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11 June 2020

Becoming a personal trainer: Things I didn’t expect!

by Samuel Schepis 0

You only know what you know. This blog is a guest article from Dale Verdon, a graduate of the JPS mentorship and up and coming personal trainer in Melbourne, Australia. *** As new personal trainers aspiring to become the best fitness coaches we can be, it is crucial that we attain knowledge from people in…

You only know what you know.

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This blog is a guest article from Dale Verdon, a graduate of the JPS mentorship and up and coming personal trainer in Melbourne, Australia.

***

As new personal trainers aspiring to become the best fitness coaches we can be, it is crucial that we attain knowledge from people in the industry that are reputable; people that have been in the trenches, with a wealth of experience and knowledge.

With this in mind, I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had and continue to have through JPS.

I built an education base at a reputable gym in Melbourne’s Western suburbs, a gym that prides itself on community, knowledge and education: JPS Health and Fitness. JPS have a great community minded member base boasting personality traits of selflessness, respect, diligence, good work ethic and more. Some of the members are so dedicated to their goals they literally put blood, sweat and tears into their training sessions. They also have some of the best coaches in Australia.

I used to think JPS was an athlete only gym. But I was wrong. The majority of members are general population clients (your average joe and jane). JPS gives the illusion of being an athlete only gym due to the coaches having stacks of knowledge and experience. They’re able to transition the general population client from beginner to intermediate promptly; movement quality, expectations and mind set all progress quite rapidly. They pride themselves on the greater community which is something the gym that I currently work in is unfortunately lacking.

Don’t get me wrong here; I don’t say these things to put anyone on a pedestal, there are hundreds of great gyms and coaches out there. But, we’re all individuals with our own minds and this is what I have observed from my perspective. I say these things to give you an idea of what we should look out for when choosing a gym or education provider and to highlight what it is you need to think about when looking to attain employment from a gym facility as a coach.

What I initially expected.

I decided to get a job in a large, big box gym with a massive member base (4000+ members!). I thought it’d be easy! I constantly told myself, “I’ve got a good education. They have the members. Let’s take this place and ownit.” I expected the members would flock towards me, like ducks to bread crumbs at a pond.

I knew the majority of members would be part of the general population, of whom have never trained before or, at most, have trained with no program and have followed generic, cookie cutter programs with the common goal of toning up or getting stronger. However, I forgot one vital thing: they had no clue who the f*** I was.

I thought it would be so easy to acquire work given my investment in my education. I thought I would dominate the gym floor given that I am a trainer who has a relatively deep level of knowledge about topics pertinent to the goals of most folk; resistance training and muscle growth and fat loss physiology to be exact. I expected clients to want to hire me, listen to what I had to say and eagerly follow the plan I set in place for them. Little did I know how wrong I was to expect such things. Getting them to fill out their damn programs was a chore in and of itself.

Wow! How wrong I was…

Completing my certification and working in a big box gym (with 4,500 thousand members might I add) was a big transition for me… From working a blue collar job to becoming a personal trainer was an eye opening experience. I quickly realised that the gym didn’t really care about me, my clients or business or the loyal members of their community. In the eyes of a multi-million dollar gym franchise, I was just another number. A newbie trainer, and someone who would pay rent, bring in clients and likely call it quits in 6 months’ time. I’m sure this story sounds familiar to many of you who are up and coming personal trainers.

Because of my experiences at JPS this was a huge shock! I became accustomed to the JPS way and expected things to be different when I signed up to be a PT at a commercial gym. I became used to the members of the facility being actively involved in the gym community, a group of coaches who support each other and the ability to network with like-minded people who actually listened and cared whilst critically evaluating your efforts to ensure you were improving.

I remember my first time going to JPS. The coaches and clients went out of their way to introduce themselves and welcome me into the JPS family!

This was absent in the big-box gym.

This is not to say that all members and trainers at my big box gym are rude or self absorbed. Many of my colleagues and clients as well as the members are great. We all get along and have a common goal to progress and build a community within the four walls of the space we work in. Even if the corporation doesn’t care.  

