Quite often I get emails and interview questions asking what a young coach should do to begin to establish themself in this field. While there are certainly a lot of possible answers, one of the best pieces of advice I can give is to follow the path of guys like Sam Leahey.
While barely being old enough to grow hair on his chest (sorry Sam), Sam has already spent time working alongside some of North America’s best strength coaches and has already made productive friendships with many others. Recently I was fortunate enough to interview Sam to discuss some of the things that he’s done to get to this point in his career. Young coaches…listen up.
Sam, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Can you please take a second to tell my readers a little bit about yourself?
Thanks, Mark! As much as I appreciate the gesture, I don’t think I’m anyone special””just someone who cares more than most and works hard. Like most my age, I have my CSCS and CPT. I double majored in Exercise Science and Physical Education and received a minor in Sport Coaching as well. After college, I intend to earn a MS in Strength&Conditioning from Springfield College. As far as experience goes, I’ve done a number of internships at the following places while working as a personal trainer on the side:
Michael Boyle Strength and Conditioning (Michael Boyle)
Cressey Performance (Eric Cressey)
Boston University (Michael Boyle)
College of The Holy Cross (Jeff Oliver & Jeremy Frisch)
In addition to that, I’ve had some written works published on various websites. But at the end of the day, just because you’re an internet author doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about! At this point in my career, if I had to pick a “specialty” I would say that even though I’m prepared in a variety of bodies of knowledge, I particularly specialize in applied exercise science and biomechanics as they relate to program design for athletic performance enhancement as well as prophylactic exercise.
Great stuff Sam! As a young coach you’ve really worked your way in with some great names in the industry. Obviously this must have been intimidating at first. Can you talk a little bit about the value of networking with other trainers and coaches for a young guy like yourself? What were your experiences like? Was it as hard as you thought?
Rather than “intimidating,” I think a more accurate word to describe my experience was “awestruck.” When I first met the “big timers,” it was a surreal experience given that I had idolized these folks for some time now. However, it didn’t take long before I got over the shock and awe and starting trying to drain all the knowledge from their brains. Not sure why, but I didn’t mind harassing them at the cost of being “annoying.” I just wanted the truth. I desired answers to questions that kept me up at night, and wanted to satisfy the desire for high quality knowledge. I guess people call it “having a passion for something?” To answer your question more directly, Mark, I’m not sure if that was “hard” per se. I was just being my natural self – a determined, self-driven,passionate person.
What is “hard” and the part too many young coaches are afraid of, is opening yourself up for criticism, admitting your faults, and biting the bullet to admit you screwed up here and there and have room to grow.If you’re pursuing greatness in the profession the one principle that goes without saying is “the higher up you go, the hotter the air gets.” For example, Eric Cressey is NOT afraid to tell you what he thinks. This is a good thing. He and Coach Boyle have had to put me in my place when I performed less than optimally, both professionally and personally. What’s most important was that I could handle the constructive criticism, and because of that they helped me find solutions and built me back up again. That is a true mentor – someone who’ll put you in your place when necessary and then help you back up only to be better than before. “Haters” are simply folks that want to bring you down all the time because most of the time they have something against you, and they choose to focus on the negatives in your life.
The same goes for the rest of those I call mentors – Coach Jeff Oliver and Coach Bruce Cohn. All these men are over 50 years of age, and it’s been an honor to stand on their shoulders and look into the future. They have so much perspective in life to offer; it’ll really get you thinking about what’s important in the end and what matters most during your professional journey. I’ve made mistakes with these individuals, too, and they’ve never held it against me. Rather, they shed light on it and helped me not to make that mistake again whatever it may be.
I choose to talk about these “negatives” because I think when many people learn of my story, they often inaccurately think it’s some kind of glory ride to greatness. Not even remotely true! In fact, there have been HUGE bumps along the way. If my life journey was getting easier, I would take it to mean I’m going downhill! Remember, the higher up you go the hotter the air gets. I’ll never forget when Eric first told me that. I thought about its implications for a long time. Everyone will make mistakes, but what separates you from the rest is what you DO about those mistakes afterwards. How do you fix the problem so it doesn’t happen again? Do you have enough humility to take criticism well? You should, especially if you’re young, because I can’t see why a young coach would have any pride in the first place!
Getting to your “value” question, yes, networking is critical and very valuable indeed. All I can say about this piece is to be yourself. Don’t pretend to be someone or something you are not. If you are genuine, sincere, and passionate in your efforts and communication, then it will show and people will want to connect with you. Bad people with ulterior motives always get exploited. Be a good person!
Outside of talking with other coaches and your formal education, what do you do to stay on top of the field? Resources? Conferences?
This is a relative question as I feel certain people need different things. In the beginning, I read everything I could get my hands on. Now, I mostly read more science related material like research. After that, my go to is “high yield” things like books, ebooks, DVD’s, manuals, conferences, seminars, and webinars. And after that comes everything else – podcasts, websites, blogs, etc. As time goes on you’ll have to decide what is more “high yield” for your own situation, depending on the setting you work in. Sometimes a certain direction in one’s educational path is necessary.
Does all this networking and learning get expensive? How do you justify the cost?
It absolutely does. I have much debt financially, but I’m richer in knowledge and intangibles because of it. One day it will pay off in the tangible sense. Anything you put high value on is expensive! To what lengths and at what costs (literally) are you willing to go to attain what you perceive at “greatness?” Enough said!
