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UK Coaching Team
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Self-care and development Fitness

Essential Qualities for a Successful Career as a Fitness Coach

Gym owner and athlete performance coach Mel Young provides some valuable career insights as she charts each stage of her coaching journey. She explains to UK Coaching’s Blake Richardson how coaches can create golden career opportunities from confronting common challenges and identifies the skills and personal attributes that have been key to helping her thrive in the fitness industry. They include adaptability, growth mindset, understanding the importance of community and connection, and the magic that can happen when you step out of your comfort zone

The 20-year career of fitness coach Mel Young has contained as many twists and turns and ups and downs as the proverbial rollercoaster. And like any fun fairground ride, the coaching experience itself never fails to leave her exhilarated, and with a big smile on her face.

She has learned as many things about herself as she has coaching during her two decades in the industry, but says the two phrases she finds herself repeating most often are: “There is always a way” and “we adapt and conquer”.

Her positive mindset and ability to adjust to change and new situations, allied to her passion, invention, and resilience, is the essence of her success.

For whenever the odds have been stacked against her, Mel seems to find a way to turn a position of weakness into one of advantage – even during lockdown, when she admits: “My world turned upside down. I literally thought I was going to lose everything I had worked so hard for.”

This adeptness at turning negative situations into positive ones has nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with channelling her courage, curiosity, and connections into a positive energy force, so that opportunities suddenly materialise for her – often when she least expects them.

From little acorns do oak trees grow

The proud owner and founder of Amazon24 Fitness and Athlete Performance Centre in Rainham, Kent, Mel reveals how she added each string to her coaching bow – personal trainer, fitness manager, group exercise instructor, strength and conditioning coach, and athlete performance coach – pausing to share her wisdom from each chapter of her journey.

She caught the coaching bug whilst working at her local leisure centre and likens her first role to chief chef and bottle washer, having filled numerous positions, from reception work, to helping out at Kids’ Clubs, and everything in between. “Basically, anything that needed doing”.

After demonstrating her all-round abilities and enthusiasm, the manager sent her on a fitness instructing course after a colleague dropped out. She has never looked back.

With just several months’ experience under her belt, Mel was keen to swap town life for the big city and applied for an entry-level job at Soho Gyms Camden. To say she grasped the nettle is an understatement. She walked out of the interview with the Fitness Manager’s job!

Now part of the PureGym chain, getting hired was not pure luck.

You never know what can be achieved if you put yourself in the shop window,” says Mel.

“It helped that I’d done a lot of travelling, and a lot of worldly people came into that club in London.

“I said to the CEO: ‘You know I’ve only got three months’ experience?’ He said, ‘I know, but you’ve travelled. I can teach you the rest’.”

The months passed, the fitness qualifications were passed, and knowledge was passed on. But it was a two-way exchange, with Mel saying she learnt a great deal from working with such a diverse group of people, who hailed from every corner of the world.

If vibrant ethnic and cultural diversity are the keys to a creative, vibrant community, then, as Mel discovered, they are also a valuable source of coach learning and development.

For example, when she made the decision to branch out into performance coaching, she didn’t have to go far. The opportunities beat a path to her door.

“I remember training a South African who was a Brazilian street fighter – a sport that I had never even heard of. I did some research, worked with him and that training with a purpose really ignited my desire to get more into the performance side.”

As Mel continues to recount the early part of her career, the character traits that served her so well spill out one after another.

I ask her what her advice would be to other coaches about demonstrating adaptability, an eagerness to learn something new every day, and the importance of stepping outside of your comfort zone.

“Just grab any opportunities that come your way. Don’t say no just because you haven’t done it before.

One of the fundamental elements of coaching is that you learn something new every day, no matter how small or great it is. It’s what makes our industry so exciting.

“My advice would be to apply yourself to the environment you are in, and if it’s something new, be prepared to learn and learn from others. You have to be open to different ideas and different opportunities.

Fitness coaching is such an adaptive industry anyway. It evolves all the time. You can’t go in thinking you don’t know anything, and you can’t go in thinking you know everything.”

When Mel’s now husband was posted to Norfolk with the RAF, she brought the curtain down on her London calling and moved to Norwich, while becoming a fitness manager for Bannatyne’s in Lowestoft.

