I want to get into the fitness industry but don’t know where to start. I’m certified, but now what? How can I work smarter versus harder and decrease my sweat equity? I’ve built a successful personal training business but want to keep evolving. What do I do next to reinvent myself?
Today’s fitness industry offers many more career options and frameworks than in the past, and any fit pro today—whether newbie or seasoned professional—can have lots of questions about how to keep moving forward. For newbies trying to find work, navigating the differences between live and virtual classes or choosing among prechoreographed, preformatted and individually choreographed sessions can be overwhelming. For seasoned pros, coming to grips with the ways technology now shows up in the fitness experience—from online training to apps to tracking devices in both personal training and group environments—can be challenging.
Enter the mentor, the wise one who has gained experience from real-life lessons, can share secrets for future success and has an overall ability to package this wisdom in personalized ways for each client. (For purposes of this article, the term clients refers to fit pros who book the professional services of a mentor; these individuals are sometimes called “mentees.”)
What Is a Mentor, and Why Have One?
A mentor is a trusted professional, usually experienced in one’s own field, who helps others succeed in a variety of capacities—from front-of-house platforms (like teaching various disciplines and making numbers grow) to back-of-house essentials (like marketing, business management, career growth and social media)—that often go unaddressed by traditional fitness certifications. A fitness mentor can offer simple career advice; help newbies bridge the gap between earning a certification and getting themselves established in the industry; offer behind-the-scenes tips on social media influencing; and guide instructors on how to grow classes until they’re brimming to fire-code capacity.
Douglas Brooks, MS, an industry veteran based in California, works as a mentor, author and presenter. “When people hire my expertise in the fitness arena, they [receive] information that is unique, time-tested, and works for the given application. In addition, they receive information that frames new and different approaches that could also be used as alternatives, based on their unique requirements.”
While it’s more common for mentors to work (or have worked) within the same arena as their mentees, that’s not always the case. Some mentors come from a different field altogether, and their role is to offer tools and perspectives—a “backstory”—to assist with the design and implementation of a client’s craft.
“I’ve always worked with two mentors,” says Yury Rockit, a mindful movement specialist based in New York City. “My fitness mentor helps me find new ways to teach, audition, get work presenting and writing, and grow my career. My motivational mentor coaches me on attitudes, mindfulness, business ethics, contracts, and generally negotiating new business leads. I’ve always found this two-mentor approach really useful (in and beyond our industry), [because I can] take advantage of different kinds of wisdom—beyond just variations of a squat, for example.”
With the onset of social media, many people think they can glean enough success tips on free platforms and implement the advice without mentors. Brooks urges caution, saying that, with so much free information available, “today’s professional needs to be savvy with regard to sorting through the good and the bad. I’ve always based my career on providing programming and information based on scientific material with intelligent, effective and fun practical applications for each client’s needs and current capability, not to mention mindset.”
Tricia Silverman, RD, MBA, works as a nutritionist, fitness instructor and coach in the Northeastern United States. She is also an Amazon international best-selling author and international speaker. “[Without] a fitness mentor, it would have been a difficult and long road to break into national and international speaking—I would still be lecturing mostly in my state,” she says. “My mentor made strategic introductions for me, helped me secure multiyear presenting contracts at national conferences, and provided guidance in publishing my first book and getting attention at my book-signings. There is no easy path for entering the presenting arena at fitness conventions or making more money in fitness, so the money I spent with my fitness mentor has long ago paid its way back by listening to his time-saving advice and walking through doors he opened.”
Mentoring Is a Win-Win
Once mentoring becomes part of a professional business relationship, both sides benefit. Beyond making money, mentors who share wisdom earned in the trenches—from both successes and failures—enjoy the consummate satisfaction of offering something useful and genuine. “When I am able to share my lessons learned with others,” says Keli Roberts, an IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Award recipient based in Pasadena, California, who now mentors other fit pros. “I’m empowered, knowing my suggestions are valuable and my experience is meaningful.” What’s more, mentors know their talent will be put to immediate practical use, because their wisdom is going to people who have personally sought out that expertise.
