While I spend a large proportion of time advising organizations, teams, and individuals on decisions around performance training and return to sports, I periodically receive requests for consultations on other topics. Although I have never been formally trained in human resources, professional development, or career planning, it is not uncommon for individuals to schedule a consult with me on how to guide their careers in sports, fitness, and/or rehabilitation medicine. In the last two months, however, I have received more requests regarding career advice than in the previous five years.
The list of clients includes students deciding what direction they should take in college, young adults recently graduated from college looking for prospects, individuals who have just started a job in a sports-and fitness-related field, and seasoned veterans who have spent as much as 20 years or more in the sports and fitness industry. It does not matter how old you are or how much experience you have, change is looming its daunting head and staying ahead of the curve has become a common and essential theme. And let’s not kid ourselves: Fear and anxiety are extremely motivating forces regardless of our age, previous successes, or current net worth.
It is apparent to me that many individuals are seriously thinking about their future more than ever before. The events of the past six months have essentially accelerated and amplified the need to take a closer look at our current situation, while also making plans for our future. COVID-19 has given people a moment of pause to reconsider their past choices around their education and career and motivated them to perhaps find a better direction for their careers and lifestyles. This is not simply a sports-related trend but is happening throughout the economy in all parts of the world. The reasons behind such a premeditated pivot are numerous and complex. Some of the primary reasons people have voiced to me over the last few months include:
- Job dissatisfaction – Some people just hate their job or the place they currently work. This is nothing new. However, perhaps being forced to work at home or furloughed for several months has given us the extra time to evaluate our quality of life at work, as well as motivated some of us to look for opportunities elsewhere. Any comprehensive review of our current job situation will require an examination of opportunity costs. Is the time spent at work taking me away from something I would much rather be doing?
- If something is really bothering you about your job or workplace, perhaps now is the best time to implement a change and start fresh. Many individuals who were required to travel frequently as part of their job are now finding out that they didn’t really need to travel that much. They also realize the travel was exhausting and relatively unhealthy, impacting their ability to exercise regularly, eat healthy, and get enough consistent high-quality sleep. But this realization wouldn’t have occurred without the global pandemic. The cure for unhappiness almost always involves a significant transformation that could very well be accompanied by some short-term pain and anxiety, but ultimately will lead you to a better place over the long term.
- Job security and career stability – Sport has always been a bit of a precarious career path in terms of job security, particularly as you move further up the performance ladder. Pile on top of that fact the possibility that your job could be at risk due to budget cuts and organizational restructuring as a result of declining revenues, and you have a lot of anxious coaches and staff working for professional teams or universities.
While sports will always be around and likely won’t go the route of Blockbuster Video, the abundance of jobs and associated pension plans and benefits that have been enjoyed in the past may not be part of a new reality moving forward. And, as we have found, circumstances can change at the drop of a hat, with “non-essential” positions being deemed expendable. If you want to continue in sports, how can you future-proof your career to minimize uncertainty and maximize stability, while also having an adequate quality of life away from work? This is a big question for many in the sports world.
- Financial concerns – There is no question that a global pandemic can keep you up at night thinking about your health and well-being, but if you also happen to be in a sector that is significantly impacted by lockdowns and social gathering restrictions and prohibitions, not much sleep is being had. People who have had the luxury of a good-paying job and have saved and invested their money wisely are not taking as big of a hit during this time.
However, there are also lots of people working in sports and fitness who did not bring home large paychecks prior to COVID-19, with many carrying tremendous student debt that was very difficult to pay down even at the best of times. As such, the anxiety around financial security and future prospects is reaching an all-time high. While many people considered working in high-performance sports—at any cost—a dream job, pragmatism has taken hold during this time and forced people to rethink their future.
- Family life and time commitments – One of the more significant factors in people re-thinking their careers is that COVID-19 has given them more time with family. Spending time with immediate family over dinner, playing board games, or watching Netflix shows late into the evening is something most people have never had time to do. If you don’t have a family close by, maybe you’ve had more time to do things you truly enjoy on your own schedule and by your own rules.
Many of my friends have used the free time to explore the outdoors, sign up for online courses, brew their own beer, learn a musical instrument, or crush new video games. Almost everyone has acquired an enhanced awareness of personal time over the last six months, and this fact will most definitely influence future decisions around job selection and how they value time spent outside of their jobs. While some people will still consider 14-hour days and full weekends at work a badge of honor, others are carefully rethinking how they spend their time during and away from work.