“It was a huge culture shock to move from Camden to working in a quiet fishing town.

“I had to adapt again, but in the back of my mind was always that wish to one day own my own gym.”

Fate intervened when she was headhunted by Lowestoft College to develop their Level 3 Diploma in Sports Coaching, Gym Instructing and Personal Training, which led to her becoming a full-time lecturer.

Then in 2013 things moved full circle and Mel moved back to Kent, with the goal of “finally getting my own brand and my own place”.

After coming up with the brand name Amazon24 Fitness, she found opportunity in the unlikeliest of places.

“My son joined a local football club, and the owner of that club bought a small village hall to create an indoor space for the children to play football. He laid Astroturf down on the hall floor and put some netting around and transformed it into a cool five-a-side pitch for the kids. There was a room out the back and I asked if I could rent it.”

 

It is worth stressing at this point that the effectiveness of those qualities needed to be a successful fitness coach are multiplied when they are cemented together by good old fashioned hard work.

Mel has worked at the coalface her entire career and has diligence and dedication in spades. Even when she was working full-time as a lecturer, she was running exercise classes in her spare time “to keep my hand in”.

So, when opportunity knocked and she started her own business, Mel was already prepped and primed for some hard graft to build up her client base.

I got a part-time job at MidKent College in Gillingham, which I guess was my security blanket whilst I built up my own little empire.

“I did some classes at local clubs, which gave me the opportunity to get my face known in the local area, and I picked up a few PT clients by going to their homes or to the local parks.

“Some of the girls really wanted to do some strength training but didn’t want to go to the gym, so I started a ladies’ only strength programme.

“My client list grew, mainly through word-of-mouth referrals, so I expanded by taking over the other room at the end of the hall.”

In 2016, she was able to go fully self-employed and left her job at the college.

Still keen to diversify into performance coaching, Mel gained her Level 4 Strength and Conditioning qualification, and then, mindful that building strong professional connections is one of the most valuable career skills fitness professionals can possess, capitalised on having formed a positive relationship with GB Judo team member Nina Solley – who she had worked with at MidKent College.

I offered her some free S&C sessions. She stayed with me for two years, and she’s still in the GB squad now.”

As the saying goes, you have to speculate to accumulate.

Mel believes networking is instrumental for professional growth: going out into the coaching community and connecting with like-minded people.

Simply ‘putting yourself out there’ can result in a goldmine of opportunities, as Mel found out when she struck gold through chatting to the Programme Development Manager for British Cycling’s para-cycling squad at a coaching course.

“He reached out to me a few weeks later and told me about a young person near me, Matthew Robertson, who was on the pathway.

I’d never worked with a para-athlete before, and it blew my mind! It was amazing. Matthew has Hemiplegia [a type of cerebral palsy that affects one side of the body] and the work we did together was so creative. There were no benchmarks, we had to make our own. He was with me for two years, and he’s now in the GB squad. That is one of my proudest successes.”

Mel studied while working at the college and building her own business and graduated with an MSc in Strength & Conditioning.

It proved to be a springboard, with Mel getting a job at Volleyball England. She is currently the strength & conditioning coach for the Great Britain men’s sitting volleyball team.

In March 2020, the rollercoaster took a turn for the worse. Things suddenly spiralled downwards, and Mel feared the wheels would come off and she would “lose everything”.

You’ve guessed it… Covid struck, and the future of the entire fitness industry was thrown into chaos and uncertainty, threatening livelihoods and forcing coaches to quickly reinvent themselves by moving their business online to survive.

“I’d just left the village hall and relocated to the leisure centre where I first started out as a fitness coach. I leased out an area and the plan was to form a connection with the University of Kent, which was right next door, and build a happy and healthy community.

I got a text from a mate who said, ‘have you seen the news. They’re going to shut gyms.’ I said, ‘When?’. ‘In about three hours!’.

It was a fight or flight moment, especially to those fitness instructors who had never done any online work. I’d never even heard of Zoom!”

True to her positive and proactive nature, Mel chose ‘fight’. But she wasn’t just fighting for herself; she felt an unselfish obligation to support others in her community.