On the flip side, fitness pros who hire a mentor fast-track their careers and almost guarantee themselves success. Newbies or seasoned pros alike can save time, energy and effort and ultimately make more money. “I have been in the industry too long to invest time studying something that won’t end up being popular, useful or lucrative,” says Janie Watkins, an RYT yoga instructor in Alabama. Silverman adds, “My mentors always help shorten my learning curve, so I make fewer mistakes and achieve successful outcomes sooner, with more confidence.”
In a nutshell, mentoring one person enhances two lives.
But how does a mentoring relationship get started? Clients book mentors in the same way individuals in almost any field book consulting services. Most mentors agree that a live conversation is one of the earliest steps. Brooks says, “To break the ice—if I have the time, interest and expertise to move the discussion to a point of professional consultation—I might say something like ‘A quick chat is warranted.’ I am a big fan of folks having the courage to reach out to industry icons and experts. Many folks do like to mentor, and even if we don’t have the time to move into a mentoring or professional (for pay) relationship, we can always refer to other resources/options we can share.”
Mentors Are Not Magicians
Finding and booking a mentor may seem like the hardest step, but it’s after this that the real work begins.
“I thought about hiring a mentor for years,” says Watkins. “I finally got the courage to book someone to steer me correctly and also hold me accountable. It was only then that I learned all that I did not know, and all the work I would have to do to get my goals of a packed yoga class.”
Mentors lay out the steps it will take to achieve realistic goals and avoid common errors. The implementation can be hard work, but it saves a great deal of time in the total growth experience. Rockit says that, amongst his own list of mentorship clients, “my best [ones] are those who work best with a growth mindset, not a stuck mindset.”
Watkins agrees, explaining, “I used to cry at the truth, but [my mentor] always reminded me that he’s here to hold my growth, not my hand, so I learned to have two support systems—one for my ego, and my business mentor for my best growth on my business side.”
Brooks says anyone hiring a mentor must be “wise enough to be prepared, be thoughtful and understand the value of time, so as not to waste any, on either side.”
It Can Pay to Hire a Mentor
Hiring a mentor can boost a fit pro’s bottom line in significant ways. Experienced mentors know the right questions to ask, taking into consideration demographics, marketing, the social good, and even a larger, more international outlook.
Mentees save money by learning what not to do and where not to invest. For example, Rockit says, “at various times, mentors have helped me decide where to invest my money when I’ve had to choose between paying membership fees for existing class types [and enrolling in] a new training that would allow me to teach an entirely new discipline. Simply by asking the right questions, [one] mentor helped me realize that I wasn’t even planning on continuing the existing prechoreographed classes, making my decision to invest in new training more prudent.”
More often than not, mentors have not only been where their clients are but can guide them wisely on a calculated, personalized path that makes sense for their goals and budget. And when introductions, emails or social media connections become necessary, mentors can—in a single call or a few keyboard strokes—accomplish what dozens of emails blindly sent to unopened inboxes fail to do. That mentors can network based on, first, their proven presence in the industry and, second, their familiarity with a new client’s craft, can often justify the expense of the mentorship fees.
Mentoring Then and Now
Today’s mentor stands ready to help others “dimensionalize” their careers by diversifying their services and devising unique selling points. These days, paying for a mentor’s customized guidance and direction is becoming more widespread as fit pros see value in developing time-saving efficiency, reducing overall effort and reining in their long-term costs.
In the fitness industry’s earliest days, it was different. “Mentoring” was not an established business concept—nobody got paid for it. Since there were no experts yet, everyone just tried to help each other out when opportunities arose. For example, when a front-row participant showed particular talent, the class instructor might say, “Your form and energy are great; why don’t you think about becoming an instructor, because I often need a sub!” Similarly, a personal trainer sometimes encouraged a successful, eager client to become a trainer—and, with no clear-cut roadmap for the career, offered a “shadow-me” approach to learning the basics. In this way, the front-row participant turned sub and the trainer’s shadow each experienced an informal internship in fitness.
Bernadette O’Brien, MA, of New Jersey, was fortunate enough to get that chance. Currently, at 90 years young, she works with her ACE and AFAA certifications as an active-aging movement specialist and presenter. “I began back in the 1990s,” she recounts, “when my water teacher looked at me one day after class in the front row and said, ‘You really need to get trained and teach this stuff, too, because we need subs here.’ He helped me get certified, and today all those doors he opened for me I would gladly pay for.”
