Coaching Yourself through Knowledge Acquisition
It doesn’t take a genius to look around and notice that there has been an increasing number of personal trainers plying their trade in various gyms, neighborhood fitness parks, clients’ homes, and even online. Although numerous national and international agencies providing PT certifications exist in Singapore, the personal training industry is not regulated by state policies or a single credentialing body in this country. Without any regulations for formal certifications or requisite training standards – and extremely low barriers to entry – there has thus been a glut of PTs in the market. Whilst official statistics are unavailable, a quick Google search will reveal the sheer amount of PTs in Singapore who are available upon request. Simultaneously, skimming Facebook and Instagram allows one to chance upon a surfeit of self-professed ‘fitness experts’ providing personal training services. Now, some of you may be asking where I am heading with this argument. I do not wish to adopt an overly critical lens of this issue, but any discerning coach based in Singapore – you’re probably one if you’re reading this article – would realize that with the lack of regulations surrounding standards or knowledge in the industry, there is bound to be a wide variation in the deliverance of training quality and standards in gyms across the island.
In my career as a coach thus far, I have witnessed fresh graduates, mid-career professionals, and even retirees joining this rewarding profession. Obviously, it is not in my power to theorize the varying reasons for their desire to foray into this line of work. Speaking from experience, however, I have witnessed (read also: eavesdropped) many coaches – young and old; new and seasoned – dishing out sham advice surrounding training principles, nutrition protocols, and recovery techniques. Some of these may be controversial, polarizing, or downright lacking in scientific rigor, but still delivered with conviction by trainers to unsuspecting clients (it is a sales job after all). Especially with the boundless access to information available on the internet now, many coaches have become passive echo chambers, relaying (mis)information from fitness influencers and popular celebrities to their clientele. Now, some of you may think I am being judgmental here for possibly calling out my fellow trainers in the scene, for sounding condescending; for championing ‘arbitrary’ or ‘fictitious’ training standards. Alas, I am not here to defend myself. It is a free world after all, but that does not prevent me from unapologetically analyzing such nuances in the industry, and for suggesting possible avenues for improvement for the betterment of overall coaching standards.
Right then, oh great oracle, how would you suggest we coaches can strive to attain rigorous standards? My exposition here concerns itself with the ideology of knowledge acquisition, or the proclivity to increase one’s competence and technical knowledge to better enable a thriving personal training industry. Without regulations requiring coaches to keep abreast of new research in the field and training standards, I have come to realize that many trainers are content with their level of knowledge and to continually make a living out of that. But hey, what’s wrong with that? Why does it bother me so much what other trainers do? Again, you may think that I am coming off as someone with an inflated sense of self-worth, preaching that everyone should constantly endeavor to improve themselves through whatever means necessary. Before you get your knickers in a twist, hear me out.
Here’s why I believe firmly in the dogma of knowledge acquisition. Through a continual process of learning, unlearning, relearning, thinking, and rethinking, we become ever more capable of handling vast swaths of information that allow us to provide the best training experience for clients. We enable ourselves to sieve through the copious amounts of bogus information regarding nutrition, programming, recovery, and only promulgate the most efficacious; we become more adept at reaching out to a specific demographic of clients (senior citizens, expectant mothers, post-rehab clients, etc.) who we might currently be precluding ourselves from training due to a lack of technical competency. We become more confident of our coaching abilities that it manages to exude an aura of professionalism amongst trainers and clients alike on the gym floor. My point is, with knowledge acquisition, we become aware of what we know and what we don’t know; rendering us to exercise good judgment and humility whilst striving to constantly improve ourselves (take my advice and read Think Again by Adam Grant, you’ll be enlightened). Most importantly, knowledge acquisition is both an implicit and explicit signal showing other trainers in your area of practice that you are dead serious about coaching as a career. Professionally, this can only work wonders as you become a marker for service excellence and coaching prowess.
