The Kids Are Alright

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

Originally published at 11/2005

Last night I closed the doors to my strength and conditioning facility for the last time. After over ten years in the same town and the same building, it was time for me to move on to new challenges. When I finished carrying the final few medicine balls out to my truck I locked the doors permanently. I pulled out of the parking lot and headed to meet a few friends for dinner. When I arrived I walked into a surprise party thrown for me by over thirty of my closest clients. I was touched to say the least. Throughout the night we all shared stories and laughed about the good times we had over the last decade inside that tiny gym. People from all different walks of life had become family there and I knew my life would never be the same without them. Through teary eyed thank you’s and hugs, they all reciprocated the sentiment. After drinking a “few” beers it was time to make some speeches. I took a few of my favorite athletes aside and thanked them, from the bottom of my heart, for coming to me and putting their trust in me and making my life better over the years that I have known them. With tears in my eyes, I told them that I only hoped that they knew how much it meant to me and that no matter what happened and where we were in our lives, I would always consider them my little brothers.

At the end of the night everyone handed me a big card that they had all signed. I sat down to read it this morning and was once again overwhelmed with emotion. It was during this time that I reflected on my last ten years in this business and what it means to be able to work with kids and impact their lives in a positive way.

Many of us who read this site are coaches or trainers or performance specialists and we spend a great majority of our time with kids between the ages of eight and twenty two. It is our job to make them better athletes. That is what they came to us for in the first place, right? That is what they are paying us for. But is that where the responsibility ends? Is that all we owe them?

When a kid hires one of us or plays for our team or school we are put in a position to be a role model weather we like it or not. You can not choose to not be a role model; it’s part of working with kids. When you sign up for this gig you automatically accept that responsibility. It is what you choose to do with that responsibility that matters most.

Aside from making them better athletes, I always took it upon myself to positively influence every kid’s life that ever walked into my gym. Kids, especially very young ones, can be extremely hard on each other and I would never allow that in my presence. I tried to stress hard work, leadership, team work and the ability to overcome adversity. I never did this by preaching or teaching but only through my actions. Kids see through B.S. in a heartbeat and can tell when some one is real. People have sometimes told me that your clients can not be your friends. You must always seperate business and friendship, they say. I couldn’t disagree more. This is a personal relationship business that we are all in. The most important thing we can do for the kids we work with is become their friend. Training should be their favorite thing in the world if you, as a coach, do your job properly.

Life as a teenager is a lot tougher than many of us choose to remember. Kids have enough stress in their lives on a regular basis that the last thing they need is more of it at the gym or at practice. Kids will not always tell their parents everything that is going on in their lives and they definitely will not always listen to their parents advice. But what they will do is tell things to and take advice from a positive older role model in their lives. And that, my friends, is a huge responsibility to shoulder.

Many times, younger or less experienced trainers will ask me for business advice. The first thing I tell them is that you have to genuinely care. I have learned several innovative ways to make money in this field over the last ten years but there is no more important tip I can share than that. You have to sincerely care about your clients and what is going on in their lives. If you simply see them as dollar signs, you will never be successful. You could be the greatest strength and conditioning coach in the world but without truly taking an interest in your clients and developing meaningful relationships with them, you will fail. An odd money making tip I give to aspiring performance coaches is to simply go watch their athletes play. This is something I had always done for years but never realized until recently exactly how many new clients and referrals I had gotten just by going to a Saturday morning game. The important thing was, that I never did it with those intentions in mind. If I did I might have dressed more professionally and had business cards and brochoures with me at every game. I only went to the games because I cared and I wanted to show my support for the kids that meant so much to me.

Along these lines, if I can offer one piece of strictly business advice to aspiring performance coaches it would be this: never take on a client you do not get along with and genuinely like as a person. Your first inclination will be to take on every client that comes your way but the repercussions of doing this can be disastrous. Strength and conditioning and personal training is and always will be a word of mouth business. If you are dealing with a client who you do not like and does not like you, ie. your personalities clash, how much word of mouth business do you think you will get from that client? How much can this person’s negativity hurt your business? It may seem like a good idea at first to take the money and deal with it, but in the end it is never worth it.

The years that a young athlete spends with you should be the time of their lives. As a coach or trainer, it should be yours as well. Have fun and don’t take things too seriously. Being great at improving speed and strength are one thing but changing some one’s life for the better is another. If, after working with an athlete for a year or two, you have made him significantly better on the field but have not positively influenced his life in any way, you have failed at your job. In fact, when some one comments on my ability to create a better athlete I am thankful and proud but the compliment has no deep meaning to it. Dropping some one’s forty time is not the equivalent of curing cancer or ending poverty. However, when I have an experience like I did one morning while moving out last week, I am deeply effected and I know what my real obligation to the kids I work with truly is.

The mother of one of my favorite high school athletes walked in and made a bee line across the gym towards me. With tears streaming down her face she thanked me for all I had done for her son (never once mentioning speed or strength or anything of that nature). She hugged me and made me promise that I would always continue to be a big brother and positive role model in her son’s life no matter where I went. To her and the many others who came to my gym over the last ten years I say… I will… I promise.

I think we all owe our young athletes that.

Lynyrd Skynyrd once asked, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” If you have done significantly more for your athletes than simply improve their strength and conditioning, the answer to that question should always be yes. As I prepare to leave the place I have worked for the last decade and move on to a new phase of my life I can only hope that I have fulfilled my responsibilities to all of my athletes and that their answers to that question would all be the same.