It is important to note that most of the inquiries I received over the past few months were from individuals who wanted to stay within sports and fitness, and not flee to another industry or field. The joy and satisfaction that many people derive from these fields are apparent. While this disposition narrows their options considerably, there are still opportunities to reshape their careers in ways that accomplish all of their goals around time, family, finances, and security.
This article represents a synopsis of the advice that I have provided to clients over the past few months. The same themes and prescriptions are universal when advising individuals on creating opportunities for themselves and bolstering their chances of being successful in any pursuit they choose.
1. Develop One or Two Distinct Areas of Expertise That Differentiate You from the Competition
Nobody likes a know-it-all. So why are we all trying to be experts in everything? Having a good general knowledge of many things is useful if you want to be socially functional at parties and in engaging Zoom chats with strangers. But in the world of job hunting and career development, having a well-defined specialization is going to attract much more attention and push you to the top of the pile when it comes to persuading potential employers or clients. Niche development is critical in a world where everyone is trying to become an influencer or cyber-celebrity and the ways to connect with an audience or potential market grow every week. The age of the Renaissance man or woman has gone the way of the cassette tape, and specific expertise and skill sets garner far more attention, particularly on social media.
In the sports performance world, I have spent more than 20 years developing my reputation as a sprint and speed expert in working with some key sports. I sought out the best mentors to guide my development and put myself in situations where I was constantly tested. When it came time to promote my expertise, much of the heavy lifting had already been done. And even within the area of speed development, I am known to provide a very specific approach to achieving gains with athletes of all ages and abilities.
As an offshoot of that pursuit, I gradually became more involved in using my sprint-based approach for rehabilitation clients and return-to-sports applications. Hamstring injuries were an early area of focus, but that approach also quickly evolved into dealing with all types of injuries in a timely and effective manner. As such, I am often sought out to address any injuries related to sprinting, running, general locomotion, and biomechanical interventions. I am not just a “coach” or “rehabilitation professional” but seen as a highly specialized professional who has earned a proven record of achieving results when my distinct services are called upon. But simply being known as a “speed expert” will not result in much demand for my services these days, especially when more and more individuals now adopt that title, whether it is gained through merit or not.
It is still immensely important to have a well-rounded base of knowledge, though, giving you the ability to problem-solve on a broad scale. These skills will not only provide you with the ability to speak intelligently on numerous subjects but also afford you advanced administrative abilities to hire the right specialists to fill any gaps in a team or organization. Because I am in the midst of some significant home renovations, this concept has been staring me straight in the face the past few months. While I have some general carpentry and plumbing skills, and I can change a light bulb with extreme efficiency, nothing beats bringing in a trained expert to get the job done right and on schedule. The downside is that my wife, after watching the tradespeople whip through projects, now knows that I am extremely average and horribly slow at most things related to home improvement.
2. Find a Situation Where Your Expertise and Contributions Are Truly Valued
We have all been hired for a job where over the first few weeks everyone showers us with compliments and tells us how great it is to have us on board. “We are so lucky to have you on the team and we can’t wait to start working together with you!” Unfortunately, all good streams of bullshit come to an end and reality kicks in. The honeymoon is over, and you are just another working stiff like the rest of them.
When someone in a leadership position tells you that they value your involvement and contributions, be sure to take a deep breath and wait. This type of lip service should make no impact on your trust, confidence, and commitment until you actually experience the administration supporting you with clear intent, actions, and results.
I have had many instances—more than I can count on two hands—when administrators have told me that I am a valuable member of the team, while in the next breath telling me that my budget has been cut, wages for assistant coaches and interns were not available, and my facilities would not be upgraded anytime soon (i.e., in this century). Then they’d hire a new coach who woud ask me why our weight room is so crappy, insinuating that it was my fault. If this is your current situation, plan an exit strategy as soon as possible. It will not improve anytime soon.
If you find a situation where your expertise, opinions, and ideas matter, it will be clear from day one and continue through your entire journey with that organization. If they give you promises and compliments, and the actions that ensue do not reflect those sentiments, you should expect it to continue unabated. Just as you do with your athletes and clients, you should do the same with your superiors and colleagues. You assess their actions from second-to-second, minute-to-minute, session-to-session, and year-to-year. Their actions give you more than adequate information regarding their intentions and their commitment. If they truly value you, they will treat you accordingly regardless of any events taking place outside of your control.