Personally, I am a firm believer in constant improvement and not resting on your laurels, whatever your profession may be. I have come across tenured anthropologists embarking on an MBA in their late 50s, medical doctors enrolling for a master’s in sociology, and civil servants studying for a degree in kinesiology. This has always resonated with me, and I find pure elation in constantly exploring new frontiers of knowledge whilst pushing your boundaries of knowledge. Repeat after me, knowledge is sexy. Now, I already foresee the naysayers arguing that it does not help to be a jack of all trades, but in the interest of space and not losing your attention, I must direct you to David Epstein’s wonderful book titled Range to corroborate my argument regarding knowledge acquisition. My main point is, continual knowledge acquisition is almost always beneficial especially in the personal training industry, where research and literature constantly evolve at a rapid pace. If you’re not keen on furthering your skillsets, then we must address the larger issue in the room and reassess our position and purpose in the PT industry. Are we out to make a quick buck and see each client as a dollar sign? Or are we truly here to see them as someone whom we can help in their highly individualized pursuit of health and fitness?
Below, I delineate 4 ways that we coaches can coach ourselves through knowledge acquisition, for a more meaningful training experience both for us and our clients; and for a better PT industry.
- Learning and upskilling. There is always going to be this relentless debate if certifications do matter in this industry. I have seen well-qualified trainers with a repertoire of certifications unable to put their knowledge to good use when handling actual clients on the gym floor. Conversely, I have crossed paths with trainers with no official qualifications who have excellent all-around training standards and advice. Lastly, and for comic relief, I have also witnessed many trainers with no certifications dishing out shambolic training programs. I’m talking about coaches getting clients to balance on a BOSU ball with one leg whilst performing lateral raises, or not being able to spot a client’s flexed lumbar during deadlifts. Ergo, for the sake of at least giving some credibility to our profession and in this industry, and as a starting point, I implore budding and seasoned fitness professionals to at least possess a basic PT certification. This is one way I believe that we can change the landscape of our industry, one trainer at a time. Before you come at me with your pitchforks, I’m not asking you to spend 30K on a BSc in Sports and Exercise Science. Possessing a basic NCAA accredited personal trainer certification from ACE, NASM, ACSM, ISA, NSCA, etc. would do for a start, but you should not be content with that. Make an active effort to be constantly pursuing knowledge; expand your horizons, take up courses in biomechanics, nutrition, rehab, prenatal and postpartum training, sports massage, coaching psychology, business fundamentals, and anything that piques your interest. Literally, anything that proves to colleagues and clients that you’re serious about this art and that you’re willing to invest in yourself. Coach yourself first, and your clients would reap the rewards. Of course, you’re going to get questions coming your way regarding the lack of scope and focus surrounding your skill sets. If someone asks you why you need sports massage techniques if you’re a transformation coach, my advice would be to ignore them. If you’re willing and able to invest in yourself financially, acquiring a range of skills has never hurt anyone and might eventually allow you to practice with a wider demographic of clients. Don’t let anybody prevent you from acquiring a wider repertoire of skills.
- Working under a reputable coach. I know, I know…the whole lure of being a PT is the glorious chance to be your own boss, to dictate your schedule, to decide on your rates, and to train clients in whatever way you think might be the best (refer to my BOSU ball example in the previous point). However, instead of staking it out on your own, I would argue that learning the ropes under reputable and seasoned pros in the industry would be an ideal way to cut your teeth and navigate this field, especially if you’re still finding your feet. I can rattle off the benefits of working under someone who has been a mainstay in the industry, but that would be a doctoral dissertation for a different day. Some advantages of working under someone reputable would be the ability to learn about the principles of program design, exercise modifications/progressions/regressions, coaching cues, client motivation and communication, and the business side of things. Simply put, you’re able to acquire knowledge from someone who has accumulated it throughout his/her career, by tapping onto their wealth of experience. One should note, however, that this suggestion dictates that you do not be a mere receptacle, absorbing knowledge without much deliberation or critical thinking on your own. Rather, when working under a coach, it would aid your professional career massively if you can bounce ideas off each other and investigate ‘how’ and ‘why’ certain things are done. Learn to be inquisitive, question approaches, seek out information that contradict your views, and be curious with your mentor. A caveat is that you need to perform your due research and ensure that the coach you’re reaching out to is indeed someone with an excellent track record in his field of practice, be it in prenatal/postpartum training, sport-specific conditioning, contest prep, or girevoy sport. Additionally, you want to ensure that your coach has the capacity and bandwidth to also mentor you and give you tips and pointers on how best to improve your own coaching methodology, either through weekly sharing sessions or chats. Some may not take too kindly to this, as they may feel micro-managed and constantly judged. My advice? Put your ego aside and learn to accept the criticism that comes along with working under someone. You’ll grow both personally and professionally.
