By Mick Blythe (@MickBlythe1), personal trainer, educator, and owner of Performance100

In 1999 whilst working as a personal trainer (PT) in a local gym I did an induction for a woman who was 40, morbidly obese and had never trained before. She needed an easy, emphatic approach that praised her bravery and commitment. Instead, she got a 17yr old, arrogant p***k that, following the textbook, put her through a series of fitness tests that resulted in….

  1. A body fat measurement so high I was embarrassed to tell her
  1. A void blood pressure test because I couldn’t get the cuff on her arm
  1. Me helping her off the floor after she fell over a bike she didn’t have the strength and mobility to get on

She never came back. Years later I’m still mortified. I was educated (enough for that position anyway) but inexperienced. I hope the lady in question went to another gym and got better service. I pray she wasn’t put off exercise forever. She should have reported me. I tell this story as a lesson in the importance of experience, application, and intuition. I knew my approach was wrong but I lacked the guts and wisdom to ‘break script’. I learned then that successful PT’s don’t just have good technical knowledge. They have communication skills, customer service, and an adaptive response. They read the situation and person. They understand people; learned by spending time with them.

Since then I have held various positions and undertook many qualifications. I’m currently a sport and exercise tutor, teaching people how to become personal trainers and strength and conditioning (S&C) coaches. I’m also an active PT and S&C coach myself – working mainly from my own facility, but often within other high-performance ones. During my 18 year career, I’ve learned a lot. Especially that the same approach my obese, inexperienced 40-year-old client needed in 1999 is actually surprisingly similar to the one my athletic, experienced, 20-year-old Rugby, Football, and Ice Hockey players need in 2017. Again I made mistakes before realising this with injuries, overtraining and programme abandonment being the scars of my inability to convert theory into practice. But ultimately, like general population clients, athletes are not robots. They also have physical and psychological issues. They have lives outside the gym. They have worries, sleepless nights, families, and bills to pay. Rather than increasing stress then, they need to reduce it. Creating and maintaining ‘balance’ along the way. Ultimately (like general population clients) athletes want…..

– Fun and enjoyment

– Interaction and communication

– Motivation and inspiration

– Support and empathy

– Results

In achieving this, S&C specific technical skills and formal qualifications are of course crucial. An argument though is that a coaches soft-skills are equally as important. In my experience clients and athletes alike don’t ‘buy-in’ to a person’s BSc or MSc, they buy into you as a person. As personal skills are best learned by spending time with people, a further argument is that aspiring strength and conditioning coaches would benefit from spending time with those whose entire job is dependent on personal connection, recruitment and retention…… i.e. personal trainers. Some S&C coaches will pour scorn on this idea, possibly claiming that PT’s are actually damaging the sport and exercise industry with their insistence on abs-classes, social media profiles, fads and questionable exercises. What they may not realise though is that…..

  • Some PT’s are super-qualified and have done far more than the required level 3 qualification
  • Many PT’s run a successful, self-employed +£50,000 per year business – working when, where and with who they want
  • Most PT’s are been client responsive, giving them what they want and pay for, purposely keeping things simple and fun – matching their aims and abilities perfectly

How many S&C coaches can claim that? Yes some PT’s have questionable methods but rogues exist in every industry. As a fellow professional though it is naïve to ignore someone who, in a job very similar to yours, is awash with qualifications, income, freedom, business, contacts and positive feedback. Success leaves clues! By spending time either observing PT’s or even better doing it themselves, S&C coaches would also learn that it is important to….

  • GO EASY ON THE INFO: Some people want to understand the mechanisms behind training. This though is usually only at a basic level.  Some don’t want to know at all. It confuses them and lowers confidence. If you do need to explain something, keep it simple. If you can’t explain it simply you probably don’t understand it yourself.  Fancy talk confuses. It doesn’t impress. It creates resistance
  • REMEMBER THAT MIND COMES BEFORE MUSCLE: Adherence is the most important factor in training. To improve it people need to have confidence and control. Without, they become stressed and a contradictory, catabolic environment is created. Start slow, have steady progression, encourage client involvement, listen to feedback, keep things simple, have fun, and promote social interaction.
  • BE FLEXIBLE: Not physically but mentally. Accept plans will change. People will be late, cancel, complain and not listen. Gyms will change prices, times and layouts. Lots of sessions won’t inspire or work. Don’t be stubborn. Accept what’s happened, reflect and adapt. Use the OODA model of observe, orient, decide and act.
  • LEARN IT ISN’T ABOUT YOU: Don’t emphasise your own appearance and abilities. Yes, these can inspire and be educational but training yourself doesn’t mean you can train others. Sometimes what you can do isn’t relevant to what others need anyway and can prove intimidating. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Use any such images/demonstrations sparingly. Prove your abilities by evidencing success with others.
  • KEEP LEARNING: People get bored of repetition. Be honest, even you get bored of repetition. Yes, the ‘basics’ will always be needed but motivation is linked to change and variety. In return, this requires you to constantly ‘up-skill’ and learn new things. New qualifications, seminar attendance, reading, researching, training yourself and watching other professionals is a must. Don’t live in a bubble. Paid employment is a bonus but work placements or voluntary hours also add huge amounts of experience. They also show willing and commitment. If needed, train family and friends. Cooks cook, builders build, coaches should coach.
  • DON’T BE A DICKHEAD: Be patient. Be professional. Be loyal. Be humble. Be nice. Don’t presume you know everything because you’ve done a job for two years. Show respect. Don’t patronise. Learn from others. Ignoring someone who has trained for 20 years and/or has a great physique just because they don’t have a qualification is foolish. Don’t criticise other professionals. It’s a small world. Everybody knows everybody. Word gets around. A reputation that can take years to build can be ruined in 5 minutes. A cocky, ignorant, arrogant attitude may help you mask your own insecurities but no one likes a dickhead. Understand that social media can be a friend or foe. Realise that every one of your posts, blogs and photos are now job applications. If someone had to apply to you and it reeked of bitterness, criticism, narcissism, plagiarism and unprofessionalism would they get the job?
  • EMBRACE FAILURE: We all fail at times. Mistakes will happen. Most people don’t learn from it. It’s in these times of discomfort though that we can learn the most. Have the guts to try something new. Failure may happen but so what? Expect it! Use it as a learning curve. Reflect on everything you do. Every session is a lesson.
  • KNOW YOUR ROLE: People are perennially changing beings. Influenced by endless factors, fighting a running battle against needs and wants. Often arriving for sessions tired and stressed. Sometimes needing an intense, aggressive session like a hole in the head. As important as we think we are, we are just one person and several hours in a long and busy week. As such, we should meet everyone with energy, professionalism, humility, simplicity and empathy. If we can’t give that to everyone we are not doing our jobs. The last session of the day should be treated like the first. Remember, we need them!

Of course, this is easier said than done and just like clients/athletes have off days, so do we. I’m currently an active PT, S&C coach, teacher and facility owner – as well as a boyfriend, dad, son, and friend. I’m busy and as result am often lazy and unprofessional. I minimise this though as much as possible, acknowledge my mistakes and strive to never make them again. This though has taken me a long time to mildly perfect. I wish I would have had this information a long time ago. If so, I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes along the way. I can honestly say though that my exposure to people whilst a young PT helped minimise these; in some cases avoiding them at all. Even as a PT now I learn things that help with every other aspect of my career. The conditions and cash are also good as well. There are certainly worse things I could do to support and run alongside my S&C work.