A Career as a Performance Trainer
  • A Career as a Performance Trainer
    This career series article focuses on the profession of a performance trainer. It highlights the environment, the different cliental, and ways to succeed as a performance trainer.
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    The performance trainer is an evolution of certified National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) professionals that have a passion for sports performance training and training athletes while working in a business or organization not related to a collegiate or professional sports program. This has inspired many professionals to design their business and programs around training general fitness clients with modified performance training philosophies and methods to improve athleticism, overall wellness, and target long-term fitness goals appropriately.
    The idea that “everyone is an athlete” brings the passion and goal-oriented mentality of training athletes to the fitness training experience whether your clients are truly targeting sports performance or striving for a higher level of fitness. 
    This requires the performance trainer to be well versed in both strength and conditioning as well as personal training methodology and skills. By recognizing what the leaders in performance training do to develop their careers, we can create the steps needed to gain the knowledge, skills, and attributes of a successful performance trainer. 

    Performance Training Environment
    Immediately when you walk into a facility that is designed specifically for the performance trainer you know that you are ready to experience something usually privy to the sports domain. What began as an innovative shift in focus for facility design in the early 1990s has only become more prevalent with facilities that emerged into the training market such as Parisi Speed School, Athlete’s Performance, Velocity, etc., and have grown to many more independently owned and franchised facilities around the country. 

    As you walk into many of these facilities, you see multiple training surfaces such as track, field turf, indoor sport court, and multipurpose plyometric flooring. This gives the performance trainer the ability to cross-train with an athlete’s sport-specific needs for development in mind. Part of the daily philosophy is the integration of training philosophies specific for training attributes such as speed, agility, power, functional strength, conditioning, and resistance to injury that is evident by the multipurpose open space and versatile equipment that make up the core offering for this type of training environment. As part of the formula for success, many of these facilities integrate the traditional foundations in strength and conditioning that research has proven to be successful in the development of strength and power for performance enhancement.

    Several of these facilities create partnerships with sports medicine professionals in order to provide a complete performance training loop which combines the efforts of professionals each within their scopes of practice to offer the most direct and successful path to return to play or activity after an injury. As part of this performance focused environment, services may include performance nutrition and nutrition education that is lead by a registered dietician to address the individual needs of athletes and clients to improve adaptation, recovery, and overall health. This approach to creating training environments enriches the athlete’s or client’s experience and creates an opportunity for a longer, more successful sports career or focused fitness lifestyle.

    In the fitness industry, the performance trainer may also be part of a larger fitness training facility such as the so called “big box gyms” that gives them a unique opportunity. Many of these membership-driven facilities offer exposure to large numbers of potential clients or groups. As a performance trainer, you offer specific services that enhance the overall offering of the training team. Many large fitness chains have restructured the training floor layout, design, and equipment to allow the performance trainer to be successful; therefore, adding to the service offering and needs that exist in these facilities focused on local community support. This is also evident in group training and small group training that contain the programming attributes of performance training while successfully providing expanded options and excitement in these environments.

    Performance Trainer for the Athlete
    The first priority of a performance trainer who is working with athletes is to implement a comprehensive, purpose-driven, and ethically supported performance enhancing training experience for all ages and levels. Many of these athletes are seeking a performance trainer to provide a competitive edge. Targeting sport-specific goals has taken on many facets within an athlete’s world for advancing their careers in sport and pursuing the journey to be their best. Being recruited by a select level sports league, making the varsity team in high school, being scouted for college scholarships, and making it to the professional sports level are high priority goals and serve as motivation for some of the athletes seeking the services of a performance trainer. 
    For this reason, the performance trainer increases the opportunity for success by being proficient at needs analysis and profiling as well as being prepared to implement sport-specific programming. For today’s fitness professional, this entails having a purpose-driven approach that includes, but is not limited to, knowledge and skills such as functional movement screens, physical capacity testing, progressive program planning, multiple disciplines of practical training applications, performance nutrition guidance, and monitoring recovery. Combining these training methods into a well-rounded training approach allows the athlete to increase their adaptability to higher levels of physical training as well as advance sport-specific development in skills training.


    Next, the priority for the performance trainer becomes creating durability and longevity within the sports career of the athlete. When an athlete reaches a pinnacle benchmark based on the level of opportunities given within their particular sport, the focus becomes maintaining their level of performance and resisting injury that could affect or shorten their sports career. The performance trainer must use tools and strategies to maintain a consistent flow of feedback and communication. This is where consistent operating procedures and methods will allow you have systems in place that rescreen, retest, collect feedback on sports performance, and make you aware of recovery concerns. Using this valuable information to make appropriate adjustments in your training applications will create confidence with your athletes and offer the best opportunity for long-term success based on their goals and sport.

