Whether you’re looking to take the next step in your fitness career or hoping to transition into the industry, the right guidance can make all the difference.
But knowing what to do now is confusing.
If you’re a trainer, nutrition coach, or gym owner, sorting through the often contradictory career-development advice can be a full-time job.
That explains why this is one of the most common questions I get:
“How do I find a mentor?”
And I get it. We’re all seeking clarity and stability, myself included. But it’s the wrong question.
If you’re focused on getting a business coach or mentor but you’re not 100 percent clear on precisely what you need (which is totally okay), you need to hit pause and read this article now. It might help you avoid a very costly mistake.
Figuring out where to invest your time and money is the most important professional decision you’ll ever make.
Before investing in anything, you must first assess what stage of development you're in, and take stock of what you don’t yet know. This is the most important step, and the most often missed.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
By the end of this short article, my goal is to provide you with more clarity on the correct next step.
But before I get into it, I’d like to share with you how I did this professional-development thing a decade ago, and why you have it better than me.
Back in the day ...
This is where I age myself.
Back in the day, when I was waking up at 5 a.m. to put in 10 to 12 hours on the gym floor, there wasn’t much industry-specific information on how to build my business.
I knew I had to do something to change my situation, but didn’t know what I needed, or how to find it.
All I knew for certain is that nobody would do it for me.
My first step was to read my older brother’s Marketing 101 textbook that I found on a shelf in my parents’ basement.
Once I’d read it cover to cover, I went to the bookstore and wrote down the names of the bestselling business and marketing books. Then I went across the street to the library, checked them out, and read them.
Most of the books had recommended resources at the end. So I read those too.
Then it was time for original research.
A friend in medical school gave me access to his PubMed account, and I dug up every review paper I could find on the psychology of marketing and social virality.
My self-directed study wasn't efficient; it took four years. But it gave me the foundation I needed.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do what I did. You have a path to follow.
For less money than I used to spend on books, you can find a course for just about anything you want to do. You can do most of them on your own time, and finish with a breadth of knowledge that becomes the foundation you need to move forward.
A course is the first step, and skipping this step can have dire consequences.
Step 1: Take a course
A great course comes from a group of legitimate subject experts, rather than one person’s experience.
Those experts pay painstaking attention to solving every element of the problem for their students.
Over time, great courses iterate and improve, taking advantage of observational, qualitative, and quantitative feedback in addition to assessments by outside experts.
Consider the development path taken by the Online Trainer Academy Level 1 Certification:
We launched our first online training business development course in 2013. It was called 1K Extra, based on the guarantee of helping you boost your monthly income by $1,000. By 2016 it evolved into the Online Trainer Academy, with contributions from more than 40 experts.
Since then we’ve taught more than 30,000 coaches in 87 countries. Their feedback, in turn, has helped us improve the curriculum, ensuring that we answer every question and cover every situation any online trainer could ever have.
We’ve also hired outside academics (including Yale University’s senior course developer) to independently audit the quality of the course and provide feedback.
It’s because of this massive amount of information on what works and what doesn’t work in the real world that we’re able to guide our students toward their ideal business.
Of course we don’t know for certain what that is for you.
What we do know is that your perfect business will be unique to you. Your history, circumstances, desires, and goals are different from those of any other coach, and your business should reflect that.
That’s why OTA doesn’t try to teach a single business model to entry-level online coaches. Instead, we introduce you to all the models, and help you figure out which one is right for you. Then we help you get your first online training clients to test and improve on your model.
Whatever you’re trying to learn, your first step should always be to understand all the steps, and where to find the guidance you need to move in the right direction. Unfortunately, a lot of trainers hire business coaches too early in their careers, and those coaches sell them on one particular business model that handcuffs them down the road.
But when you learn the steps, get help taking the steps, and enjoy some initial success, you can decide for yourself what kind of business you want to build.
That’s when, for some fitness and nutrition professionals, it makes sense to hire a business coach.
Step 2: Hire a coach
A business coach, in this context, is somebody you pay. It’s not a mentor (the subject of the next section) or an informal advisor.
Good business coaching can be very expensive. And it should be. The right coach can be worth every penny. I know because I’ve hired a couple of them—one to help me iron out the kinks of a membership site, the other to improve the way we communicate in our sales copy.
First, a word to the wise:
Never hire a business coach who reaches out to you with unsolicited texts or DMs.
Also beware of people you’ve never heard of who target you with Facebook ads and then pressure you to get on the phone for a sales call.
Pay attention to how you feel being solicited this way—yucky. If you don’t like how they sell to you, why would you want to learn from them?
Most people hiring a business coach will be better served with a course. But it’s important to know when it’s time to seek one out.
