“You can’t train online unless you’ve coached in person for four years.” Maybe you’ve heard or read trainers make this or similarly arbitrary proclamations. These statements only serve to gain echo chamber applause. As a newer trainer, did this ever help you?
For the sake of this discussion, let’s define “newer” trainer as anyone in the earlier stages of their career who is developing basic coaching, movement, and psychology skills necessary for success. If you’ve been around awhile, you probably look back at your first few training years with at least mild embarrassment about some of your choices and the extent of what you didn’t know. I would only worry about that if, 10 years later, you still believed you were a god among mortals in Year One. We all have to begin somewhere; we start out making lots of mistakes and hopefully learn a lot more along the way. Graduating from new to experienced takes serious time and effort and offers no defined cutoff point beyond which we can stop learning. You’re always a student of your craft.
Let’s also differentiate caring newer trainers from Instagram “influencers” turned online coaches. The latter are often the true targets of those critical of the jump straight to online. Although technically our competition, the influencers almost certainly aren’t reading this article or investing in their skills or growth (besides buying followers), and offer little beyond cookie-cutter, low-quality programs and meal plans. Complaining about them is a waste of energy. Focus instead on learning from what they do well, while becoming so good at your own craft that potential clients can’t ignore you. If you can learn to compete against the Instagrammers’ steak-less sizzle, you can dominate in our industry.
Gyms were ordered closed across the world around mid-March (if you’re keeping score on 2020, the aliens are scheduled for mid-October). Trainers, regardless of experience, were booted from physical workplaces and faced the loss of much, if not all, of their livelihoods. The surviving gyms have now begun to reopen in some jurisdictions, while places like Manhattan and Los Angeles may face many more months of waiting and uncertainty. Is it fair to say to new trainer Melissa, “You aren’t allowed to coach your clients online”? Has Melissa, on coaching month 3, 8, or 25, earned the right to help her existing clients online and grow a little business when she’s lost her livelihood? The same Melissa who has worked hard, on and off the gym floor, to become a better trainer. Melissa, whose clients, despite her relative newness, love her effort and engagement. Melissa, whose clients feel stronger and more confident through her guidance. Will the fitness-industry powers that be permit her to train online now?
Experienced coaches act as gatekeepers when they declare and enforce arbitrary rules in our industry. They learned the business and paid dues in an industry now forever altered and disrupted by technology. Older, deeply entrenched coaches often wish to hold onto the old way of doing things, which usually means a number of years toiling in person in commercial gyms before you can work independently or dream of entering the online space. Sorry, but our industry has changed, and so should antiquated barriers to success. Only the importance of skill and customer focus never changes.
Not only are gatekeepers not paying your bills while you’re locked out of your gym, some of these same people are asking for your money for their programs to teach you skills to be better trainers, skills that may prepare you for working in the online space. So does taking their courses now waive the four-year wait-time rule? Regardless, our industry has undergone the most aggressive shift in its history, and many of the old “rules” no longer apply, if those rules ever really mattered.
You have the right to earn a livelihood. If you’re certified, insured, and qualified, you can coach clients in any venue. New trainers facing the loss of their entire income aren’t going to care or listen to the old rules anyway, so experienced, established coaches have two choices: continue to complain about inexperienced coaches working online and change nothing, or create and share resources to make those online coaches good enough to provide their clients quality coaching at a time when those clients are most vulnerable to erosion of their physical and emotional well-being. Online coaches face the same learning curve as in-person trainers and need to develop and gain experience just as badly, if not more so given the unique challenges of the digital space. If the newer, online coaches are willing to learn and grow, and their clients are happy and value the services provided, no outside opinion matters. I encourage industry leaders to support our most vulnerable members at this most challenging time. I also encourage newer coaches to follow those leaders and all available resources to give you the skills you need right now as you gain experience and earn the right to work in the online space.
7 Ways a Newer Coach Can Earn the Right to Work Online
#1) Check out the abundant free resources available from industry leaders and organizations. You’re reading the TrueCoach blog, a resource tailored to help online trainers. Also follow The Personal Trainer Development Center, a curation of the best educational resources across the industry. Listen to popular fitness-industry podcasts like How to Become a Personal Trainer by Jordan Syatt and Mike Vacanti, The Vigor Life by Luka Hocevar, and The FitCast by Kevin Larrabee. Dive into YouTube videos from proven industry resources like Sohee Lee and Dr. Mike Israetel and his team at Renaissance Periodization. Read articles from elite coaches like Tony Gentilcore and Lee Boyce. Ask your industry friends for their top recommendations for the specific skills you seek. We don’t usually have deep financial resources when starting out (or when a global pandemic tanks our business!), but taking advantage of the abundance of high-quality, free resources can still provide a foundation for success. This also gives you the opportunity to sample the work of individuals and organizations before investing in their paid products.