What I have come to realise is that most of the members I have worked with have little to no movement or body awareness. Their goals are far-fetched and unrealistic and their knowledge is limited. Additionally, their desire to recognise the tradeoffs necessary to progress is skewed and many of them aren’t quite ready to put in the work required to achieve their goals. For example, one of my clients wants to lose 30kg in just 3 months and is only willing to commit to 1 session a week with me. Is this achievable? Maybe, but given their context, I’d say it’s a pipe dream.

For many clients, especially those who aren’t yet informed about evidence based practice, a coaches knowledge of the principles of programming or physiology are far less important and yield little influence on their buy-in. Don’t get me wrong, even with such clients, a coach must continue to follow the principles of training and nutrition and ensure they are making informed decisions. However, as frustrating as it may be, the importance of a well thought out and meticulous program doesn’t do much for individuals who are non-adherent or uninterested in making serious and long lasting changes to their behaviours.

Conversely, all of a coaches knowledge and skill set can be utilised if they are working with athletes or clients with great determination and commitment. This is when the soft skills, or “people skills” as it is commonly referred to, become a lot more important. A coach has to navigate the differences in their clients and moderate their approach according to the unique circumstance the client presents. In many cases, I have had to throw away with my programming and physiology knowledge and focus more on making a clients sessions entertaining whilst balancing enjoyment and fun with progression and ensuring they get the results they want. Couple this with the need to educate the client, made more difficult when they are not interested in learning and you can see how tough a task a coach is faced with.

Education is important for a number of reasons; we want our clients to be self-sufficient and be able to navigate training, diet and lifestyle when we’re not around. Because let’s be honest, we’re not always going to be there for them. A coach knows this, but I do wonder whether my clients are aware of this too. Another reason why education is vital to my practice and coaching philosophy is that with education comes empowerment. With empowerment comes a greater self-awareness and enhance awareness of self only serves to foster greater self-confidence. All important things if a client wants to achieve their goals, but how many members of a big box gym are ready for such a metaphysical and self-actualising journey?

The importance of business skills. 

When I first entrained the idea of changing careers I thought “What a great idea. I’m going to quit my mundane job and work in an industry I am passionate about. This will be great”. HA! What a fool I was. Although it was courageous and exciting at the time, I was underprepared for what laid ahead. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back if you paid me, but wow, I certainly didn’t expect for this change to be as challenging as it was.

There are a lot of things that you don’t get taught throughout life or in fitness courses. One of those things, which is arguably one of the most important as a self-employed personal trainer is how to run a business. The importance of business skills gets touched on here and there, but the curriculum in PT school was far from adequate.

I’m far from an expert in matters of business or finance. I don’t want to project myself as a guru in fear of putting out bad advice so I won’t go into things any further. I guess all I want to highlight is that understanding business and everything it involves is damn important . I highly recommend finding a mentor or someone to help guid you with your business and finance if you are a new PT with little experience in this realm. Let me tell you, even if you are the best coach in the world, you career will be very short-lived without good business skills or guidance and support from a savvy accountant.

What’s happening for me now?

So far, I’ve been doing ok. I am fairly busy and for the most part, I keep myself busy by gaining experience, paid or not. I conduct a lot of free sessions (it is experience after all) and try to further my education as much as I can when I’m not on the gym floor. That being said, it has been hard financially. This is expected, to a point, but isn’t easy. 

The free sessions and hanging around the gym trying to network and create leads is tiring. Although the free work is challenging, simply being seen by members and having the opportunity to engage in a conversation with people looking for help has been instrumental to my development and practice. The pro-bono work is an expected and necessary part of being a new personal trainer, again, something I wasn’t quite ready for. Even though I was aware of the importance of new coaches going above and beyond to acquire prospects, my experiences have affirmed just how vital this is when starting out.

“Struggling times in the beginning breeds success in the end.”