3. Create and Cultivate a Credible and Professional Social Media Presence
Believe it or not, I still have people tell me, “I don’t do social media. I just can’t bring myself to do that stuff. It’s so superficial!” Nobody is asking you to post stories about your pet rock collection, your high school dance moves, or clips from your spur-of-the-moment trip to Thailand with your old college buddies. But if you want to build a reputation around the good work that you do, social media is not a bad place to showcase your talents and get the word out.
If you told me five years ago that Instagram would be one of the best ways to connect with people in the industry and create a positive impression of my work, I would have said you were crazy. But, like it or not, social media content is currency these days. It is your billboard, your neighborhood flyer, your resume, and even your background check. Plus, it is relatively inexpensive to effectively connect with potential employers, customers, or clients. It just takes a commitment and a very basic knowledge of how it works.Like it or not, social media is currency these days. It is your billboard, your neighborhood flyer, your resume, and even your background check, says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
The other side of the coin is that you must treat social media like “The Force” and use it wisely. When I use the words “credible” and “professional,” I refer to the quality, merit, and precision of your content, as well as the clarity and persuasiveness of your delivery. You do not want to come across as a used car salesman, a snake-oil peddler, or an eccentric, outrageous lunatic, regardless of how many likes and followers you derive from that approach.
In many cases, the quality of your content and your character will be on full display and may take the form of your initial “virtual” job interview before you actually get a real job interview. Accordingly, you have to treat your social media presence as a long-term investment in your reputation and personal brand. The more consistent quality information you provide, the more you will add value to your overall reputation. Social media is not going away, and more and more people are finding it an efficient means of doing their research and gathering information.
4. Do Not Undervalue Your Services and Contributions
“Will work for food” and other memes will not help you in the long run. While we all understand that paying your dues is all part of the career-building process, there has to be a point where an individual draws the line and puts themselves in a better situation. As soon as you begin to buy into the hype that you must sacrifice your earning potential for a long period of time to get a sniff at a career in high-level sports, you have devalued your personal worth and wasted a lot of time.
Unpaid internships or living expense stipends might be acceptable for a brief period of time when you are trying to accumulate some minimal volume of experience and learn your trade. We have all volunteered for a brief period of time to earn work experience and get our feet wet. But once you have completed your education, earned your certification, and amassed adequate work hour totals, it is time to find a job that at least pays you an acceptable entry-level wage and start building your life. At some point in your career, you have to establish a value for your time and effort that you will not compromise, regardless of how enticing the job or project may appear.
We see it all the time when professional athletes and their representatives negotiate their contracts. They often comment that they only want to be paid what they are worth compared to others at their position in the league with similar statistics. We can all take a page out of their book by researching what others earn in similar positions with similar qualifications and skills. Doing your homework and learning what others are being paid is critical in any compensation negotiation. Precedents are set in professional sports all the time, and your earning potential should be no different. Build a case for your request and make sure to check all the boxes.
In some cases, you may have to take a short-term pay cut in order to get a chance to demonstrate your abilities. It would be no different than Cam Newton signing a contract with the New England Patriots for a base salary of $1.05 million ($550,000 fully guaranteed) when he had previously made an average of $13.5 million per year in his previous nine-year contract with the Carolina Panthers. He experienced some injury issues in the past, and this is now his chance to get another shot with a good team to show his worth, albeit at a significantly lower salary.
This year, he may demonstrate his worth once again and sign a future contract worth more than $20 million per year if all goes well. But make no mistake about it, playing for $1 million per year—with incentives to make as much as $7.5 million for the season—is not working for food. It is a calculated strategy that could work out well for both parties. Please think about this example when calculating your own worth in wage negotiations and considering a position for employment, keeping in mind how it will set you up for the future. If there is no reasonable plan or progression outlined, then stop and press the reset button.
5. Write Frequently on Your Areas of Interest, Experience, and Expertise
In a world where video is taking over a larger and larger chunk of people’s attention spans, do not underestimate the power of the written word. People who occupy positions of influence and power within organizations tend to be the ones that take the time to read, and putting something down on paper always helps to consolidate your credibility, knowledge, and influence.
Sometimes you can assemble an article on your anecdotal experience and draw conclusions from those cases. Other times, you may want to cite other experts or provide references to research studies that support your assertions. If you are also able to provide charts, infographics, or other visuals to clarify and support your positions, you will only make your articles more attractive and enjoyable to read. It also adds a degree of professionalism and polish to your work that others can recognize and attach to your brand.
