Give Yourself Permission to Coach
In most of the world, there is no licensing board for personal trainers and coaches.
For a few specialties and brands, you need a credential to market yourself as one of their coaches, but no one can legally stop you — or grant you officially approval — to sell your services.
For many people, this is terrifying, and they go out of their way to find approval, jumping from one certification to another.
But even if you collect a pile of letters behind your name, you still have to get into the gym and coach. You have to find clients, get results, solve problems, talk about your skills, teach, and add value to people’s lives. Along the way, you’ll take stands, disagree, meet resistance, fail, lose clients, be wrong, and when critics challenge you, there’s no court with the final authority to say you’re right.
And that’s unnerving. We were raised in institutions that taught us ‘winning’ meant advancing by stages according to published standards. Success in that system meant carefully identifying what the gatekeepers really wanted and giving it to them wrapped in a bow.
I was pretty good at that game. After 13 years of being a ‘good student,’ I spent four years at the US Naval Academy, meeting strict formal and social standards for acceptability. As a midshipman, I always knew how I should look, where I was supposed to be, and what to do when I got there, and for the most part, I did just that. My five years of shipboard service were more of the same. I received far less guidance and made more decisions, but I still spent most of my time following Navy Instructions, satisfying inspection teams, and not being wrong.
It wasn’t until I became a support staff at a SEAL Team, then a coach myself, that I started to learn what it meant to give myself permission.
Pick your duty daily.
As a child, in school, in the armed forces, my role was to comply in service to a higher cause — survival, preparing for adult life, and defending the nation.
Buying into that higher cause gave my work meaning and became an anchor for motivation and discipline. But like an anchor poorly placed, it also became a trap when I desperately needed to move on or find a more creative solution.
For the last few years, I’ve still been in service but to a mission I choose. I coach and pursue personal development in service of a higher cause — freeing people’s creative and productive energy to become brighter lights in a dark world.
I’m still inspired to do the sometimes-menial tasks by a sense of duty, but I also know that if my tactics aren’t working, I give myself permission to change them to something that works better.
Everyone’s a gatekeeper.
The biggest mistake I made as a new coach, and which I see often, is looking for the one gatekeeper. I tried to find which guru, community, or doctrine had the right answer for the next stage of my career when I hadn’t yet done the work of deciding what ‘next’ should look like in the first place.
For a coach, there is no single teacher to please. Everyone is a gatekeeper of their attention, time, and money, and the key to that gate is trust.
Even when I worked at a CrossFit gym and had to meet the standards and expectations of the owners, what mattered most was earning the trust and respect of the lifters I served by getting results and listening to their needs. I treat every client, community, coach, and mentor as the sole owner of their time, and earn the chance to continue the relationship.
My first real lesson in taking professional ownership came during my first year of coaching at a CrossFit gym. I pointed out that many clients expressed an interest in a strength-focused class on the weekend, and our head coach put it simply:
“Sounds great! If you want it, you’ve got it.”
Immediately, my brain started processing the questions I’d have to answer: what should the class look like? How should I put out the word? Should there be an extra fee? Should we make T-shirts?!
No one had the answer, and even asking was a complicated proposition. It meant constantly experimenting, trying things, most of them missing the mark, a few getting great results. Learn, rinse, repeat.
Creativity is risky. Relying on someone else’s method, their processes, their words, may get results, and it feels safer. After all, if it doesn’t work, you weren’t wrong, the process was.
But it also means taking a more subtle risk — mortgaging your internal permission to someone else’s approval — and that’s not a risk worth taking.
Renew your license every day
Some people seem to be natural risk-takers, creatives, and entrepreneurs. They revel in the risk and the opportunity to start new projects they can point to and say, “I did that.”
That’s not me. And judging by the conversations I have with coaches of all experience levels, the odds are that’s not you.
But regardless of our tendencies, whether they’re ‘natural’ or the result of years of practice, coaching isn’t routine. It can’t be systematized and coded into procedures that will work every time.
Coaching means building relationships, collaborating on goals, and testing new ideas, and none of that comes pre-approved. We have to give ourselves permission every day to play, to be wrong, to innovate.
Until we do, we’re not coaches. Once we do, we can change lives.
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