#2) If you have the cash, invest in paid courses and programs from proven industry veterans. Nick Tumminello’s Practical Program Design Mastery teaches program design for the everyday client, a critical skill for new coaches. The Online Trainer Academy certification through The PTDC is the gold standard certification needed to learn the skills and systems to build an online business. Brett Bartholomew’s Art of Coaching courses provide skills for more advanced coaching. This list is virtually endless, so ask for referrals from your industry peers for the most applicable and reputable options. Paid products can take ambitious coaches to a higher level of proficiency in specialized skills. If carefully chosen, the investment will pay for itself.
#3) Consume books and audiobooks. Don’t have time to sit and read? Listen to audiobooks while driving, cooking, or working out. The Wealthy Fit Pro’s Guide series from The PTDC, especially The Guide to Online Training, will help directly. You can find books on nutrition (The Hungry Brain by Stephan J. Guyenet), sales (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini), coaching (Change Maker by John Berardi), and behavior change (Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath). Check out The Muscle & Strength Pyramid books by Eric Helms and his team to learn training fundamentals. Start from your most critical area of need and work outward. Prolific reading correlates heavily with career and financial success. It can be the diverse knowledge you accumulate from a lifetime of reading or the discipline of regular reading extending across everything you do, or a combination of both.
#4) Use a reputable platform for your online coaching. My personal bias begins and ends with TrueCoach, which I use with my clients. Great coaching software will do half your work by providing a seamless system to build programs and communicate with clients. Having your systems already built saves time because you don’t have to start from scratch and create your own and you get to enjoy an efficient all-in-one platform. The saved time can then be used to fill in your skill gaps. A great online coaching platform will make your work easier and more enjoyable for you and your clients.
#5) Talk to your clients and ask what they need, then over-deliver on it. Film instruction videos for them. Make videos personal when they need something specific and build your own library, which can double as a YouTube channel. TrueCoach comes with a built-in library, but you can upload links to your own creations. Create open lines of communication with clients. Help with nutrition and other lifestyle behavior. Follow PJ Striet, a dedicated online coach whose mission is to make online training more personal than in-person training. Do whatever it takes to support your clients. This is also the best way to generate referrals at a time when everyone is trying to grow in the online space. If you aren’t listening to your clients, you’re missing an opportunity to extend the average life cycle of a client and to provide each and every one the best service.
#6) Go virtual. We currently lack the technology to teleport our likeness into a client’s living room, but the ubiquity of low-cost/free video-conferencing apps allows you to watch and guide clients through a live workout. I look forward to the day when we get to use something like the little blue holographic projections from the Star Wars movies. Many experienced coaches like Dean Somerset and Chris Cooper took their entire clientele virtual as gyms closed. Clients may need extra motivation and innovative guidance in using household items in the place of nonexistent exercise equipment. Combo virtual sessions with your online coaching. Seeing in real time how clients move will help you better coach and craft online programs for them while creating a vehicle for clients to share more openly with you how they’re feeling. I plan to offer virtual training for the clients who aren’t ready to immediately return to the gym once they reopen. We’ve also had clients move away during this time, and virtual training can provide a way to keep their weekly sessions with you. Finally, virtually training can serve as a gap filler between in-person sessions and a chance to get off your feet for once!
#7) Dedicate yourself to deliberate practice. I disregard arbitrary timeframes as qualification for coaching online because not everyone makes the same use of their coaching hours. Some do the bare minimum, assign exercises, count reps, all while confining the entire client relationship to a single hour slot. Casually participating isn’t enough. To become a world class coach, you need to deliberately practice every skill. Study every rep as your clients lunge, press, and jump. Attack your continuing education. To explore more deeply the ideas behind deliberate practice, read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Resources exist like never before to educate trainers at the beginning and throughout their careers. Coaches willing to educate themselves can acquire knowledge and learn systems earlier in their careers than ever before. There never will be a substitute for experience, but the quality of what we take away from working with clients can be enhanced by studying the best resources the industry offers.
Don’t mistake this discussion for believing that the Day 1 trainer has an absolute right to start online coaching. As a new trainer, you have a duty first to learn every necessary skill to keep online clients safe while delivering value and results. Fumbling in the dark without availing yourself of the many existing resources just serves to validate the gatekeepers’ criticisms. Our industry should step up to lead, but it’s your duty to follow and do whatever it takes to be qualified and earn the right to coach online. Good luck.
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