Forcing yourself to write articles also hones your general communication, planning, and organizational skills in a way that crosses over to other tasks. Putting down your ideas on paper and finding the right words to get your points across is helpful for everything from presentation preparation to writing proposals for clients, as well as preparing you for larger projects such as book chapters and even an entire book.
My own forays into article and book writing haven’t been incredibly lucrative by any means, but the experiences have improved my overall concentration and focus around communication and presenting my ideas. There is also an intrinsic satisfaction that comes with publishing an article or book that has a more lasting impact than any other media production that I have been involved with. It is also important to remember that an innovative, well-written article will be on the internet forever for everyone to see and associate with your name.
Don’t wait for someone to ask you to write an article. Take the initiative and start a simple blog to get your ideas out to the public. Publish regularly but take your time in formulating your topics and assembling your composition. Treat the writing process as you do your physical exercise program and understand that improvement can only be accomplished with deliberate planning and consistent implementation of good form. And just like exercise, there will be days when everything comes easy with the sentences flowing out of you like a waterfall, but also days when it feels like you are trying to draw blood from a stone.
6. Get in Front of an Audience and Communicate Your Thoughts on a Consistent Basis
While it has been much more difficult as of late to do any in-person presentations or seminars, the exceptional value of putting yourself in front of an audience has not diminished. Video conferencing has allowed us to put ourselves in front of many more people from all parts of the world from the comfort of our own homes. Despite the fact there is an awkwardness to video conferencing that makes the experience somewhat artificial and fragmented, it still requires you to perform on demand and captivate your audience. Because there is no requirement to travel, there should be far fewer obstacles to interacting in real time with individuals.
Any live interactions, regardless of the medium, can be beneficial for your professional development, particularly when you are tasked with leading the discussion. The objective of any event is to sharpen your presentation skills and effectively communicate your ideas to others. Just like any other skill, repetition helps lead to mastery. Public speaking and presentation skills are no different. Practice makes permanent, and if you have the discipline and motivation to hone these skills, practice will gradually approach perfect.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t forced us to replace our means of communication and interaction as much as it has accelerated the inevitable trend to expand and proliferate digital communication and presentation technologies. These methods of communicating, teaching, and sharing information will not go away. The future has arrived abruptly, and it is your responsibility to embrace these new mediums and use them to your advantage as part of a pivoting strategy.
7. Become Extremely Competent with Technology, but Don’t Rely on It
Very recently, I converted all of my in-person Running Mechanics Professional courses to an online platform. While it was a fascinating journey of learning the potential and functionality of the platform, most of my time went into improving the composition, organization, clarity, and delivery of the content. Regardless of the fact that everything will be delivered via a virtual platform for the time being, I found myself spending the majority of my time and energy enhancing the product itself. When the time comes to provide a hybrid of in-person and virtual delivery, the course itself will provide much more value for the participant regardless of the instruction medium.
Learning how to use technology efficiently and effectively is much more important than learning about the technology itself. As a lover of cameras for photo and video applications, it is very easy for me to get caught up in the new technologies arriving on the market every few months. More robust specifications and technological innovations are always sexy at first. However, a greater understanding of light, composition, editing, and storytelling will always produce far better results than hardware. Technique is always more important than tech, no matter how you slice it. People were doing great things well before advanced technology was available, in the creation of fine food, music, movies, and even sports.Technique is always more important than tech, says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
When it comes to working in sports, there is a fascination for everything from wearables to data collection and visualization systems to apps that are intended to optimize all aspects of your life. The combination of hardware and software products available to professionals in the sports, fitness, and rehabilitation fields is absolutely dizzying. But I always fall back to the same question when discussing new technology with clients: How is this going to make you better?
Answering that question requires not only that you know how the technology works, but more importantly, that you already understand how to make people better without the technology. Most of the time, the technology will help you to capture a performance, speed up the evaluation process, manage the data or communicate faster, and target to a broader audience. If you are able to effectively merge the precision of your technique with the efficiency of tech, it is a good bet that you will get better and enhance your overall marketability in whatever field you choose.
8. Seek Consultation with Someone Who Has Been There
There is a lot of buzz around mentorship these days. Every young professional has been encouraged to seek out and connect with a wise guru to guide all aspects of their personal and professional development. While everyone else tries to find their own personal Yoda to complete their training, my advice would be to seek the counsel of one or more experienced individuals who have lived through a difficult career decision or life change successfully and listen to their perspective. They need not be a longtime mentor or a guru, but simply a real person with their own story of challenge and choice. Some of these people should be from your industry, while others should be from completely different ones. Increasing your sample size will enhance your chances of identifying an appropriate solution for yourself.