    Performance Trainer for General Fitness Clients
    The attributes of athletes appeal to many clients of the general fitness population who have been athletes in the past, who are seeking a new training challenge, or who possibly want to gain a competitive edge in all areas of life. Examples of the athletic mindset applied to fitness clients:
    • Pushing past the point of uncertainty and doubt of what we can achieve mentally and physically
    • Training when your body and mind are tired by tapping into a deeper motivation and commitment
    • Setting goals that challenge in ways not imagined and battle the fear of failure
    • Dealing with the obstacles of daily living and maintaining a consistent training schedule to achieve results
    • Willingness to be coached and fully engage in the training program

    It is with these attributes that the performance trainer can wake up the inner athlete within their fitness clients to increase the interest and commitment level. Even if the client does not play any particular sport, they approach their own fitness goals with increased focus and attention. 
    For this type of client, fitness training becomes their sport.For a performance trainer who is training fitness athletes, it is important to apply the training applications with the ability to modify and progress appropriately. This requires tools and strategies to maintain open communication and feedback. This awareness is very valuable in ensuring the performance trainer is able to apply proper progression, increase opportunities for client education, and evaluate the success of the program regularly for needed modification or changes.

    The challenge of training “like an athlete” will many times ignite a fitness community within your training environment that creates a social connection, encourages taking on new fitness challenges, motivates to enter recreational sporting events, and increases opportunities for creating training groups and fitness teams to prepare for local competitions or events. For the performance trainer all of these have a positive impact on client motivation, retention, and overall success in personal training and small group training.

    Performance Trainer for Youth Athletic Development
    In the fitness industry today, many factors lead young athletes and their parents to seek out a performance trainer’s services. Some of these factors are the lack of time dedicated to physical education programs in today’s schools, sport-specific aspirations, identified deficiencies in performance compared to peers, or an attempt to get an early competitive edge for long-term athletic goals. This is a great opportunity for the performance trainer to educate and train young athletes with a safe, comprehensive program to prepare young athletes for success and hopefully a long-term career in sports and active lifestyles. 


    With the right education on youth training, understanding of long-term athletic development, positive coaching techniques, and attention to detail for progression, the performance trainer can create a pathway to long-term success for the youth athlete. This will be accomplished by building a broad foundation for athleticism and guide them to specialization for sport-specific training when it is developmentally appropriate. This is not about training them like adult athletes. Rather, this is using sports science to gain the knowledge and ability to identify the athlete’s developmental stages, understand how gender differences play a role during development, and focus on training applications appropriate for the individual athlete.

    Building fundamental skills and creating a positive, fun environment that encourages participation is at the core of training young athletes. It has been reported that as high as 70% of youth drop out of sports before the age of 13. 
    Supporting a young developing athlete as well as educating the parents is a very rewarding role for the performance trainer and increases the opportunities for the young athlete’s future and long-term sports career.Building Success Through Education and Professional Development
    Whether you are pursuing your first career, changing careers, or shifting emphasis as a current certified professional, a career as a performance trainer is built on a progressive educational foundation and dedication to professional development. As a performance trainer you identify your passion for working with sports and fitness athletes and then carry out the mission to make the athlete’s experience better, regardless of age or level of performance. To prepare for success as a performance trainer, the table on page 12 outlines some of the professional components suggested.

    The performance trainer is unique in that there exists a need to build their educational foundation and proficiencies in both strength and conditioning, as well as in personal training. This author recommends becoming certified with both the NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer® (NSCA-CPT®) and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) certifications. Next, seek out internship and mentorship opportunities that provide hands-on learning experiences and begin developing professional relationships and resources. There are many programs offered for the newly emerging performance trainer as well as mentorships to support professional growth throughout your career. It is important in today’s competitive professional environment that you create a strong foundation and gain the professional competitive edge.

    Often overlooked is the importance of making the commitment to attend live conferences and educational events due to a busy work schedule. The rate of return on investment in your education, building professional networks for future career opportunities, and staying current in the industry far outweighs the cost of the time and money spent. That is why it is recommended to budget 10% of the revenue made on education, professional development, and business development skills. 

    As a performance trainer, complete an honest evaluation of knowledge, skills, and abilities (ask a mentor or seasoned professional for assistance) to identify areas for improvement. Then create a continuing education plan to have a direct and positive impact on your career. That is truly the mark of a professional with a long-term vision and career in mind. Consistent, open, and deliberate lines of communication between ownership, management, the performance trainer, and customers plant the seeds for support, validation, and encouragement for this type of ongoing career development.

    At the heart of the performance trainer’s career is the ability to work with athletes and fitness enthusiasts that are obsessed with being their best. In addition, the performance trainer not only understands the impact that performance training delivers but also dedicates their training career to making this possible. Through their own pursuit to be their best, the performance trainer has unlimited opportunities and resources to develop a long, successful career. With a clear plan, professional networking, and the support of organizations like the NSCA, the professional career of a performance trainer proves to be profitable and rewarding.
  • Diane Vives

    About the Author:

    Diane Vives, MS, CSCS,*D

    Diane Vives is Owner and Director of Vives Training Systems and Fit4Austin in Austin, TX. She is an internationally recognized presenter who focuses on providing integration strategies based on science and experience. Currently she contributes to the Functional Movement Systems team and serves on the Under Armour Performance Training Council. She has served on the Board of Directors for the National Strengthand Conditioning Association. She currently serves as a mentor and educator on her website dianevives.com and authored the SMARTsets DVD series and Training the Female Athlete DVD and ebook series.

  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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