Embarassing confession…The Climb

The Climb:

After getting asked this question for about the 27th time I decided to post it as a blog so when I get asked about it again, I can just send the link, rather than type out the entire story again – so if you are not interested in the path I took to become a strength and conditioning coach, then you can stop reading right now – this post is not about hockey training.

The Question…

It has different forms, but here is the latest:

Hi Maria,

I am an owner of your UGT programs and also would like to say I love getting your newsletters in the email. It seriously gets my day off to a great start. (Maria:  Thanks, that is great!)

Anyways, I wanted to ask what path you took through schooling you acquire your knowledge and get where you are today. I will be going off to school soon and I have a good idea of what courses to take but I thought I would get in touch with you just to see what you did to get yourself started.

I realize you’re busy and don’t want to take too much of your time but if you could give me a quick overview of what your path was I would really appreciate it. (Maria: Always happy to help someone who has the courage to ask the question)

So here comes my embarrassing confession in 3—2—1——– I actually love the Miley Cyrus song “The Climb” (and don’t get me started on “Party In The USA”), you can see the video here if you want, complete with some really bad dancing, bad dancing in the rain, bad dancing in front of a movie screen, bad dancing on a cliff – you get the idea – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NG2zyeVRcbs

Anyway, bad dancing aside that song kind of describes how I got here.  I will give you the reader’s digest version.

When I graduated from Oakridge Secondary School in 1988 I decided to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather, father, uncle and brother by attending the University of Western Ontario in my hometown.  I studied what was then called Phys Ed (now Kinesiology) because I really liked sports and my high school gym teachers were really cool.

After 4 years of academics I graduated with an Honors Degree in Phys Ed and I got my first job at a World Gym as a personal trainer.  I had to phone in each evening after 8pm to find out what appointments I had for the next day.  I worked every day, but my schedule might be 6am, 2pm and 9pm.  I earned $10 per hour (only for the hours I was training) and I basically had to show the new members how to adjust the seat on all the different machines in about a 12 machine circuit.

I love it when new grads apply for a job at Revolution Conditioning and tell me that they only want to work with athletes, like they don’t want to waste their time with those ‘regular’ people.

I don’t think a trainer who hasn’t spent time working with ‘regular’ people can really be excellent at their job.  What you learn while working in a fitness club is how to deal with all kinds of people with different levels of motivation, different experiences with exercise, different body types – let me tell you this taught me a lot more about becoming a good trainer than much of my university level courses.

Don’t get me wrong I had a blast at university.  To prove how much fun I had, I almost flunked out in first year.  What university taught me was #1 how to learn.  Then it gave me a great background in biomechanics, exercise physiology, anatomy, sport medicine all of which I apply to my exercise program design.

What university does not teach you is how to put it all together – that you have to learn on your own.

When I get an application in which the new grad tells me how their studies have prepared them for a career in strength and conditioning and how they will immediately be an asset to Revolution, I immediately toss it in the garbage.   The worst thing to me is a person who doesn’t know what they don’t know.

As a new grad you actually will be a liability to the team for the first 6-12 months, so you really want to convince a potential employer that you know you will be a liability (don’t say this in so many words) but that you are keen to learn and develop into an asset over time.

After working at the gym and a clothing store (to cover the bills) I got a break for my first ‘grown up’ job.  You see, being a personal trainer is just something you do until you find a ‘real’ job, it’s not a career kind of job.  Or so people told me.

I got a job as a Kinesiologist working for a rehab company.  I worked with people who had been in motor vehicle accidents, designing exercise programs to help them get back to work (and off insurance claim).  As you can imagine, some of them did not really want to get back to work and were not happy to see me at their door everyday forcing them to exercise.

My first client was a big biker guy, who rode a Harley, had a Pit Bull for a dog and a piranha for a pet fish.  Intimidating to go into his house and take him through his stretches (twice per day)?  Um yeah.  Turns out he was a really nice guy, but again that experience helped me deal with all sorts of people and how to take command of a training session.