- Constant feedback, from the people who know you best (AKA your clientele). Again, I’m probably delivering another rude shock regarding this technique of knowledge acquisition. The way I see it, sometimes you just have to put your ego aside and ask the very people you’re working with to recommend areas of improvement. Nobody is ever the ‘complete’ coach, and one should aspire to constantly improve themselves to achieve the best service standards for this industry to become more recognized and viable. When you seek feedback from your clients regarding the non-technical aspects of your training (i.e., communication style, coaching cues, habit-based coaching, motivational elements), what you’re essentially doing is coaching yourself and learning how to improve as a fitness professional and communicator. Remember, for this to be truly constructive and effective, you must be sincere in your approach to asking for feedback. Exercise humility and autonomy, be emotionally connected, be present, and just listen (another shameless plug for my previous article on client-centered communication). Don’t be too quick to defend yourself or shut out criticism; it’s for your own improvement and self-efficacy at the end of the day, and this is what separates good coaches from stellar ones. I’ve had my own clients coach me on how I can communicate better professionally, and I dare say, this is one of the most rewarding experiences one can attain. I’ve become more confident in the way I carry myself, and this has paid dividends. Learn to look at each training session with your client as an opportunity to not only coach them but to be coached by them as well.
- Communicating with like-minded fitness professionals. In my budding career, I can safely attest that my own experiences of knowledge acquisition have occurred in the most unexpected settings. I’ve learnt a thing or two about salesmanship, habit-based coaching, training principles, exercise selection, progressions and regressions, program design, and motivational interviewing from fellow trainers whilst waiting for our next clients to arrive. If you’re working out of a gym that is a co-working space, you’d tend to find yourself in these ‘corridor conversations’ – opportunities where you happen to land yourself in conversations with like-minded professionals whilst engaging in mundane acts such as getting coffee or recharging in the trainers’ lounge. When you speak to people with similar interests as you, you reevaluate your current stock of knowledge and assess them against what you’ve just heard. You learn to detach from strongly held beliefs, burst filter bubbles, challenge assumptions, and take a small step toward developing expertise. Get them to challenge your views thoughtfully, but do not shy away from constructive conflict. You will experience a shift in mindset, your values, your identity, and this is honestly almost always liberating. Attaining a eureka moment is something we should strive for as coaches who are after knowledge acquisition. Assuming you’re a coach specializing in body transformations, then your best bet would be to forge connections with others who are also passionate in this field; those who know what it takes to get clients over the line with regards to their nutrition for their upcoming wedding photoshoot. Even if you’re a solo artist working independently, you are bound to gather snippets of wisdom regarding training techniques, nutrition, and coaching psychology from seasoned professionals through corridor conversations. Take this as an exercise in coaching yourself, for you to be a better trainer for your clients.
And there you go. These are just some of the (non-exhaustive) ways we can become more refined coaches through knowledge acquisition. When we take a step back to evaluate what we know and what we don’t, we exercise good judgment and take the necessary steps to bridge gaps in our current body of knowledge and skills. Essentially, we need to value curiosity, learning, mental flexibility, and the thirst for new frontiers of knowledge. By coaching ourselves first, we can each forge a unique path ahead for a more robust health and fitness industry. Until next time, keep hustling.