To be completely transparent, as of writing this article (another example of me giving up my time without pay for an opportunity to do what I love) I have four paying clients. I also have a few promising clients coming through who are currently reaping the rewards of my free sessions. This is a good start, but it could be better and if I want to continue my career in fitness, things will definitely have to improve.

*insert covid-19 here*

Why free sessions?

I offer each new client three complimentary sessions to begin with. I offer new clients a free trial so that they have the opportunity to get to know me, see what I am about and ensure we get along before signing a contract. I believe this makes them feel like I am more trustworthy, and can only hope that my efforts are rewarded down the track.

The effort I put in to these free sessions is equal to that of my paying clients. I even wear my ‘trainer’ uniform while I’m watching or talking to friends and other trainers while they train in the hopes that this makes it look like I’m their trainer, or the go to coach to the gen pop gym goer.

Another reason I offer free sessions is so I have a chance to showcase to the members that I am valuable and can help them with their goals. From my experience so far, members think they can get results without a personal trainer. For sure this is true, to a point, however; for most people training solo, their ability to get results is limited. This is where the free sessions come in handy – I can show them my worth and value and educate them as to why and how I can help them get the results they want at an expedited rate.

Giving up my time doesn’t end there. I also offer discounts or special offers to prospects in order to get them on board. I offer them things like “the first 3 members this month get X% off their session prices until this date” OR “if you sign up for X sessions you will receive X complimentary sessions”. I do this so that the the client feels silly not to sign up and receive such an awesome offer.

I currently have had a lot of free clients and have absolutely no issues with this. I will continue to offer free sessions for years to come, potentially the rest of my career. In fact, upon writing this I realise that it might be a good idea to get used the notion of unpaid work and embrace the fact that I won’t always get paid for my time. At the end of the day, there is a lot of free work coaches must do. Social media posts are free work, consultations, following up leads, the after-hours reading, listening to a podcast etc. The list goes on.

As I’ve ventured into the personal training world, I have come to realise that a coaches time extends far beyond the paid session. I’ve even come to terms with the fact that the time I give to a client isn’t limited to their session, but encompasses everything else I do that assists them on their journey.

An important side note on session prices and your paid time; If you can, try to add value to your services before you look to dropping your session rates. Special offers or discounts are fine in some cases, but try not to drop your price. Doing so only lowers your value and clients can sense this from a mile away.

How many of you will buy the cheapest product thinking it’s going to be the highest quality? You don’t go to K-mart to get high quality towels, do you? No, I didn’t think so. You go to Sheridan instead and pay the extra for the quality. 

From a member’s perspective.

As I have learnt through my education, it is important to try and understand both sides of the coin. So, let’s look at things from a member’s perspective. Members of a big box gym have most likely been going to the gym multiple days per week for who knows how long. They have seen the existing trainers every day and have gotten familiar with them. Unsurprisingly, they have probably seen a number of trainers come and go over the years and have lost faith in the PT system. The issue with members not buying into personal training does in fact stem from the high trainer turnover rate we see in the fitness industry. Instead of seeing coaches procure a fruitful and successful career with countless client transformations, they see young and confused trainers get chewed up and spat out faster than they can say “chest up”. Members know that most PTs are only in the job short term, and thus they tarnish the coaches who are committed, dedicated and long-term practitioners with the same brush. They don’t trust the new trainers, nor the experienced and that’s a problem.

Another issue with the industry and working in a commercial gym is that new coaches, even if committed and dedicated to their craft for the long haul, have no clients! Nobody is willingly to give us proud and passionate trainers a chance. The fact of the matter is, its a tough gig for a new coach, irrespective of our intentions and career ambitions. This is why a coaches mannerisms in the gym, the way we act, talk and treat people on the gym floor or during sessions are critical. These are our best advertising tools and the only way we can attempt to break the stigma of the run of the mill PT.

You might think judging is a “bad” term, except every decision we make is based on a judgement. It would be a good idea to treat free clients or anyone else in the gym as you would a paying client because people will notice this, and they will judge you on the way you treat people in general. 

