The sky's the limit when it comes to training elite athletes.
Trevor Linden. Amare Stoudemire. LaDainian Tomlinson. When you hear these names, do you think of star athletes . . . or potential clients? Training high-profile athletes can be a lucrative and highly rewarding career path that will greatly elevate your credibility and reputation as a top-notch personal trainer.
But coaching the world’s top sports figures can pose unique challenges that are quite different from anything you’ll encounter with your “regular” clients. And getting started requires more than a personal training certificate and knowing your way around a weight room.
To break into this exciting field, you must develop a winning strategy. We talked with several fitness professionals who have carved out a niche working with star athletes. Here are some of the valuable lessons they have learned.
If you’ve ever dreamed of training elite athletes, you’ve probably already considered the many advantages to this line of work.
“Benefits often include tickets to games, charities and events, which are great places to network and watch your athletes show off their skills,” says Todd Durkin, MA, 2004 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego.
Working with people who are in the public spotlight is also an excellent marketing tool because, as Durkin points out, consumers are interested in the training regimes of high-profile athletes and in the new methodologies that have improved their performance. The attention brings credibility and publicity to the trainer, as well. “[People] want to train where the pros train,” says Brian Bradley, vice president of therapy protocol for The Egoscue Method, an international company with headquarters in San Diego. Bradley has worked with National Football League (NFL) player Junior Seau and golf great Jack Nicklaus.
“Anyone coaching and training in pro sport who does well gains some local profile,” says exercise physiologist Peter Twist, MSc, president and chief executive officer of Twist Conditioning Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Working with pro athletes can be one ingredient to validating the coach’s expertise.” Twist speaks from the experience of having personally trained more than 700 professional athletes, including National Hockey League (NHL) players Mark Messier, Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden and National Basketball Association standout Hakeem Olajuwon.
Bill Parisi is the founder of the New Jersey–based Parisi Speed School and a former National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 Track and Field All-American athlete who qualified for the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials in the javelin event. He concurs that having pro athletes associated with his program has resulted in significant marketing and motivational benefits. “We have trained more than 40,000 athletes at Parisi Speed School, and although professional athletes make up only a small percentage of that number, they are a great conversation piece for young athletes and their parents,” says Parisi. “Working alongside a top pro is a thrill for young athletes and a stimulus [for them] to work harder.”
Another upside to this niche market is that you get to witness your work in action, says Edward W. Yong, a strength and conditioning coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball organization. “Seeing an athlete run faster and react quicker is always something you (and the fans) enjoy,” he says. “The difference between training a high-profile athlete as opposed to a weekend warrior is that people notice [the performance of] the high-profile athlete [more].”
Helping rising stars catapult to new career and performance heights is another attraction to training high-level athletes, according to Twist. “I enjoy the challenge of coaching someone who is stalled a step or two away from the pro level and helping them get [to that next level],” he says.
Working with pro athletes also allows you to apply new and exciting training regimens. “Sometimes trainers have all these wonderful tools and exercises we want to do with our clients, but we never have the opportunity to use them because it would not be appropriate for [most clients],” Durkin says. “With world-class professional athletes, we can take the training up to extremely challenging levels.”
Katherine Coltrin, MS, owner of Smart Bodies in Newport Beach, California, appreciates how her work with advanced athletes like Olympic short-track speed skater Maria Garcia and 2000 silver Olympic sailing medalist Pease Glaser merges exercise theory and practice. Most trainers study elite training principles, she explains, but few actually get to try them on clients.
The opportunity to introduce advanced and complex training protocols also inspires trainers to step up their game. “As coaches and trainers, we enjoy practicing our craft,” says Twist. “Pro athletes force us to dip deeper into our toolbox and allow us to use more of our skill sets.”
Yet another benefit of training pro athletes is having the chance to develop interesting professional relationships with those who are performing at the highest level.
“I love picking the brains of successful people in all fields, including athletes,” says Durkin, whose elite clientele includes several Major League Baseball (MLB) players, as well as NFL San Diego Chargers LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees. “They are where they are for a reason, and it is enjoyable to understand them as people.”
Along with the enormous benefits of training high-profile athletes come unique challenges that don’t generally arise when working with more typical clients. For example, an athlete’s highly public status can translate to positive or negative attention for a trainer. “If the high-profile athlete has a ‘bad’ outing in [a] sport, guess who may take the heat?” notes Bradley.
