Discover how to specialize the smart way.
When I noticed the trend toward specialization building in the fitness industry a few years ago, it struck me as the answer to the professional slump I was in. After teaching and training for more than 20 years, I had hit a wall. Specializing seemed to hold the promise that I could raise my training fees and enjoy a wider variety of professional opportunities.
I began to dream that I could eventually work fewer hours and pursue other creative avenues, like speaking and writing. And while I loved interacting with my clients and students each week, my career had become, dare I say, a bit ho-hum.
I found myself longing for the early days of my career when I felt excited to get out of bed in the morning. I hoped that learning something new would renew my passion for work. Just thinking about the possibilities gave me goose bumps. Little did I know that the rosy picture I was painting for myself would end up feeling like a big mistake.
Two years after I stepped on the path to specialize in Pilates and corrective exercise, I sat in my beautiful home studio one day waiting for my first client to arrive. I was feeling anything but excited. I had an expensive mentorship program under my belt, state-of-the-art equipment towering (literally) over me, and a high-quality Pilates certificate hanging on my wall. I seemed to have it all. And yet I felt lost.
Later that day, I thought about the missteps that had landed me in my predicament. I realized that I had failed to do my homework. I had chosen a specialty that was hot, trending and financially promising, but I didn’t feel passionate about it. I had also miscalculated how much training and support I would need to get my skills up to speed. But the biggest problem was that nothing had changed. My new life felt sadly similar to my old life—client after client with little time left to pursue other opportunities.
With 20/20 hindsight, I can now share what I learned from my costly and time-consuming detour. If you slow down and follow these four steps before committing to a specialty area, your journey into specialization will be more successful than mine.
Step #1: Connect With Your Passion
The decision to specialize often comes after dabbling in a variety of modalities until something begins to point you in a specific direction. But don’t jump at the first twinges of excitement you feel, as I did. Wait for a “Wow!” feeling.
Karin Singleton, a MELT Method® instructor who owns her own studio in Raleigh, North Carolina, had the “Aha!” moment I should have waited for. She had been taking workshops and attending convention sessions from top presenters in biomechanics and corrective exercise for years. She knew she felt jazzed about this specialty track. But when she heard MELT creator Sue Hitzmann speak at an IDEA World Fitness Convention™, she suddenly felt “Yes! This is what I want to do.” Later, when she saw the transformative impact that MELT had on her students, she felt further validated that this was the direction she wanted to move in.
Be on the lookout for that pop of passion in your own work. Play “passion detective” for a week. Log the activities you do each day—teaching classes, training clients, updating your blog or managing a fitness event. Rate each one on the passion meter; 1 is, “They couldn’t pay me enough to do this!” and 10 feels like, “I’d do this for free!” Decide what your passion threshold is for moving forward. Call me selfish, but I want my days to feel like 9s or 10s.
Also notice when you experience feelings of “flow” during your day. Losing track of time or forgetting to eat your lunch is a sign that you’re in your “zone” and fully engaged in something you love.
Finally, look for clues on your social media pages. Whose work do you follow and feel excited about? Scroll back over your posts and tweets, and see what got your followers talking. Which posts were your favorites? There’s a good chance you’ll see your passion staring back at you.
Step #2: Visualize Your Ideal Day
When you feel truly excited about a specialty area and ready to dive into it, wait! Before you do, sit down and imagine what your perfect day would look like. I skipped this step and landed back at square one.
Ask yourself a series of questions. For example:
- What would my best day look like?
- Do I want to get paid to teach and train, or do I want to pursue other avenues of income like presenting, writing, and selling products?
- Where do I want to work—a smaller gym, a spa, a home studio or a big facility?
- How much money do I want to make?
- Do I want to work for myself or someone else?
Don’t hold back! Writing is a reflective activity that creatively engages both the right and left sides of your brain. Review what you wrote and you’ll begin to see the pieces of your career puzzle coming together.
Step #3: Seek Out Support
Specializing is a journey, not a destination, and certification is only the first step. I quickly learned this painful lesson when I opened my home studio for business. Clients came to me with unique, complex issues on a regular basis; with only my books to turn to for advice, I felt confused and alone. I wished I had an experienced mentor to help me over the rough spots.
Debi Huber did. The path of this certified Pilates instructor and master-level specialist in Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) in Encinitas, California, included encounters with various mentors who acted like stepping stones to each new level of her journey. Early on, several people guided her to a deeper understanding of her field. Later, another mentor appeared as she transitioned to a business model with a growing staff of employees. She enjoyed being able to call a supportive fitness pro. Plus, in challenging situations she could ask herself, “What would my mentor do?”
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a mentor just a telephone call away. The good news is, paid mentorships and mastermind programs abound in the industry today. While they are valuable sources of training and hands-on experience, do your research. The mentorship I invested in gave me a top-notch immersion experience in my field, but little follow-up support. On the other hand, Daniel Yakupka, a sports performance specialist and owner of Fit 4 Life Fitness & Performance, in Alexandria, Virginia, returned home after his mentorship with ongoing access to a private website. “I can use the website at any time to find resources and ideas for all areas of my business, including personal development, marketing and business success,” he explained.
If mentorships and mastermind groups are too costly, the Internet can connect you with a “tribe” of like minded professionals for free. Go beyond “following” people you admire, and create or join a social media group of people who share ideas.
Step #4: Do the Math
Attracting new clients and charging more for your services are key reasons for heading down a specialty path. But don’t assume, as I did, that the numbers will automatically add up. I was 50 miles inland from big-city prices and demographics when I started marketing myself as an “expert.” I was surprised to experience resistance to increasing my rates. Creative programming and tiered pricing could have solved my problem.
Singleton was smart. She didn’t raise her rates for existing clients when she started introducing MELT into her personal training business. Instead, she began offering small-group classes for three to four people as a way of introducing new and existing clients to the value of MELT at an affordable price. She also initiates specialty course options at another price level. These 4 to 6-week sessions target specific areas of the body, like low back and hips, or populations with similar goals—such as golfers, runners and even musicians.
Like many specialists, Huber takes a tiered approach to pricing at Pilates & Beyond, her boutique studio in Encinitas. Her Pilates/MAT sessions are priced higher than regular Pilates sessions with other instructors, owing to the specialized and therapeutic nature of the work. Huber is confident, however, that the higher rate is worth it to clients. “As my skills have increased, the value of what I have to offer increases,” she says.
In the end, my Facebook page gifted me with the “Aha!” moment I had been looking for in my career. As I scrolled back through my posts one day, smiling at comments from my followers, I suddenly felt that sense of “Wow!” that had been missing a few years earlier. I saw that I “loved” inspiring the inactive market to embrace and engage in a healthy lifestyle, and that these clients responded whole-heartedly when I did! In that moment, I could see my ideal day, writing, speaking and coaching this population to better health. I also realized I had a supportive “tribe” already in place and 10 revenue-producing ideas I could use. Within months, I sold my Pilates reformer and invested in a new business card and website to market my speaking and coaching services. Today, I head to work with renewed passion and energy. Take these four simple steps, and this happy ending will be yours as well.