Personal trainers are like onions. We’re layered. While we may come across as one-dimensional gym junkies who live and breathe health and fitness, it’s not the only thing we think about, engage with, or are interested in.
We also listen to music, watch movies, read books, follow sports teams. We call our mothers (something we should do more often), eat pizza (something we shouldn’t do quite so often), and press the snooze button. In short, we’re humans.
But how many of our layers should we reveal, in person or online? How does what we share affect relationships with our clients, and what effect might it have on future ones?
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To Be Yourself, or Not to Be Yourself? That Is the Question
In the spirit of this article, I’ll share why I’m writing about this:
I submitted a story idea to the PTDC, which led to an extended email conversation with Lou Schuler, the PTDC’s editorial director, which then led to me contacting a few fitness pros to get their take on this topic.
Schuler observed that I wrote an article and made a video about the Hero’s Journey, a story structure rooted in mythology that you see in countless movies to this day. It’s a topic we’re both interested in, but while he tied it to fitness in this audio lecture, I didn’t.
I knew it was a little out of the ordinary for a fitness guy to post content that wasn’t about fitness, but putting up a façade has never sat right with me. And it’s not that I never write or share information about my field; I wrote this article for the PTDC, and if you look at my Twitter feed, you’ll see I go back and forth between health and fitness and other interests like movies and philosophy.
It’s hard not to be yourself. It can be fatiguing and confusing. “It’s easier to share who you really are than to create an image you could never be,” says Dean Somerset, a strength and rehab specialist and pro wrestling fan. “What you do in your spare time is a big telling feature for who you are.”
Tony Gentilcore, owner of CORE in Boston and occasional movie critic, agrees. “Relatability is part of the game, and what will often persuade someone to choose X coach over the other,” he says. By talking about his favorite movies and love for techno, readers and clients can “appreciate that I’m not some deadlifting Terminator and that all I do is eat, sleep, and breathe strength and conditioning.”
“I’m a big fan of revealing personal interests and hobbies to clients and potential clients, both in-person and via social media,” says Molly Galbraith, co-founder and owner of Girls Gone Strong. “I think it humanizes us to our clients and potential clients.”
It’s also, she adds, “the perfect filtering system. It attracts more people who like me and believe in the work I do, and it repels people who aren’t a good fit for me.”
So how can we figure out what’s the right amount of sharing, and what crosses lines? Let’s start with a simple and admittedly arbitrary classification system Schuler created.
Risk Level 0
You follow the local sports teams, support local businesses, or enjoy watching Netflix series.
These are the simplest and least revelatory things we can say about ourselves. It’s like saying you’re a fan of fresh air.
Risk Level 1
You’re a pop culture nerd, like a particular type of music, or share basic facts like your marital status or how many kids you have.
While it’s hard to imagine anyone would be offended, you’re still revealing something that isn’t obvious simply by looking at you. As Gentilcore says, “Does the world need to know I have a special affinity for Julia Roberts’ romantic comedies, and that I can re-enact every line of Notting Hill? Probably not.”
Risk Level 2
You’re a fan of a team that’s a rival to the local clubs, or that people in general hate. Or you go to events that most people associate with a certain type of behavior or belief system. Or you share details of your personal life that, while not extreme or unusual by any definition, go beyond what we typically reveal.
A perfect example is this comment Galbraith made during an interview for Fitness Marketing Monthly: “I started going to therapy 10 years ago because I was struggling to be vulnerable with my boyfriend. The joke is that therapy worked too well because now I’m vulnerable on the Internet.”
Again, there’s little risk, but it does leave an impression on those who follow you online.
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Risk Level 3
You have strong religious or political beliefs, in any direction, or unconventional relationships.
Now we get into the gray areas. “It’s very easy to share an opinion and instantly be branded as either ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing,’” Somerset says, “even if you would vote the opposite way on 90 percent of things.”
“People used to recommend not talking about politics or religion, but even that feels like it’s going out the window a bit these days,” Galbraith says. Her own business is a case in point. “Like it or not, women’s health issues are inherently political. I cannot educate on creating a safe and welcoming gym environment for female clients without explaining to coaches that 81 percent of women in the U.S. will experience sexual harassment, and 33 percent of them will be sexually assaulted.”
Other times, as we’ve all observed on our social media feeds, fitness pros deliberately wade into the most controversial issues.
“I’ve often said I would burn my own house down out of principle, which isn’t always a great thing,” says Jay Ashman, a strength coach and owner of KC Barbell. “The same goes for politics. I believe strongly in certain principles of being a human and have a difficult time bottling it up when it starts to fester inside of me.”
Has being outspoken ever cost him a client or gym member? “Not a single time,” Ashman says. “I have clients from all walks of life and they respect the fact that I stand by my beliefs.”
The same, however, doesn’t hold true for friendships and professional contacts. “I’ve largely left behind a lot of former friends and colleagues because of how they believe and how I believe,” he admits. “That’s a fact of life if you have principles.”
But perhaps the bigger loss, from a business perspective, is the time and bandwidth you sacrifice when you talk about politics online. You can’t just walk away from a conversation if you’re the one who started it. You have to engage with those who disagree, which means you have to figure out who’s sincere and who’s just trolling you out of pure sadistic glee. (“I’ve done my best to not act like a fool when discussing things, but others don’t always share the same decorum,” he says with diplomatic understatement.)
And in Ashman’s case, he chose to do it while opening a gym and running an online training business. That’s why he says he “toned it down a lot” after the 2016 election.
Risk Level 4
You have universally reviled beliefs or associations (men’s rights activist, survivalist, white supremacist, etc.), cheat on your spouse or partner, or conduct business in an illegal or unethical way.
And now our story takes an unexpected and eye-opening turn. On November 5th, the day before the midterm elections in the U.S. and several days after Ashman told us he wasn’t engaging as much in politics, he made this announcement on Facebook:
If you have been with me on Facebook for any length of time, you would know how adamant I am about fighting the far right and being aware that this dangerous segment is growing more bold by the day.
There is a reason for that.
I used to be a part of it and contributed to it in a major way.
This is something I am scared s***less to write about because it is opening not only a can of worms but also tied into my business.
I have been out of the “movement” for well over 15 years, but those scars will never, ever fade. …
I am sorry I was a part of this. It is one of my only regrets in life.
The lesson, Ashman says, is to “be transparent and real with your life. Judgment errors are real, but so is fixing those errors.”
To Thine Own Clients Be True
Perhaps the best advice we’ve heard is in this podcast interview with Krista Scott-Dixon of Precision Nutrition:
“I always ask myself, ‘What is in the service of my client? What will help my client in this moment?’ … I come down on this side: Strategic self-disclosure can be a way of creating connection with your client. …
“Every time you self-disclose, you want to ask yourself … ‘Is this self-disclosure appropriate? Does it enhance the relationship? Is it in the service of my client? What’s my reason for sharing? How much am I sharing? How am I framing it?’”
Everyone Schuler and I talked to agrees that displaying our uniqueness can work in our favor, and may even give us an edge over trainers who’re less interesting, personable, or memorable.
But that’s contingent on being memorable for the right reasons. While we may love to get drunk on a Saturday night, or argue politics like a drunk uncle on the Internet, or favor one side of the political divide, or can’t get enough of a notorious “We Are the Champions” remix, we have to ask if we’re doing our followers any favors by sharing it with them. After all, our reputations and legacies are on the line.