From the feedback she received, Mel has good reason to believe the Facebook Lives and online Zoom sessions she hosted during the national lockdowns helped to boost people’s physical, social, emotional, and psychological well-being. She knows for certain that the generosity, solidarity, and sense of community the sessions generated helped to reinforce her own psychological resilience and lift her mood during these difficult times. “We helped each other,” she says.

As the heartbeat of our local communities, coaches are catalysts for positive change, and were key to helping our nation recover from the disruptive effects of Covid-19.

As Mel explains: “I taught out of the garden and in my kitchen at first and by the end of the first lockdown had completely renovated my garage into a studio.

“I started working for Her Spirit after a contact of a contact had reached out – delivering some strength sessions online – and built up a library of online classes.

It wasn’t just that I thought I might lose everything, I had a real angst of not wanting others to lose out on what they had as well… on what they were getting with me. There were all these lovely friendships that were formed.

"It was important for me to be able to give back and make sure they could stay in contact with each other and continue deriving all the health benefits of engaging in regular exercise.

“We had a real laugh with it on Zoom. And for some, who lived on their own, it was their only real social interaction. We’d sit there for ten minutes after the session so if anybody just wanted to chat, they could socialise.

“One of my main sayings through Covid lockdowns was ‘we adapt and conquer’.”

Then, smack, bang in the middle of the pandemic, Mel was delivered a further body blow, when her gym was served with an eviction notice.

“That was a horrible process. Mentally it took me to quite a dark place. I didn’t see a way out of it.

“I thought, ‘what am I going to do now?’ I did start to question – like I’m sure many other fitness professionals did – whether this career was right for me. The answer was ‘yes’.”

Mel reflects on that time of adversity through a positive lens, as it taught her to treat trials and tribulations as something to be overcome and solved, not accepted.

I genuinely believe there is always a way. You don’t have to discontinue what you like doing just because the environment has changed.”

Having cultivated a growth mindset throughout her career – where you believe in your capacity to learn and develop your abilities – Mel was able to influence positive change, even admitting, “it was probably a good thing, looking back now.

“It forced me to take the next step, which was to find something that was completely my own and make it into exactly what I wanted, with my rules and bringing in people that I know really wanted it and needed it.

“It gave me the push to take that massive financial and emotional risk to keep everyone together. So, I went hunting for a new place all my own, and I’m in it now.”

A happy ending to this chapter of her story, and further grist to the mill for those coaches who embrace the ‘adapt to thrive’ philosophy.

Coaching is all about people. To help people achieve their needs, wants and dreams, coaches must focus on the ‘why’ to guide the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. This requires coaches to build quality relationships built on understanding, trust, and respect.

A coach must therefore possess outstanding soft skills – and know exactly how to harness them.

“I think if you’re going to be a coach, you’ve got to be good with people and it is probably embedded in you,” says Mel.

There is always room to develop them, but a really good coach will already have those soft skills: the ability to adapt to people, to care and show compassion, to maintain an energy and get on with lots of different personalities, whilst respecting boundaries, and to take away your own personal views and attachments and be a service to them.”

Mel knew that her people principles and behaviours were conducive to forming strong and loyal coach-athlete relationships the moment Covid rules were relaxed, and she reopened the doors of her gym. The connections, continuity, and goodwill she fostered resulted in people “chewing my arm off” to join.

“People who don’t particularly want to go to the big corporate gyms or those big spaces, they come here and still get the training, but also the togetherness and the social connectivity. And that is my main aim: to create that community.

“It might be a slow-grow in terms of members, but I want to look after the people I’ve got so the retention stays high. Whether they come for group fitness, PT, S&C, for the ladies-only strength programmes, Para-lifting, powerlifting, I am on first-name terms with every person, know what they do and which town or area they live. Everyone gets the personal touch, and I’m proud of that.”

I thank Mel for giving UK Coaching readers a valuable insight into her life as a successful fitness coach, and when I finish summarising the myriad takeaways from our conversation, she caveats it with a nugget of advice reminding coaches that the price of success is hard work and perseverance:

YOU are the decision-maker. At the end of the day, it’s up to you how hard you work at it and how much you want it. You have got to dig deep, have a dream, and go for it, because no-one else is going to do it for you.”

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