I have been lucky to have true professionals and gentlemen such as Al Vermeil, Rob Panariello, and Donald Chu to consult regarding the hard decisions they’ve had to make in their careers. None of them has ever told me what to do or provided me a specific prescription. That’s not how this works. Taking time to listen and hear their stories about occasions when they had to make a critical decision that carried significant risk is an extremely valuable process. In each case, these wise individuals shared how they carefully weighed the pros and cons of their decisions before taking a precarious leap. These types of sincere interactions can boost your confidence around your own decisions, reinforcing the fact that we all have to endure some degree of anxiety around difficult decisions and life changes.
Having a network of experienced individuals who you can lean on once in a while is invaluable, but it also takes time to develop and gain a level of trust between parties. While I have always respected the process of trial and error in many aspects of my career, I can also attest to the fact that many of my current approaches are the result of guidance from people who have walked many more miles in the shoes of life.
9. Don’t Wait for Someone Else to Save You
I still believe there is a prevailing attitude out there by many who truly believe the right situation will just fall in their lap. I even see this with many of my friends and the way they conduct their businesses and careers. They truly believe that one client, organization, or institution will throw money at them or give them a dream position that will last them through to retirement because of a few great ideas they have or a handful of successes they’ve managed to achieve. I’m not going to say that never happens, as we have all witnessed the private trainer working with a star athlete rise to prominence as the star wins more championships. But coat-tail riding is an extreme sport and doesn’t always result in sustainable employment and happiness.
Waiting for someone to save you is not a viable strategy. As soon as you rely on others for your well-being and success, you create a massive vulnerability in your career plan. The more self-sufficiency you weave into your personal development plan, the more resiliency and agility you will build into your overall character and approach. There are some people out there who will sincerely be concerned about your well-being. Of those people, maybe a few will actually be able to help you. But most will not. Most people really don’t care about whether you succeed or not, as they are much too busy worrying about their own situation. This is the reality that you must factor into your overall strategy if you truly wish to future-proof your career.
Develop an Effective Pivot
One of the common threads of these points is the concept of time. It takes time to get to a place where all or most of these recommendations align and put you in a place of greater opportunity and broader adaptability. A lot of people use the term “pivot” as if it were an instantaneous decision and reactionary move, as if a light bulb was switched on allowing you to pivot quickly to avoid hardship and place yourself in a more advantageous situation.
Like any agile movement in sports, you must develop an effective pivot over time through careful planning and precise repetition. When an effective pivot is required due to a change in circumstances, the abilities simply appear on demand, almost reflexively, and the transition is smooth, easy, and successful. This is why, in hard times, the people most equipped to pivot are those who are already successful, possessing all the prerequisites for adaptability. This is not about creating what many people refer to as a “side hustle” or “moonlighting.” It is about cultivating diversity and adaptability with your skills in an effort to create a sustainable and enjoyable career.
No one can plan for a sudden calamity (or in this case, a global pandemic) in a manner that completely protects them from harm or setback. However, just as you would do everything in your power to minimize the risk of injury for an athlete through comprehensive preparation, you are making arrangements well in advance over time to buffer yourself from any potential harm. Careful and meticulous preparation makes pivoting much easier when called upon. And guess what? Sometimes we get injured regardless of the hard work and preparation. But that accumulation of both physical and mental work will help us to climb out of any hole that we find ourselves in. “Career injuries” are no different than sports injuries. They both require a positive mindset and an effective plan to get you back on the field of play.Career injuries are no different than sports injuries. They both require a positive mindset and an effective plan to get you back on the field of play, says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
Even though sports are considered non-essential services when compared with healthcare workers, law enforcement officers, and grocery store staff, there is some stability in knowing that civilization simply cannot go without sports and entertainment for an extended period of time. We have seen this phenomenon take place as we sit back and enjoy playoff basketball and hockey and marvel at the playmaking ability of NFL stars. Ensuring that people consider you indispensable may take some time and effort, but it is certainly possible.
I remember, straight out of college, one of my first bosses and mentors discussing the concept of “job security” with me during a job interview. At the age of 25, I told him I was interested in finding a place of employment with good job security. His reply was simple and direct. “If you are very good at what you do, you will never have to worry about this fleeting concept of job security or your career.” These are words to live by regardless of your age or your field, even in the presence of a global pandemic.
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