Six Lessons I Learned in my First Year of Training Youth Athletes (That Have Nothing to do With Actual Training)

I’ve been a personal trainer for ten years, but for the first nine I trained almost exclusively adults who wanted to lose weight and feel better. Last year I transitioned into a role where nearly 100% of my clientele is youth athletes.

Coming into this role I knew how different training for athleticism is than training for fat loss and general fitness, but I underestimated how different the social and business aspects would be.

Here are six lessons I’ve learned in my first year of training youth athletes.

1. You have to earn the sale twice (or three times).

When selling personal training to an adult, there is one person to sell to: the adult.

When youth athletic development is the product, there are two or three people to sell to: the athlete and one or both of his or her parents.

Instead of needing one “yes,” two or three are needed.

Unsurprisingly, kids and parents have different motivations.

Parents tend to be more concerned with keeping their child safe and healthy (injury prevention) than the athlete is. Further, parents want to see a safe, professional training environment and know they can trust the person they are leaving their kids with. They want their children to grow mentally and emotionally as well as physically.

Kids, on the other hand, generally place higher priority on fitting in and playing sports better.

Different motivations require different sales approaches.

Social media is a great way to earn trust and buy-in from prospective athletes. By showcasing the athletes you train, highlighting their results, and tagging them in your posts, other kids discover you train their friends and competitors. This generates a “buzz” and cultivates a word of mouth reputation as athletes talk about what they see on social media.

Asking parents what priorities they have for their children and directly addressing them is a simple way to earn trust and demonstrate how you can be beneficial to further their agenda with their children. For bonus points, keep a list of parent priorities and create content on social media and website speaking to these points as well, thus engaging prospective parents before you meet them.

Occasionally kids begin training despite only half of the equation being bought in (when parents either oblige of force their child into training). In these situations, understand there is a limited amount of time to earn buy-in from the lacking party before losing the client.

2. Engage with parents.

A few months into my new job I noticed something strange. Often times athletes either drive themselves or get dropped off and picked up from sessions without the parent entering the building. I’d see the kids multiple times per week, but their parents—the ones paying the bill—I would rarely see.

This presents a unique challenge to client retention.

When training adults you have the opportunity to demonstrate value and build a relationship with every session, earning or losing favor and the right to retain their business.

Now, training youth athletes, the parents’ perspective was likely being formed by feedback from their middle and high school aged kids.

That doesn’t make me comfortable at all. All I imagine are conversations like this…

Parent: “How was training today?”

Athlete: “Good.”

Parent: “Yea? It was good?”

Athlete: “Yea. It was good.”

Parent: “What did you do?”

Athlete: “Some running and stuff.”

Parent: “Ok. How did you like it?”

Athlete: “It’s cool. Hey, can I go to my friend’s house tonight?”

It would be easy to not want to pay for my own kids’ training if I knew very little about what they were doing, if it was working, and if I had no communication or ties to the business.

To take control and own the communication, perception, and relationship with the parents, I started a weekly newsletter called “Your Kids’ Week in Training.” The newsletter shares highlights of the week, general progress markers (15 kids broke their speed record this week, for example), a few pictures, and the occasional personal shout out if an athlete did something particularly remarkable.

This gives me input and a certain degree of control over parents’ perception of what their kids do in our facility, demonstrate that kids indeed are making progress, and help the parents feel they have regular communication and connection with me.

I also make a point to thank parents for trusting their kids with us and share that we don’t take that responsibility lightly. Having three children myself, I certainly understand that weight and pressure.

At the very least, the newsletter is a weekly communication without which months may pass before I interact with the parent.

The end result is (I hope) a decreased likelihood of parents withdrawing their kids from training.

3. Get personal, but not too personal.

My athletes love to talk about what music they’re listening to and what shows they’re binge watching on Netflix.

Occasionally I get asked what I’m watching or what music I listen to.

Am I going to tell my group of 7th graders that I bump Tech N9ne and the Wu-Tang Clan when I lift? Or that I’m watching the Tudors, a Showtime series with violent and sexually explicit scenes?

Absolutely not.

I also never discuss romantic relationships. I have zero interest in venturing into their love lives. That territory seems to carry a lot of risk with little to no reward. It’s a danger zone I steer clear of at all costs.

Instead, I ask about things like family life, their last or next vacation, what other sports they play, why they love their sport, etc.

This helps me get to know them, creates small talk opportunities during rest periods, and as an added bonus helps me build rapport with their parents as I can now talk with them about their other kids and family happenings.

Getting personal builds stronger relationships with your athletes, but going too far and knowing too much about a child (or them knowing too much about you) can quickly become inappropriate and cost you business and reputation.

Draw hard lines, and don’t cross them. 

4. Never leave room for doubt.

One of our warmup exercises is 10 meters of side lunges. The athlete does a side lunge, stands up, faces the other way and does a side lunge on the other leg, repeatedly, for 10 meters. Perfectly normal and common exercise.

But if the athlete you’re talking with turns around and does a side lunge in front of you, you’ve now found yourself standing behind an athlete whose rear end is highly visible.

Not a good image for you, and it may (rightfully so) make an athlete or his or her parents uncomfortable.

Never leave any room for doubt or accusation about your intentions or level of professionalism and appropriateness. All it takes is one athlete or parent to question your integrity for things to go south. At best, you may lose a client; at worst, you may lose your reputation in the community.

5. Control your environment.

While every personality contributes to the vibe and energetic level of a social gathering, I recognize that I am largely in control of the environment and undertone of the training session.

I’ve had kids lay down half asleep between sets, which created an environment of lethargy. When athletes begin drills before I say “go” a sense of disorder is created.

While I do want the kids to feel at-home and comfortable, I do not want my training environment to feel structureless or sleepy.

My actions, emotions, and rules heavily influence our environment. A consistent environment creates a stable structure that athletes and parents can connect with and take comfort in. They know who you are, what you represent, and what they can expect when at the facility.

It’s the McDonald’s thing: whether you’re in Philadelphia, LA, or Hong Kong, if you order a Big Mac you know exactly what you’re going to get: a Big Mac.

It’s my job to create such consistency and expectations, and I do so by communicating clear, respectful protocols—like all athletes starting the warmup at the same time and moving through each exercise together—and sticking to them.

6. Put athletes in mentor positions.

One day a high school senior dropped in to a group training session with three 7th grade athletes. Her normal training group was athletes her own age. I failed to tell her this group was younger kids ahead of time, and I could tell she was displeased to be training alongside them.

But a single question changed the group dynamic.

I shared with the young athletes that the senior had received a full-ride scholarship to play soccer at a division one school.

The young kids’ eyes lit up.

“She’s D1” one of them muttered.

I then asked the senior “What advice would you give these kids if they want to go D1 just like you?”

The youngsters’ eyes got big and a smile struck the senior from cheek-to-cheek. The question complemented her ego, reinforced her positive beliefs about herself, and allowed her to share her experience while simultaneously facilitating valuable advice for the 7th graders and earning tremendous buy-in from them.

It shifted the vibe of the session from “I have to work out with these kids” to “I get to be a role model for these kids.”

If you don’t have a D1 athlete, don’t worry, you don’t need one to accomplish this. Any older athlete can be a mentor. If you see the good in them you can put them in a position to share it with the younger ones.

Mentorship gets more buy-in from everyone, promotes a fun training environment, and shows the parents that your facility provides the positive peer-to-peer mentoring that kids thrive on.

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