Professional Transitions: Expand Your OptionsThe mid-career lifter who is considering turning their passion into a profession can’t afford to take a wild leap into a piranhas’ pit of a market with employees, family, and others who count on them. If that’s you, feeling stuck between an impossible leap and an uninspiring livelihood, you’re not alone. Other creatives have had to solve the problem of earning a living while expressing their art.
Professional Transitions: Expand Your Options
By: CJ Gotcher
The stereotype of the later-career coach—straight out of an inspirational movie—is that of a bold, passionate leap of faith. This fictional hero, tired of a stuffy but secure office job, dreams of helping people. Seeing no other option but to follow his heart, he quits, leaving everything behind to lead a high school football team to victory. The dull mechanics of the transition are ignored, at best, or intentionally dismissed as part of the myth: “If you build it, they will come.”
Most of the time, the Gym of Dreams is a terrible idea. Even before the pandemic hit, an estimated fifty percent of gyms close within five years. Small studio gyms generally fare worse, with less than a quarter surviving the first year despite growing membership.
The mid-career lifter who is considering turning their passion into a profession can’t afford to take a wild leap into a piranhas’ pit of a market with employees, family, and others who count on them.
If that’s you, feeling stuck between an impossible leap and an uninspiring livelihood, you’re not alone. Other creatives have had to solve the problem of earning a living while expressing their art, and their solutions generally follow one of three routes outlined by Lewis Hyde in The Gift:
- Patronage—Find someone willing to cover your expenses to free you to pursue your gift.
- Self-Patronage—Cover the costs of practicing your passion with a second job.
- Sell—Sell your gift directly to the market.
Each one of these has its own costs and benefits, but with a few minor changes, they map well onto the professional options available to the prospective barbell coach:
Employment—This first option involves working as a coach for a salary or pay per hour with a regular schedule. This includes many CrossFit coaches, personal trainers, and group instructors, and may work for you.
The advantage of this approach is that, if the total pay is enough, you can devote your full attention to the coaching craft. Employee-coaches are mostly free of dealing with the hassles of owning the business and can focus on each client’s results.
On the other hand, the pay in this market is usually poor at the start. This is especially true when you factor in the “gray costs”—in time and money—of driving to and from the gym, arriving before your paid hour, and staying late for clean-up and chatting.
Also, depending on the local market, these spots can be highly competitive. The best gyms will carefully screen their coaches to deliver excellent service, so they may require you to pay upfront in earning credentials or completing unpaid internships.
The Self-Funding (Maybe) Hobby: For some prospective coaches, their day job is enough to meet their costs of living. For them, coaching starts in the off hours—weekends, before and after work, wherever it will fit. This option is low-risk, and because they’re not desperate to hustle, these coaches can take it slowly, starting with one or two clients and growing as they learn.
However, this means adding work on top of work. Coaches taking this route often need to place boundaries on their new side-hustle as they find themselves charging too little—or nothing—for a hobby that quickly grows large enough to cut into other time.
And, for those who want to eventually transition into coaching, there is often a hard stretch where keeping both jobs is unsustainable, but their coaching calendar isn’t full enough to meet their needs entirely. Cutting to part-time at the main job may help, but sometimes this approach is still taking a leap of faith, if a smaller one.
Just Do It: A coach can also take their first step into the industry by selling their services directly to the open market. This coach is in a tough spot. They need to learn their craft, develop their business model, and collect the testimonials, credentials, and experience needed to attract clients, all while under the pressure of earning a living.
The biggest challenge faced by this style of entrepreneur-coach is paying the bills. So business management, sales, marketing, and client communication tend to take center stage. It helps to have a basically-sound coach’s skillset or partner with someone who can manage the business half while you develop the craft. Otherwise, you risk becoming the stereotypical Instagram Coach, spending time, energy, and money getting people interested without the skills—or the available time and focus—to get results.
You’re essentially assembling the plane as it falls. Still, for some coaches who start early, have a fallback plan, or have no other apparent options, this trial-by-fire can make for the start of a great career.
You’re Not Stuck With One
None of these options may seem very appealing—certainly not as a long-term plan—and that’s fine because you don’t have to commit to one. Instead, you can follow the path of most transitioning coaches and pick and choose as they serve your needs.
This was my situation after seven years in the active duty Navy. I loved the service and the people I got to work with, but after years of patrolling, waiting, and supporting, I realized I could have a greater impact on people’s lives by helping friends, family, and coworkers get fitter and stronger.
Despite my passion, it wasn’t an easy choice. My wife had just earned her master’s degree but didn’t have a job yet. The Navy offered an enticing six-figure bonus for me to stay on for another six to seven years, and although I had earned a few coaching certifications, I still didn’t have a client base or feel skilled enough to strike out on my own.
What I didn’t do was jump out of the career airplane without a parachute, putting my family at risk. First, I bought myself time: I signed with the Reserves, and my wife and I calculated we could manage for at least four months. That was the leap: if the timer ran out and we didn’t have work, I’d pull the emergency cord and volunteer for a deployment that would pay at the short term cost of my coaching dreams.
During that window, I both sold to market—hosting form check sessions—and looked hard for work at local CrossFit studios and iron gyms. Despite the upfront costs of getting certified and interning, just before the timer hit, my wife found good work, and I got a spot as an entry-level CrossFit coach covering 20+ hours a week at a gym with awesome clients, good leadership, and a strength focus.
The next four years were a constant shift and blend of the different approaches: taking on personal training clients, shifting roles within CrossFit 760 from coach to manager to substitute, and working with Barbell Logic, all to different degrees based on what worked best.
My path wasn’t perfect. Staying in the Reserves locked me in for three years and cost prime coaching and learning time on weekends. I fumbled through my first new client onboardings, overcommitted myself into many 70+ hour weeks, and spent most of the time pretty confident that whatever the perfect strategy was, mine wasn’t it.
But it worked. I was able to transition from a secure career into my passion and do so in a way that met our family’s needs. And now, with most of my work online through BLOC and the Coaching Academy, I can do what I love from home, giving me the freedom to spend more time with our first child—my son Dylan.
I can’t say which path is right for you or even if you should become a coach full-time. But if coaching is your passion, and you’re ready to make the switch, know that you don’t have to take a blind leap of faith. There are other options and a community of coaches who have navigated that path before who are willing to help.