Unfortunately, in the fitness industry’s early years, most instructors and trainers learned by doing, which inherently meant making mistakes. While everyone can learn from missteps, depending on trial and error to develop a fitness career can be costly in lots of ways.
Keli Roberts, an IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Award recipient based in Pasadena, California, now mentors others so they can have what was never available to her. “I’ve made many, many wrong decisions over the course of my 34-year career,” she says. Now she finds joy in helping others succeed in the industry. “[The fact that] my wisdom and experience can save someone from making the same mistakes is wonderful.”
Today, Roberts and other fitness professionals with proven success records are packaging their fitness wisdom and paying it forward through mentoring services. Some, like internationally known experts Trina Gray and Todd Durkin, MA, operate on a large scale, offering tiered programs involving hundreds of international fitness names. Others, like O’Brien and Yury Rockit, a mindful movement specialist in New York City, work on a more intimate scale, mentoring fitness professionals exclusively on a one-on-one basis and offering detailed, customized plans.
The Business of Mentoring
For fitness professionals who can say with conviction, “I’ve really figured out this aspect of our fitness industry,” mentoring offers a career opportunity to sell their wisdom. Here are some guideposts on how to go about it.
Step 1: Choose Your Focus
When considering which area(s) of expertise to market in your mentoring services, think in terms of both broad and narrow. If you dominate a broad topic like communication strategies, you can promote your mentoring services to group exercise and club managers, personal trainers, and group exercise instructors. If you know a lot about a narrow topic, like Tabata for the water environment, you might attract a great deal of attention from a limited segment of the fitness market.
Step 2: Set Yourself Up to Receive Payments
Choose a payment service, such as PayPal, ApplePay or Venmo. Note that PayPal and ApplePay are international, whereas Venmo is not.
Step 3: Decide Whether You Will Offer Recorded Mentoring, Live Mentoring and/or One-on-One Chats
For recorded mentoring:
- Record yourself speaking (podcast style, or directly on camera) or moving while demonstrating your practical expertise on a specific topic. For example, “selling online” and “negotiating a raise” are requested topics. Be sure that you have written permission from anyone else appearing in your clip and that you own the rights to any background music.
- Upload your voice file to your channel or playlist on a service like YouTube or Vimeo using an unlisted link.
- Advertise your release with an incentivized, introductory price and send all purchasers a link to your unlisted link.
For live mentoring:
- Advertise 30- and 60-minute sessions via telephone or speaking app and offer an incentivized, introductory price for your customers.
- Consider using a free online bookable calendar service—such as Calendly.com—to keep everyone on time with time-zone sensitivity precision.
For one-on-one chats:
- Invite clients to book their sessions on apps like Calendly, paying you on PayPal.com.
A Systematic Turnkey Program?
Mentoring comes in as many shapes and sizes as the fitness industry offers group fitness experiences. No one business system exists for starting a mentoring service. More clients find mentors than mentors reach out to clients, and this keeps the internal checks-and-balances system successful, in that only serious clients wishing to advance their careers reach out to potential mentors.
Following an initial chat, mentors typically offer suggestions for structuring the arrangement. These may range from a monthly flat rate—similar to a lawyer’s retainer fee—for future one-on-one collaborations to an hourly fee or case-by-case payments. Watkins says, “One of my mentors offers three levels of mentoring, and each month I choose the level that gives me the amount of interaction I’ll need [with my mentor] for that month. The best thing about having a mentor you trust is that you’ll always get an immediate answer that helps you. Even if my mentor sometimes needs to consult others and get back to me, I always get an answer to my specific, individualized needs.”
Years ago, the adage that “my fitness mistakes have been my biggest mentors” was ubiquitous among fitness professionals clearing unchartered territory where personal mentors did not yet exist. Today, with many industry veterans offering professional mentoring services, those sad lessons no longer have to define career advancement in fitness.
Roberts says, “Mentoring others is rewarding to me because it completes the cycle of learning and makes all I’ve done in this industry so far have true meaning.” Now more than ever, both new and veteran fit pros can take advantage of mentoring and learn how, like Dorothy with her ruby slippers, they possess the inner power to have a true, unique influence in the world.