Growing up, I played a lot of sports. I also loved coaching my friends. People would tell me I should become a physical education teacher, but it wasn’t until the end of high school that I started to explore a career in fitness.
That’s when I discovered strength and conditioning coaching. The idea that I could train movement and strength professionally really took hold.
After I graduated high school, I attended the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence. At the time, it was one of a kind — a small Canadian sports institute that partnered with a college to create a variety of programs for athletic trainers and physical therapists. I earned an associate degree there, and, as part of my coursework, I was also required to complete an internship. I decided I wanted to go big.
My goal: an internship program at EXOS in Arizona. And that meant moving to a new country — talk about intimidating. I landed the internship, and it didn’t get any less intimidating once I arrived.
One of my mentors, Dennis Logan, sat us down and painted a picture of what we were getting into. He wanted to weed out anyone who wasn’t taking it seriously. While I knew I was there for the right reasons, I was afraid I would get tossed in the first couple of weeks because I wasn’t smart enough. The other interns were finishing four-year undergraduate programs; some of them were even working on their master’s degrees. I was enthusiastic but green compared to them.
While I knew I was there for the right reasons, I was afraid I would get tossed in the first couple of weeks because I wasn’t smart enough.
Six weeks into the program, opportunity knocked. One of the coaches pulled me aside. He said, “Hey, I’ve got this baseball player. He has an injured knee. I’d like you to take him through five minutes of med ball exercises in a chair.” I remember thinking, “I know one med ball exercise.” But I asked the coach to show me a few more. Even though I didn’t feel ready, the coach saw it differently.
I started taking the player through that med ball series several times a week. Eventually, his buddy and a long-time EXOS client, Gold Glover Andre Ethier came to rehab an ankle injury with me. I started taking him through the same med ball series for five minutes every day. That turned into 15 minutes of movement prep, which turned into 30-minute sessions.
And because I was able to build a good relationship with him in the process, when he built a gym at his house, he asked me to train him there after I finished my internship. That’s when I learned coaching isn’t just about sets and reps; it’s part of something bigger. Eight years and hundreds of elite athletes later, it holds true. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Treat people well.
It’s easy to become hung up on anatomy facts as the measure of your ability, but it’s authenticity and true compassion that will take you places. During my internship, I didn’t really have all the book smarts yet. I had to work hard, listen, and try to be a good team player. While I’ve learned a lot about the human body since then, my career has been defined by connecting with clients and building relationships, knowing that every client has unique strengths and struggles.
2. Accept new challenges.
When your routine is challenged, embrace it. Just recently, I was working with an NBA player who really tested me. He loved basketball but didn’t love weights, so we weren’t accomplishing what I wanted to in his sessions. Ultimately, I had to change my mindset. While we may have only been able to get through half of the movements that I wanted to, it was more important to get him through half the session with a positive attitude than to force him through the whole series with a negative attitude. That was a huge learning experience, and a reminder that you have to be flexible.
I learned coaching isn’t just about sets and reps; it’s part of something bigger.
3. Don’t act like a know-it-all.
No matter where you’re at in your career, there’s always more to learn. Embrace the fact that you don’t know it all and take every opportunity to learn, whether you’re an intern nervous about med ball exercises or a veteran coach adapting to an unenthusiastic athlete.
4. Take risks.
At our EXOS continuous improvement retreat just a few months ago, our president Mark Verstegen said, “If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll be late.” And in many ways, that’s really driven my entire coaching career, one where I started as an underdog. Of course we’re fearful of things we haven’t done before and it’s hard to admit when you don’t know something, but the expectation isn’t perfection. It’s just to give it your best effort and keep learning.
About the AuthorMore Content by Jonathan Barlow