What if I’m not keeping clients?

Most of the free sessions I have done have never been rebooked. Some have only done one or two sessions and not come back. Some I have turned away for one reason or another.

So, is this the client’s fault? Maybe. It definitely could be their fault, but it’s not a guarantee they are the one to blame. As a coach, ask yourself:

What could I have done better?

Better yet, investigate matters further by answering these questions:

  • Did I offer them enough value?
  • Could it be something I have or haven’t done?
  • How did the pre-screening go?
  • Do I treat them as a person?
  • How do I talk to them?
  • How do I explain myself well?
  • Are my exercise demonstrations any good?
  • Do I try to bond with them, get to know them?
  • Am I getting them to do things that line up with their goals?
  • What else could I be doing?

If the answers to these questions lead to the client being at fault, then sure, it could entirely be them. However, be sure to look at yourself first.

Now, it’s important to realise that we shouldn’t put ourselves down every time a client leaves or doesn’t re-book. A lot of the time it’s not our fault. However, it could be, and this is where a willingness to grow, a strong self-awareness and internal locus of control comes in handy.

It is very important to evaluate yourself and your actions in order to improve your skill set and services. This is especially important if you want to continue to grow as a coach and if you want to be able to mould your clients into becoming coachable. We have to be fluid and pliable. As a coach you must be willing to take onus for your client outcomes. The good, the bad and ugly. If you pursue excellence with anyone you work with and are willing to adapt yourself to the needs of the people you work with, you’re in a better position to succeed than if you scoff at anyone who doesn’t fit your mould. Overtime, if all is done right, hopefully you (and I) will discover a niche and acquire the experience you need so that you can be selective with who you coach, when you coach them and how much you charge for your services.

So, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I know, it’s a cliché but it’s true. Making cold phone calls to members and selling yourself is uncomfortable at first. I’m still very uncomfortable with it, but it’s easier than it was. So too is accepting the fact that I won’t work with enthusiastic and talented powerlifters. The reality is, if we don’t make sacrifices and put in the hard hards early on, showcasing our value and gaining experience becomes impossible.

Furthermore, standing out amongst the crowd requires you to do things you didn’t think you would ever do. Separating yourself from other trainers (my gym has 25), demands me to do things that others don’t, irrespective of whether it sits well with me or not. If this requires me to get outside of my comfort zone, then so be it. The shy trainer hanging out in the corner of the gym, waiting for members to approach them will fail pretty quickly. I don’t want that to be me and I’m sure as hell you don’t want that either.

Soft skills, learn them fast!

To create buy-in with new clients and build rapport, there are two big rocks that you need to use in order to capitalise on a prospects motivation and desires. These two tools are equally, if not more, powerful than the most comprehensive and advanced understanding of human physiology, exercise and nutritional science or psychology for that matter. They are:

1. Make the client feel as comfortable as possible – most people in the gym are scared out of their mind to exercise and workout.

2. Remind the client constantly of their goals, why they are important and showcase the areas they are making progress. This is a potent means of appealing to the clients emotion and is vital to keeping them on track.. 

We can also add a 3rdwhich is simply be a nice, respectful person. 

The knowledge that we have is absolutely important. Although, people couldn’t care less if you understand how chemical reactions within the body work – in the initial phases of your career focus on getting buy-in and building rapport. This way you can use your knowledge to help them throughout their “health journey”. If they don’t buy into your services, you can’t help them which makes your knowledge useless in this particular case. 

Communication with the client.

Asking training related questions and giving explanations about different topics is definitely important and worthwhile. However, communication is only as effective as how well it is received. So, don’t over complicate things. Think coach, speak client and don’t be afraid to dumb things down if it means the message gets across.