Other trainers say that it is not unusual for your training regimen to be affected by the athlete’s schedule. For instance, depending on the time of year, your training plan can be restricted or hampered during in-season months owing to circumstances beyond your control. “You can push athletes a lot more during the off-season than you can during the in-season,” says Yong. “The ownership in some organizations has strength and conditioning coaches ‘hog-tied’ with their programming because [the owners are] so overly concerned about players getting hurt lifting weights.”
Parisi, whose organization works with the NFL’s New York Giants, has also been bedeviled by the challenges of in-season versus off-season training. “An athlete may have a long season and not be able to maintain many of the gains made during the off-season,” says Parisi. “Our pro baseball and football players, for example, are commonly worn down by the end of the season, and training must begin again from the bottom. Although this is often part of the game, it can be frustrating to see an athlete actually lose the strength, speed and size you worked so hard for in the off-season.”
Pro athletes’ tight schedules and traveling itineraries also commonly disrupt regular training. “Their schedules are so hectic that getting a specific time for an appointment is sometimes very difficult,” says Bradley. As a trainer, you will need to decide whether you’re willing to rearrange your own schedule and training hours to accommodate theirs.
The surplus hours you spend programming for elite athletes can be another downside if you’re not prepared for the additional work, according to Coltrin. “[A top athlete] can be much more time-consuming than the average client, due to development of weekly, monthly and yearly training models, as well as communications with coaches and therapists,” she says. “It’s important to allow extra time to handle this.”
Apart from worry about your athletes’ schedules, there is also the matter of dealing deftly with fragile and inflated egos that can need a lot of attention. In fact, you may find that your ideas or leadership skills as a trainer are questioned when dealing with athletes who have strong personas.
“Most world-class athletes got to where they are because of a strong ego and a lot of confidence,” says Durkin.
“I’ve worked with high-school athletes who were willing to do just about anything with their training,” says Yong. “Pro athletes have their reservations. It’s up to you to prove how a certain exercise or workout will benefit them.”
Coltrin’s experience is similar. “Some ‘gifted’ elite athletes lack understanding of the training benefits [needed] to enhance their sport,” she says. “As such, it can be difficult to gain their trust and/or respect for training [that falls] outside their sport.”
In our celebrity-driven culture, many pro athletes are accustomed to being showered with freebies. This elitist attitude can play into an athlete’s expectations about the value of your services.
“Many fitness specialists train high-profile athletes for free because they are eager to gain profile from the affiliation,” observes Twist. “Many pro athletes take advantage of this, and even come to expect it, because they are used to being given so much—a massive salary, a free car, free dinners, free drinks, free suits, free trips. The more famous they are and the more money they make, the higher the probability that people are giving them everything for free just to enjoy their presence. [Some] pro players have been known to walk away without paying their bill, because they think they are above having to pay.”
To avoid this situation, Durkin suggests laying out all aspects of your business and payment policies upfront. “Athletes, even more so than regular clients, need a ‘game plan’ of what it’s going to take to be successful,” he advises. “This is where you cover everything from arriving early for sessions to your cancellation policy. If you’re confident in your approach and professional in your demeanor, athletes will appreciate and respect your hard work and devotion.”
A related challenge when working with a high-profile athlete, notes Parisi, is that other clients at your facility may interrupt training to get an autograph or to chat with the star. “Protecting the privacy [of sports figures] is always a challenge,” adds John A. Blievernicht, MA, a certified kinesiotherapist at the Institute for Sports, Health & Fitness in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Many people want to meet and talk with them,” says Blievernicht, whose client roster has included tennis great John McEnroe and NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary.
As a personal trainer, you probably train clients one-on-one or in very small groups. Conditioning specialists who work with pro athletes, however, may be responsible for an entire team. This scenario presents challenges all of its own.
For example, you may face myriad personalities and physical abilities at once. “In pro football, for instance, [you must] take into account the many different positions and sizes of the athletes,” says Parisi.
“There will be times when two or three out of 25 guys have different views and attitudes on what they feel they should be doing,” says Yong.
Consider, also, that pro athletes are routinely traded between teams. Be prepared for some recently swapped players to resist your training ideas and regimens at first.
Working with diverse groups comprising teammates from various countries can also challenge your ability to create a cohesive program. “On a pro team, you may deal with six or more different languages, different cultures and very different backgrounds,” says Twist, who coached in the NHL for 11 years, going to game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals with the Vancouver Canucks. “While this is an interesting upside, it is also challenging to mesh everyone in your program.”
So how do you go from training weekend warriors to working with the world’s top athletes? A major key to breaking into this competitive field is networking, according to our experts. “My goal was to surround myself with the best and become the least smart guy in the room,” explains Parisi. “By stepping back and listening to others, I truly began to grow and have the ability to share information [too].”
