Aren’t Working With Pro Athletes? That’s Totally Fine… Really

“But I want to work with elite athletes!”

I hear that cry in some form from my students or via social media, newsletter, etc several times a month.

The sad reality is that most never will and probably should not attempt it. Hang in there as I convince you with five of my reasons why.

For the record, I am not against trainers and others professions working with elite athletes. Far from it. I find the study of human physiology at the extremes to be utterly fascinating. It is an understatement to say I am obsessed by it.

I’ve dedicated the past two decades to it including 18 years of college full time and even named my business after it (Extreme Human Performance, LLC). I’ve worked with athletes who ran in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, NHL pros, special forces athletes, mid-level CrossFit athletes and more. While that is the case, the percentage of elite people I work with is very very small.

And before you go bonkers on my glute max and yell at me for pissing on your leg while I tell you it is raining…. relax. Here are five reasons why it wont’ be you, and that is a GOOD thing.

#1 The Odds Are Against You

As I mentioned above, the number of elite athletes out there vs. everyone else is very skewed.

The fact is, there are just not that many walking around. Add in that many work in a team setting where they already have access to trainers, physical therapists, nutritionists, etc. and that number starts to dwindle faster than Trumps advisors.

The odds are stacked against you.

#2 You Don’t Have The Experience Or Career Capital

Sorry to burst your bubble to anyone reading this from their mom’s basement as they celebrate their 4,000th post to fitness-training forum R US where they are a local celebrity at the ripe old age of 19.

Reality check – you are not ready to coach elite athletes. I am not trying to be a huge dick, I am just stating the truth.

Plus, do you really think an elite athlete that has more money than time and does their sport for a career is going to NOT do their homework or at minimum get a referral? You are talking about their lively-hood. Most elite athletes I’ve worked with take it very seriously (and yes, there are the exceptional freaks as well).

You need to know your stuff and demonstrate results. Period. And that means time and experience…  years of it.

#3 Very Few Gyms Only Train Elite Athletes

Ask any gym who “appears to only train elite athletes” what percentage of their members are elite athletes and the numbers are still small.

And these are the locations that are doing more elite training than anyone else. There are a few places, and all of them did not start out training 100% of elite athletes only. Don’t take my word for it, ask around.

I contacted my buddy Pete Dupuis who is the business dude behind Cressey Sports Performance which is THE go to place for training to be a major league baseball player. They train many MLB players and have been for years now. Here is what Pete said:

“While we position our business as a place where you can ‘train where the pros train,’ the reality is that less than 10% of CSP Boston’s revenues in 2016 were the product of clients who were professionally affiliated at the time.”*

*Approximately 30% of CSP Florida’s revenues in 2016 were via professionally affiliated clientele

That number will probably shock you, and frankly it was lower than I thought.

The above is not a dig at any facility that trains elite athletes at all… Just a shot of reality in world of warped appearances on social media.

#4 Many Elite Athletes Don’t Pay

This one varies a ton from one sport to the next; however, there are many sports where being a top-level athlete = free stuff.

That free stuff can include training advice, programs, etc. I see this much more in individual sports than team sports. I’ve personally been contacted more than a few times to coach X athlete, and when I told them my price, they were insulted.

The assumption was that I was going to do it for free, so 95% of the time I turn it down. Not because I am some money hungry bastards trying to pick up Benjamins off their coat-tails, but because money = commitment.

No Money = Little Commitment

It is a very very rare individual that can be fully committed without any skin in the game.

#5 The Public Needs You More

There is a perception that training advanced athletes is harder than the average Joe or Jane that walks into most gyms.

That myth needs to die.

Analogy- Imagine I gave you access to a brand new 750 horsepower, 6.2 liter, Corvette ZR1. After you get done thanking me profusely for my kind gesture, you get 60 minutes to drive it around the track at Le Mans to post the shortest lap time.

Then, I give you a 4 cylinder Honda Civic. Repeat the same task.

Which one will yield a shorter time? I am betting on the Corvette.

Let’s say I repeat the above experiment and allow a professional driver to take the Honda for a spin.   I can guarantee you he will beat your time.

Why? Skillz, bro.

Training elite humans is more akin to driving a Corvette. You ask them to do a movement, and most times they are going to be pretty darn good at it.   Ask the average large mammal at Planet Fitness to squat. Once you clean the battery acid out of your eyes that you tossed in to save your last 4 neurons from Hebb’s Law right before they got to 10 inches above parallel and their knees kissed each other, you have some work to do.

By their nature of spending thousands of hours training, experience and winning the genetic lottery, athletes are relatively easy to train.

Yes, yes, I do agree that the risk is different. If you screw up an athlete that makes several million dollars a year, it’s been nice knowing you. More than one friend in coaching has told me the story of where they were in charge of “so and so” pro athlete, and then flat out that is she/he gets hurt, they are done.

There is a much higher risk to both your bank account and life to driving a Corvette fast than a Honda.

To me, training the average person in the gym to do a nice looking squat is a work of art. THAT is hard to do. And should be applauded from the highest fitness mountains. That takes some ultra-ninja skillz.

Make An Impact For The Greater Good, Not Your Ego’s Good

While training elite athletes takes skills, to me it takes more skill to train the average person wanting to move better without pain than the Lebron James’ of the world. But yes, I realize it’s amazing to say that you’ve worked with “professional athletes” before as it is the superficial epitome of high level coaching to onlookers.

But hey, step back for a second and follow this advice. It will put you in touch with many many more people that desperately need your advanced skills. Instead of following around a genetic lottery winner, training general population should be lauded as the pinnacle of fitness training.

If your career is measured in the amount of greater good you can serve your clients with, your impact will become widespread in the general fitness population. And heck, maybe you’ll even be able to train a few elite athletes along the way as well.


About The Author

mike t nelson

Dr. Mike T. Nelson CSCS has spent 20 years of his life learning how the human body works, specifically focusing on how to properly condition it to burn fat and become stronger, more flexible, and healthier.  He has a PhD in Exercise Physiology, and a MS in Mechanical Engineering (biomechanics).  He’s a faculty member for the Carrick Institute of Functional Neurology and has published research in both physiology and engineering journals.  He’s even been called in to share his techniques with top military agencies.  His main research interests are human performance, heart rate variability, and metabolic flexibility.  In his free time he enjoys spending time with his wife, lifting odd objects, and kiteboarding. Find out more at www.miketnelson.com