This five-step process will help you get what you need:
These steps show why hiring a business coach should almost never be your first step. You simply don’t know enough about your business to choose a path and identify where you need help.
They also illustrate why my company is structured the way it is, offering a comprehensive course (Level 1 of the Online Trainer Academy) as the foundation that’s cost-effective for most fitness pros with no prerequisites to enroll.
Because we believe in this process so much, we created Level 2 of the Online Trainer Academy, our business-coaching service, where applicants go through a thorough vetting before they can enroll.
We turn down a lot of the applicants for two reasons:
- They aren’t right for the very specific business model we teach.
- They aren’t yet ready for Level 2, and should spend more time focused on the Level 1 fundamentals.
And while Level 1 certification isn’t a prerequisite for Level 2 coaching, we’ve structured the two programs as a progression—start with a course, and then continue to business coaching if it’s right for you.
Jumping ahead to business coaching would be expensive and inefficient. If you don’t believe me, ask someone who hired a business coach before they were ready for it. They’ll tell you how big a misstep it was, and how much it cost them. In many cases, they end up paying off the debt for years.
It’s quite sad, really. I hope this article helps fitness and nutrition pros avoid that mistake.
Why is it a mistake?
Because the beginning of the process is pretty much the same for everybody. You’re figuring out your audience, dialing in your message, and deciding on your business model.
You don’t need to spend thousands on a coach to complete the initial steps. A course like the Online Trainer Academy Level 1 Certification delivers all the information you need in a much more thorough, convenient, and cost-effective way.
Step 3: Earn a mentor
Mentors and business coaches are often conflated.
They aren’t the same thing.
A fitness business coach is someone who charges a lot and offers a lot of individual attention.
A mentor is someone you don’t pay, and it’s certainly not someone who targets you in Facebook ads and hard-sells you on a program that costs anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000.
There’s no application form or onboarding process. Sometimes it’s so subtle you don’t even know you’re being mentored until you realize someone you admire is going out of their way to offer advice and share their expertise.
A mentor helps you because you’ve earned their respect.
They believe in you.
They take time away from their business or family or personal interests because working with you fills them up.
I’ve had a few informal mentors over the years. It always started as a one-sided relationship, with me supporting them. Among the ways I did that:
- Followed them on multiple platforms, offering substantive, thoughtful comments as often as possible
- Interacted with them and their followers to keep conversations going
- Shared their content in ways that encouraged my audience to become fans of their work
- Bought and reviewed their products, usually on the first day they became available
That’s how I got their attention, and perhaps some gratitude. But attention and gratitude don’t convince someone to become a mentor.
Only your work can do that. Once you have their attention, your work has to stand out. And it won’t happen fast.
Think of it from their point of view:
People in a position of authority are there because they worked really hard for a lot of years. They’re busy and in demand.
No mentor worth having wants your money. They have enough. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they’re at the top. They’re comfortable with who they are and how they got there. Now they’re thinking about their legacy.
A mentor doesn’t have to be in the fitness industry. They often aren’t, and that’s okay. The wisdom they offer transcends the nuts and bolts of your work.
And that brings us to my last and perhaps most important point about investing in your business education, whether it comes from a course, a coach, or a mentor.
You must be learning transferable skills
How many retired personal trainers do you know? I can’t think of a single one.
It’s partly because personal training didn’t exist as a profession until the 1980s. But it’s also because very few fitness pros train clients for more than a decade or two.
Most of you reading this will eventually go on to do something else.
As much as I love online training, I’m also a realist. I know you probably won’t be an online trainer for the rest of your life. For most fitness and nutrition pros, it’s a stepping stone, rather than a final destination.
When you do move on to whatever comes next, what skills will you bring with you?
What do you know about sales, marketing, or customer service that will transfer to another job?
What have you learned about copywriting, video production, or social media?
Or developing new revenue streams?
Or hiring and training people?
Or managing projects?
So where can you learn some of those things now?
A business coach can give you a more streamlined educational path than a course. As I said, this is great if you know precisely what problem you want to solve. But how applicable will those lessons be five years now, when you’re no longer using that specific business model?
Conversely, when you take a course like the Online Trainer Academy Level 1 Certification, you’re going to get those all-important transferable skills—the kind that will apply for years down the road, in or out of the fitness industry.
You probably won’t be able to apply all of them immediately. But the farther you progress in your career and professional life, the more those skills will come into play.
As proud as I am of the success of our alumni with online training, I’m just as proud of the ones who applied OTA teachings to everything from gym ownership to real estate sales, guitar instruction, and magic shows. (Seriously, these are all real examples.)
Making the right investments in your business at the right time leads to compounding benefits for years to come.
No matter where your life takes you.