Landing an internship is another way to get your foot in the door. “I did searches on the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) job website and sent my resumé to various MLB teams that train near my home in Phoenix,” recounts Yong. “I was fortunate enough to be given an internship for spring training with the Chicago Cubs. It was a month and a half of unpaid work, but the benefits and experience I gained were pay enough!”
Above all, the trick is to connect as much as possible with people who are doing what you want to do. And find a mentor. “My biggest advice is to network and meet people who are already in the field,” says Yong.
Durkin agrees. “[As in anything else], you get started because of whom you know and not what you know,” he says. “All you can ask for is to get an opportunity to work with pro athletes. But you’d better be prepared for it when they come knocking.”
Being ready for a golden opportunity means studying your craft and learning from practical experience. “You can’t have too much knowledge [or too many] practical skills when coaching athletes at a pro level,” says Twist.
However, a strong understanding of fitness is just the beginning. “Conditioning coaches must know how to improve skilled movement, not just fitness,” says Twist.
Bradley also points to the importance of posture training, and Coltrin advocates an understanding of rehabilitation. “Prevention of injury is as important as performance,” she says.
That said, plan to study much more than human movement and anatomy. “In addition to my degree in finance and hundreds of courses on physical training, I have taken numerous courses on public speaking, team building and business,” says Parisi. “All these abilities allowed me to build a team of personal trainers under me that distinguishes me from other personal trainers.”
Twist concurs: “If you want to coach world-class athletes, you’d better strive to elevate your own skills to the very top of your field.”
Does that mean an advanced college degree in exercise science or a related field is essential for training pro athletes? It certainly helps. But the experts interviewed for this article also stress the importance of practical experience, continuing education and reputable credentials. They recommend that, at the very least, you acquire one or more sports-specialist certificates from a major association; for example, qualify as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA; a Performance Enhancement Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine; or a Sport Conditioning Specialist through Twist Conditioning Inc./Can-Fit-Pro.
See “Additional Resources,” above, for more information on these particular programs.
Finally, hone your sports knowledge and become a rabid sports fan! “If you want to specialize in a certain sport, you must understand the sport and everything about it,” says Durkin, a former professional-football quarterback who specializes in training football players. “Understand the demands of the athletes’ respective sports; relate movements and exercises to their sports.”
“Aspiring pro trainers should be familiar with [the relevant] sport and spend time in that environment,” says Twist, a former varsity hockey player. “An intricate knowledge of the sport’s characteristics, game demands, positional variations, and game and travel schedules, as well as a good feel for the culture of that sport, allows trainers to tailor programming and speak the language.”
Once you’re established in the field, the best way to create a notable reputation as a strength and conditioning coach is to perform outstanding work and focus your efforts on the client. “Remember it’s about the athlete, not the trainer,” says Blievernicht.
Or as Parisi puts it: Produce results.
But don’t just kick butt in a workout, urges Durkin. “Provide as much education as you possibly can,” he advises. “Assess the athlete, explain your concepts and philosophies, and never stop teaching.”
Word of mouth is also a powerful way to build your reputation. “Just like in personal training,” notes Yong, “do a good job, and that person will refer you to his or her friends.”
That approach may include asking an athlete for help. “Once you finally land an athlete or two, ask them to refer a friend or teammate to work with you,” says Durkin. “If you tell clients that you are trying to build your business or work with more athletes, they sometimes feel like part of your ‘team’ and want to help.”
Ready to shoot for a career as a strength and conditioning specialist? Be prepared to tackle tough losses, huge wins, demotions, serious injury, a call-up, a slump, veteran athletes, rookies and prima donnas, warns Twist. “In the conditioning and sport fields, it’s not just about memorizing drills and regurgitating facts,” he says. “It’s about people skills. This is a face-to-face business in a very intense environment with people who have very lofty goals—with a lot to win or lose.”
Ethics, confidence, classroom management, motivation, trust, empathy and leadership are just a few of the attributes you’ll need to succeed. “There is a massive difference between servicing a personal training client and coaching an athlete,” says Twist. “You must be mentally up for the task.”
“With world-class professional athletes, we can take the training up to extremely challenging levels.”
Joint Integrity Using Body Weight
Joint Integrity Using Props
Sport-Specific Functional Strength
The surplus hours you spend programming for elite athletes can be another downside if you’re not prepared for the additional work.
A major key to breaking into this competitive field is networking, according to our experts.
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“Prevention of injury is as important as performance.”