At the risk of sounding overly confident I’ll defer and quote Dr.Charlie Weingroff. This is something that I’ve written permanently in my mind and refer to it often. It will either motivate you or intimidate you after you’ve read it:
“Many people say they want to be good at what they do or help people or this and that. The better folks will say they always want to be the best they can be. Very few people look at their lives and walk out the front door every day and say to themselves I want to be the best at what I do that has ever walked the Earth. That will never happen of course, but when you have that intensity and live your life towards that end, you will by default be the best you can be and serve those that have come before you and those regularly around you. I think this is what has made me “successful,” and again success is decided by others, not me. I actually don’t think I am all that good at what I do. I think everybody else just sucks.”
I love that quote! As a guy who has done very well for himself thus far, what recommendations would you have for an aspiring trainer or strength coach who wants to make a place for themself in this industry?
Essentially, my answer is – GO OUT AND TAKE WHAT YOU WANT! Seriously, if you want to be “big time,” then go out and create your own experience. However great you want to be will dictate how much effort and thought you put into your preparation process. There’s really no “secret to success.” It’s merely a matter of effort directed in the right way. I’ll never forgot my dad’s words to me in high school – “your effort has to be as big as your dream.”
If anyone out there reading this is looking for some specifics, I’d direct you to the page located HERE. There you’ll find some really good resources and practical advice if you actually take the time to read through the whole thing.
Other than that I’ll touch on a smaller subject that I believe is indirectly related to one’s success – degrees. While it’s true you don’t need degrees in a related field, I would highly recommend getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree! If we want our field to be respected the way it should be then we need to meet some sort of societal standard like a college degree. Just having a high school diploma is not good enough. As is with a DPT, MD, ATC, Chiro, S&C coach, etc. the degree itself means nothing, but that credential gives you some credibility in the public’s eyes because they don’t know how to differentiate the good from the bad at all until they actually get to work with you and see results.
Furthermore, I’m a firm believer in formal education simply for the sake of the experience that will come along with it. If you’re an S&C graduate assistant you can do your own research study while simultaneously coaching your own varsity teams, having complete control over program design and implementation. Furthermore, there are actually some classes that offer you a learning experience you cannot attain outside the classroom. Classes like cadaver anatomy come to mind. For each profession (S&C, Physical Therapy, etc.) there are a few “high yield” classes that are exclusive to school itself, not many though. In addition, you’ll meet many individuals along the way that you might not have otherwise.
Great points Sam! I’m not sure that I agree that everyone needs a degree, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. How do all of your experiences so far play into the personal training that YOU do?
Absolutely Mark, definitely not 100% necessary. I see degrees, and the piece of paper you get at the end, as an extra kick or slight edge that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Most everything else comes from outside the classroom.
Getting to your question though, my answer to this has certainly changed over the last year. While it’s true that many professions are after the same thing, Strength & Conditioning can be VERY different than personal training often times, especially, if you are working for a big corporate chain commercial gym. Your communication skills in the personal training setting are paramount. You’re not in a situation where people show up with expectations and will just do what you say because you’re the coach. General population people will want to know why you’re telling them to do this and that more than athletes will. Also, while some athletes on your team will ask why something is important, general population people are much more skeptical of your methodologies.
If you learn how to communicate at the level the person in front of you then you should be all set. Explain to them the science behind your methods but be sure to concluded with “lay person” talk and use terms that the client understands, whether it’s a meat head phrase like “getting jacked” or what females want to hear most like, “getting toned.” Don’t be afraid to “speak client,” it does not degrade your own professionalism and certainly doesn’t label you less intelligent. It actually shows you’re aware and don’t live in a box!
How does this affect your perception of the personal training industry as a whole?
As a specific industry, I would say I certainly share the same sentiments as Coach Boyle conveyed in his article An Apology Letter to Personal Trainers. I’m totally convinced that if one is to encounter difficulty in the inter-personal skills department, it will become obvious in the personal training setting much quicker than in the S&C setting. This is a generalization of course and I am only comparing the two full time professions when separated (collegiate S&C and commercial gym PT).
What are the biggest things you see going wrong in the personal training industry?
Let it be said, I have much to learn on the business side of things that come along with personal training. I also see the personal training experience as an opportunity to sharpen your abilities in handling multiple personalities at once. You need to be able to morph your approach at a moment’s notice with regards to how you interact with certain types of folks. In other words, how you deal with one person, both personally and sometimes even professionally, might be the polar opposite of how you deal with another. This is the nature of the personal training profession, generally speaking, and especially in the commercial gym setting.
I am still sharpening my skills in those areas. However, in terms of training services provided, we have a LONG way to go. The average commercial gym trainer is still thinking under the bodybuilding paradigm and asking what exercises build the upper hamstrings more than the medial ones. The joint-by-joint approach has yet to be a program design principle. There’s only beginning to be a care for “corrective exercise.” Delivering aesthetic results to clients is more important than training the body as a functional unit (because apparently it’s written down somewhere you can’t do both simultaneously). A lot of trainers care more about selling PT packages than they do about providing optimal results. In some cases you’ll even have a trainer straight out lie to a client and tell them that twice a week is optimal even though the client expresses coming four times a week. Why? Because they want to fill their schedule tighter with more clients. They’ll couple this attitude with the program design approach of “just do the same thing with everybody but tweak it a bit here and there.”
What is worst of all, on so many levels, is when a trainer hears the truth in an appropriate manner with the answers given to them on a silver platter, yet at the end of the day they end up not applying it. Why? Because they just don’t care! They are happy getting a pay check, and ignorance is bliss!
I wholeheartedly agree. Thanks for the great interview Sam! Is there anywhere my readers can contact you?
Anytime Mark! My fellow young ones, and old ones too for that matter, can find me at www.SamLeahey.com.