Talking to the client about how muscle attachment points affect the leverage or the biomechanical differences between low bar or high bar squats won’t always help you elicit change or gain buy-in. Oftentimes, these in depth topics are not only irrelevant to them, but are void of utility. Maybe in a year’s time, curiosity might get the better of them and they may be interested in such a conversation. However, for now, as I have learned the hard way, simply teaching the client what they need to know in order to ‘do’ is far more important and productive. In many cases, educating can take a back seat to having a conversation centred around getting to the person in front of you.

One an advantage we have as coaches that helps us create buy-in is that we can harness and foster our clients curiosity. If we start with small talk and slowly drip feed them information as determined by their interests, we can capitalise on their interest and help them become more educated as we go. For example, if someone asks you “why are carbs bad” you could answer “I won’t go into too much detail right now, but it’s good for recovery and energy production. I’ll go into more detail in the future if you want to know more”. This approach gives you some authority, it keeps them curious, suggests long term future training and answers their question in a digestible manner.

Another important thing to mention is the power of words. The words we use and how we say them can impact a person’s thought processes. This is something that I am guilty of and still do more than desired.

For example, if i have a client with a bad back (90% of clients say they have a bad back) I always ask how their back feels during training. This will bring their attention to their back and they are likely to feel that area being aggravated. However, rather than asking about their back we may ask “how does that exercise feel” or “where can you feel that exercise?” They’ll be able to tell us without external influence on their thoughts and pain signals. If they’re truly experiencing pain or discomfort, they will tell us regardless of what we ask!

Relationships with other coaches.

As personal trainers and coaches we have a lot of competition in different areas for different reasons. Unfortunately, as a collective, we are divided. A lot of the time we don’t seem to care for each other’s views, coaching styles or opinions. Why would we when each of us are struggling to make ends meat?

One thing I’ve come to realise is that instead of helping each other or trying to understand another person’s position, coaches tend to talk behind each other’s backs, call one another out or engage in petty tactics to get ahead of the next person. I believe this is not the fault of the coach, but the industry at large. The nature of the fitness industry places a lot of pressure on everyone involved and forces them to engage in behaviour that they otherwise wouldn’t in order to survive.

I think that the best way forward for all coaches is for each of us to be willing to change. If we can alter our perception of success, ground our values and beliefs in that which is ethically and morally just and support one another, then we can not only help the change industry, but enhance our ability to change our clients. If we are going to change the industry for the better, first we must be better ourselves. We have to accept the fact that we will be wrong more than once, be open to change and criticism and recognise that we are all on the same path, with the same goals.

Instead of waiting for top down institutional change, we must recognise that we each have the capability to initiate this forward movement from the ground up. If we simply talk to one another – new and existing trainers and coaches alike – we will slowly build a good reputation amongst others, and people will listen to us. Doing this will allow us to educate the people around us without having to call them out or offend them. 

As for the complacent trainers out there, the ones that are just entertaining their clients, taking their money with no real results, I urge you to reconsider your role in this industry. What we do is seriously important and your actions (or failure to act) hinders the potential of many well intentioned coaches. If you don’t want to be educated or change your ways, I guarantee your tenure will be short lived. This may not be a surprise to some, nor shocking and heartbreaking news, but having folk continue to take advantage of the vulnerable and desperate in our industry will squander the opportunity for progress at every level of the health and fitness industry.

Everyone should have a willingness to change, everyone should realise that things aren’t black and white. We have to realise that everything has its place – even the dreaded bosu ball potentially has its place. We just have to be willing to accept, help educate, and be educated without being offended by opposing opinions, theories or beliefs. 

To finish...

I know I need to put in a truck ton of work to make it. I hope that after reading my article you realise what a coach needs to do in order to get to a point where they are comfortable and secure. To all you new coaches, remember, running a business is like training for strength. You need planning, forethought, commitment and dedication in order to succeed. You need to train hard and do it often. However, there is a limit to how hard you can push and even the best get burnt out. So, think long and hard about your strategy. Take your time and enjoy the process and most of all, be kind to yourself as well as the people you have the privilege of meeting along your journey.

There is so much more I could talk about, so many paths I could take. If you want to discuss anything further please reach out, I’m here to help. 

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