After about four years of working as a Kinesiologist I did grow tired of trying to help a lot of people who did not want to get better.  The one’s who did want to get better, were already back to work, so they did not need me.

I returned to school for a Masters of Science degree in Kinesiology where I studied Sport Medicine.  My supervisor was renowned orthopaedic surgeon Peter Fowler and he taught me to ask questions and that it is okay if you do not know it all, as long as you are trying to learn.

It was a wonderful experience and led me to my position as the exercise specialist in the physiotherapy department at the Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic at the University of Western Ontario.

This is where I developed my approach to training athletes from the inside out.  When we worked with an injured athlete in the clinic the first goal was to prevent that injury from recurring, so we exercised first to prevent injury.  Guess what – a lot of the athletes performed better than before, just using this injury prevention method.

So now when athletes train at Revolution Conditioning we train to reduce the risk of injury and then to maximize performance and it works.  I probably never would have learned that if not for my time at the sport med clinic.

During that time I also started my own personal training business (Synergy Fitness) and was working as the strength coach to the men’s and women’s hockey, basketball, volleyball, track and field teams at Western.  Which was another great learning experience (which paid next to nothing – probably about $3000 per year for all of those teams)

I worked in the clinic from 8am-4pm and then worked with the teams until 6pm or so, then worked with my individual clients until about 8-9pm before getting home for supper.  I had no facility, I went to people’s homes and convinced a local squash club to let me train members and my clients in their small fitness room.

I loved it and I was building a strong reputation by being very good at what I did.  I did not ‘wing’ anything – every workout was planned, periodized and monitored.  I was on time, the players worked hard, got better and stayed healthy.

From there I was recruited to be the Sports Performance Director at a large sport conditioning franchise.  What I thought was my dream job – 10,000 square feet of athlete training bliss.

Turned out it was a nightmare – turns out in order to pay the rent on 10,000 square feet of training bliss you need to take all comers and basically crank people through – it is the McDonalds of strength and conditioning.  I was working 70-80 hours per week and started to hate training people – it did not feel good at all.

I learned from that experience that I wanted to be the chef at a small restaurant with a waiting list rather than a 10 billion served kind of place.  So I started Revolution Sport Conditioning out of the trunk of my car; literally.

I trained young hockey players in their back yard, basement or local park.  I worked with teams in the change room or lobby of the arena – it was awesome!  I did that for about 5-months before I got my facility and even then I started with only 500 square feet.  It has since grown to 1500 square feet, which is still very small, but it works because people come for the training, not the fancy showers, locker rooms and gimmicky toys.

For the first 3 years of the business I literally worked from 6am–9 or 10 pm Monday to Friday and a bit on the weekends.  It was ridiculous, but it was what I needed to do to get it up and running.

Now that Tyler has joined the team I still work 60 hours per week but do less training than I used to – I used to train face to face 50-60 hours per week in the gym and then do all the paperwork, program design, etc.

So there, is the short version – I have been at this for about 18 years and I have made it to the point where I earn a comfortable living.  So if you think it would be great to become a strength and conditioning coach, you are right, but be prepared to put in 12-15 years of hard work, long hours and poor pay before you get comfortable – – it’s the Climb and this climb is a GRIND.  So if you think 16 hour days are cruel and inhumane, pick another profession.

Is it worth it – hell yeah!

If I were to boil it down to four keys:

  • Work in a regular gym – become a good people person
  • Work or volunteer in a sport physiotherapy clinic, my knowledge of athletic injuries has given me a huge advantage over my competition
  • Be ready to work for it, but be very careful that you do not burn out.  I have been close, more than once and it is not good.  If you start to hate the idea of training, then you need to slow down and hopefully your passion will come back.  If it doen’t, then you better have a plan B.
  • Always, always be learning.  If you are doing the exact same programs this year that you were doing last year, then you are not getting better, you are not doing your job.