Posted April 25, 2014

Why Training Pro Athletes is Over Rated

Yesterday my brother from another mother, Tony Gentilcore wrote an awesome article on things new trainers should be aware of HERE. One of the key points he brought up was the third one, which I’ll quote here:

3.  You’re Not Going to Train Pro Athletes on Day One

I can’t tell you how many guys and girls enter the industry under the impression they’ll be training professional athletes on their first day, as if some head strength coach is going to casually hand over a million dollar arm to a newbie with no experience and who got a C- in Exercise Physiology.

Um, no.  It’s not gonna happen. You’re more likely to look out your window right now and see a Centaur fighting a T-Rex.

I don’t know why this is the case, but many incoming trainers and coaches throw their noses in the air at the thought of training “regular” people. As if it’s beneath them.

Let me tell you a cold, hard, FACT:  those “regular” people help pay the bills.  And, as Pete Dupuis, fellow Co-Founder and Business Manager of Cressey Performance wrote in THIS excellent post, they’re often the most rewarding people to train.

Besides, there aren’t many people who “make it” training professional athletes alone.

This is an awesome point to make, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stood in front of a room of new or trainer-candidates and asked what they wanted to do, and had more than a handful say they wanted to work with pro athletes.

Not juniors. Not college level. Not triple A. Pro athletes, right out of the gate.

Here’s a fun little stat for all you math whizes out there. There’s over 7 billion people in the world at at moment in time. At the 2012 Olympics, the one with the largest number of games, events and athletes, there were only 10,960 competitors. This means that 0.000001560845334%, or just over 1 one-millionth of a percent of the world population will compete in an Olympics.

Now let’s remove the 2 thirds of the population who would probably not look as a fitness program as a priority, nor compete in a nation that would have anything resembling a strength and conditioning program that would look to hire someone to do this for them, and you’re cutting the population down to just over 2.5 billion people. Assuming there’s still 10,960 athletes going to the Olympics, that means now there’s roughly 0.000004384%, or over 4 1-millionth of a percent of the world population that you could train.

Another way to put this: if the city you’re looking to train in has 10 million people in it, and the distribution of athletes was uniform throughout the world, 4 would be in your city who would be potential Olympic candidates.

To make things less bleak, let’s say we’re looking at just the United States, and we’re going to lump in all pro athletes of all sports together and see what we get.

The population of the United States is just over 319,000,000. Estimates on the number of competitive athletes in universities across the country is around 400,000, which means that 0.1253% of the population is a collegiate athlete. The NCAA and NAIA have said that only 1 in every 250 athletes will turn professional and earn an income in their given sport, which means of the 400,000 college athletes only about 1600 will turn pro each year. Assuming a 10 year life span for a pro athlete, that means there’s about 16,000 pro athletes in the United States at any given year, which would work out to 0.00005015% of the population. Add this number to the college athletes, and you get a whopping 1 professional or collegiate athlete for every 767 people in the United States.

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Now while these numbers are depressing enough, let’s add in even more of a hard dose of reality. If a pro athlete is looking for someone to take them to the next level and keep them healthy, they’re most likely going to go to a training facility that specifies in their specific sport, and most likely will want someone who has the experience and credentials to show that they know what they’re doing and can get the results they’re looking for. For the strength coaches who work with the most pro and collegiate athletes, the requisite seems to be years working in the field, and a minimum of a bachelors degree with many also having a masters.

A weekend certification of any kind just won’t cut it, no matter how jacked and ripped you are.

I only know of one organization who has their head strength coach possessing anything less than a bachelors degree and it’s a 2 year diploma. This means that it’s an extremely competitive environment for trainers who are looking to train athletes of any kind.

Add to this the politics of sports. Most organizations have people they trust and only refer to them, regardless of how qualified. There’s a definite “old boys club” when it comes to any organization, and change comes slowly. Tradition and social pressures make it hard for anyone to create change or even to get a foot in the door, which means you have to know the right stuff, and also know the right people.

Some people stumble into it by sheer luck or geography. One concept to consider with this is if you wanted to train ceebrities and be a “celebrity trainer.” This means you’re probably going to be located in either Los Angeles, New York or London, as that’s where the celebrities live. If you live in the middle of nowhere, Arkansas, you’re going to be hard pressed to train any A-listers.

Likewise with training athletes. If you work at a commercial gym that doesn’t allow weights to be dropped on occasion and want to train pro football players, you’ll probably never see one unless you’re the best in the business and they come to see you.

One other downside to training athletes is their schedules are pretty short in terms of their ability to devote to a training program with you. Baseball players have their seasons stretch to the end of September and early October with playoffs extending to early November and they report to training camps in February, meaning they will only have a 3 month off season to get in regular training. Football playoffs end in February and training camps begin only 12-14 weeks later. Hockey season starts in September and extends into June (except for the Oilers who are out as of April in a pretty routine fashion), and training camps start in July. When they’re training the team has almost full control of their schedule and training programs, and unless they live nearby and get a couple days off and want to train with you, you’ll be hard pressed to get them scheduled in.

Now compare that to training baby boomers who are obese. You’re looking at roughly 1 in 4 people in the nation. They’ll only be travelling for about 3-6 weeks a year, tend to show up and still work hard. They also tend to stick around for a long time and can see some amazing results as testament to your training and will have their lives positively altered for your efforts.

This is not to slag on athletes, but just to shed some reality on the subject. You’re looking at targeting the upper 0.01% of the population who are also highly transient in their ability to maintain a schedule with you, sought after by every other trainer at every level, and who also may not have a lot of available funding to pay for it unless they’re rolling in bank. That said, there is definitely a status and honour aspect to training high caliber athletes that can’t be denied.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a couple of high level athletes (including a couple of Olympic hopefuls, an Olympic champion, and a pro hockey team), and it is cool and fun, but they have a lot of the same issues the average client at a commercial facility will have.

For every trainer who is looking to train athletes, it would be worth their time to work for a couple of years training non-athletes in order to find ways to solve common problems and see what happens with different approaches to training when a multimillion dollar training contract for a guys shoulder is on the line.Once you have a good idea of what you’re doing, what works well and what doesn’t, and have a methodical approach to assessments, training, corrective strategies, motivation and – spoiler alert!! – know how to coach someone, you might be able to finally get a shot to coach someone who earns their income through their physical performance. Understand what a good deadlift should involve, something about variations in metabolic conditioning for different activities and demands, and how load vectors play on a specific action in a sport and what they do to the body, and you might have a shot. After that, your reputation for getting results with your clients will help get you ahead and possibly get you in front of a few athletes, but for the love of god don’t have them deadlift like this.

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Once you’re really getting good with the “average” client who still wants to get stronger, look better, move awesomely, and you get people results, start working with some elementary aged athletes in the sport you’re looking to break into the pro ranks with to see and help some of them develop themselves in a better way than if they were left to use GameBoys as their choice of cervical and scapular mobility training. Then get to work with some high school teams, some individual college athletes, maybe a few college teams, and then when you’ve been fortunate enough to work with a few hundred or a few thousand youth athletes, you’ll have earned your chops to work with someone who would be able to pay you to train them to keep their contracts and make the big leagues.

Training athletes is great, however it’s such a small and crowded niche that it can make it pretty difficult to find success in it, so for trainers looking to work with the next hall of famer, start working with their mom and grandfather. Help them keep playing golf and seeing some progress in their strength and conditioning, and those skills will help you work with pros when you get there. Plus they’ll help you actually pay your bills and have some fun after you get off work after only 8-10 hours.