iit goes.


Jenni Lynn:

Yeah, I can't wait for Katy to be a S'WET instructor because it's gonna be pure dominance. It's gonna be amazing.


Katy:

Whenever I can come back, I'm in. Sign me up, girl.


Jenni Lynn:

I cannot wait.


AJ:

So Katy, thank you so much for joining us. We're gonna post places where people can reach you, but can you tell our listeners where they can find out more about what you're doing? Perhaps the ABS Aqua Combat class and to follow your journey?


Katy:

Sure. My social media is AquafitKate, and it's KATE at the end. My website's currently under construction. So at some point, it'll be back up and it is aquafitkate.com. If you're looking for more details about the combat format that will be coming out, Aqua Body Strong is the company that oversees most of that, so that you can go ahead and take a look there and follow me on social media. I love to update and just have lots of fun on there because I think we need a lot more silver lining in this world. Let's put it that way.


Jenni Lynn:

Absolutely. This has been amazing. Thank you so much. And I definitely am looking forward to being in your pool soon.


Katy:

You should come and hopefully we'll get the pools open soon.


AJ:

Yay!


Katy:

Yay!


Jenni Lynn:

I have a feeling you're gonna be before me. So that's why I'm coming up more.


Katy:

Come on up.


AJ:

I love it. Well, thank you so much, Katy. We appreciate it.


Katy:

Absolutely. Thanks for bringing me on. It's been an honor.


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