5 Ways to Prevent Burnout as a Fitness Professional
“Burnout” is a big problem in the fitness industry. I have seen some excellent coaches leave the industry because of the emotional and time demands required of fitness professionals who choose this career path. Personally, I have left the industry three times! After returning the most recent time (because I now know this is where I should be!) I knew that I had to be more careful with my energy and time. If you are “called” to our noble profession, take these precautions to avoid the emotional, mental and physical exhaustion that our demanding profession creates.
1. Don’t get to the point of burnout in the first place.
As silly as it sounds, it is worth mentioning. We have emotionally taxing jobs and often overlook the “load” we carry in doing our due diligence from the “human” side of coaching. In this respect, changing behaviors is a good deal more taxing than writing programs.
Because of the emotional cost of our careers, we must take special precautions to avoid “burnout”. If you start to feel the onset of apathy or resentment towards your coaching or clients, it might be time to take a break. At very least, it could be time to inject some excitement back into your professional life!
Experienced trainers have usually learned to see these emotional “lows” coming earlier than new trainers and take proactive measures to avert the crisis before it has arrived. If you’re dreading an upcoming training session, is it because you’re drained of the emotional energy it takes to be effective? If so, it might be time to refer that student out, or to take some time to take care of yourself.
2. Remind yourself frequently that your job is to change lives!
Teaching exercises and writing programs are just part of the process, not the whole. Our “real” goal as a personal fitness professional is to help our students change their behaviors. Doing exercises well is just a piece of this puzzle.
This is a subject that warrants another article entirely, but does keep it in mind. Think about what got you into the business of coaching fitness. If any part of it sounds like “I thought it would be cool to work in a gym”, or, “I really want to train people who are highly motivated”, it’s time to check yourself. To do our job well can be exhausting and you must be aware of that.
Our job is to help people change their habits and change their lives. That often means helping them stay accountable to behaviors that might leave us feeling like we are “babysitting” grown-ups. It’s tough, it’s often less than exciting, and it takes a long time to reap the rewards. Hey, if you can’t get over it, you better get out of it, because that IS what we do.
Be careful about how many difficult “project” clients you take on, if you can. They need lots of help and accountability, but can also be long-term referral sources in exchange for literally altering the arc of their lives.
As a part-time trainer at this point, I currently train about 15 one on one coaching students. I meet with these people on average of once a week. Additionally, I coach 3 “groups”. This setup gives me exposure to about 30 people that I hope would consider me their fitness and wellness coach.
On occasion, I take on a student who will be more work (emotionally and temporally) than the others. To protect myself, at no point do I let this type of student exceed 20% of my total business. That is my rule. Although it’s taken me quite a while to set it, I’ve been a far more successful (and happier) coach since drawing that line. Applying this rule keeps me from working with no more than 3 “high need” one on one trainees. As a point of reference, I started my most recent coaching gig with that number above 40%. I needed to coach… needed to be seen coaching, needed the money, and needed to develop some clients who could become sources of referrals.
Taking on a large number of “high need” clients may be effective for growth, but it does tend to drive any trainer toward burnout rapidly.
3. Shape your ideal training business.
A large percentage of the trainers we interview want to train athletes. Here’s a news flash: it is really hard to make a business entirely out of athletes unless you become a strength and conditioning coach! If you want to succeed quickly, you’re going to have to identify a population that you enjoy training that actually has the income to train with you. Clearly defining a population you’d like to work with (what marketing people call “branding”) is essential to building an emotionally sustainable coaching business.
The identification of a unique selling proposition (USP) is absolutely necessary for filing your business with the type of coaching clients that you’ll look forward to training. It's what we dream of; anticipating training sessions with excitement and enthusiasm!
For example, you might communicate your USP by letting your prospects and referral sources know that you’re the best when working with “35 to 55-year-old women who have 20 to 40 pounds to lose and can work out during the daytime”. Or, “recently retired professionals looking to regain their fitness after surviving a few decades of stress-filled lives as professionals and parents”. Whatever you decide, base your decision on whom you truly serve well. Refining your approach to those you serve best will help you to grow a more rewarding business and reduce programming and planning.
Another common trait I see in fitness professionals who dodge burn-out is that they specifically seek clients who are great personality matches. It can be very fulfilling to share the reasons you’ve put a trainee on a particular program. If you’re particularly excited about it, you might find that you enjoy training people from the healthcare field. They often have a good understanding of anatomy and physiology and will usually respect your knowledge about the physiological rationale for program design. This true “teaching” part of coaching can not only be fulfilling for you, but can enhance program adherence for the trainee.
Another way to help fill your business with students that you see as a great fit is finding another few trainers that you feel good about referring prospects outside your interest too. If you’re able to refer out a prospect who is going to be a much better fit with another coach in your network, do it! Your prospective client will thank you for it and your colleague will thank you for it. The reward for intentionally building a network of coaches and care providers that compliment you is that you’ll be more likely to be the recipient of a referral when someone in your network recognizes that they’re meeting with a prospect that needs your guidance more than theirs.
A model that might help you to clearly define this notion is to put your ideal client in the bulls-eye on a target.
Clients that aren’t within one “ring” away from that bull’s-eye (what it is that you do really well and really enjoy) should be referred to a colleague that would consider that person to be their bulls-eye!
4. Have a coach of your own.
Working with a coach to take your own programming duties over is a great way to save yourself some energy and time. Having a coach can help accelerate your own personal fitness results and elevate your coaching skills. Additionally, they will help you to experience just what it feels like to stick to a program when it gets difficult. I can all but guarantee that this experience will help you be a more effective and happy coach
I reach out to my colleagues at GymCloud for direction, accountability and commitment. This protects me from “program hopping” and from setting myself up on a program bound for failure. I expect in turn that they reach out to me as a coach when I am the best fit to help them reach their goals. As they say in the law practice, “a lawyer who represents themselves in court has an idiot for a client”. Overwhelmingly the phrase applies to fitness pros too.
Save yourself the anguish of your own programming and you will be rewarded with better clarity, more energy, fewer injuries and a more fulfilling business.
5. Continuing Education
Also helpful in preventing burnout is the pursuit of continuing education. For example, if your target market is seniors, learning more about post rehabilitative strength training will give you some real chances to learn about programming, exercise selection and special considerations for coaching that market. The continuing education you pursue can be deep within the scope of your area of expertise, or it can be something you’re interested in adding to your coaching repertoire.
Another approach to continuing education that keeps successful fitness professionals excited to coach is attending a workshop or conference in an area of fitness that they are personally interested in. It can be bodyweight strength training, pilates, kettlebells, postural control and breathing, etc. Choosing a portion of your continuing education “selfishly” can help you to stay excited about your own fitness goals and keep your coaching business fresh and exciting.
Experiencing growth on a personal level also helps to foster the type of enthusiasm your clients will be able to feel. Being excited about digging into a new program or incorporating a new tool or technique not only helps us get our own clients excited about new pursuits, but also shows them that we are staying ahead of the curve in the fitness world.
There you have it. Five ways to steer clear of burning out as a coach. If you take action and incorporate one or more of these strategies, your business will grow, your students will grow and you will be less prone to the energy dips that are often a part of this business.