Pump the Brakes on Bashing Higher Education for Fitness Professionals

With increasing frequency, I find myself answering the question of whether or not academic degrees are “worth it” to achieve success in the fitness industry.  Until recently, this question was usually specific to fitness-related degrees.  Now that I am finding more and more opportunities to share my insights with fitness professionals and gym owners, people also want to know whether or not my undergraduate business degree and MBA were necessary. 

Great questions.

(For those of you interested in Eric’s answer to the fitness-related degree question, you can find an extremely thorough explanation here and here.  In short, his answer boils down to “it depends”.)

Photo credit snaap.indiana.edu

Photo credit snaap.indiana.edu

In his book titled Conscious Capitalism, John Mackey said that his success in creating Whole Foods Market was partially attributed to his decision not to attend business school because it left him with “nothing to unlearn.”  It seems to me that an increasing number of fitness professionals are beginning to embrace a similar attitude to Mackey’s.  Is higher education for fitness professionals and gym owners getting a bad rap?

When it comes to building and operating a business such as Cressey Sports Performance, application of common sense is more important than any specific individual skills obtained during college or graduate school.  My prior exposure to accounting principles and marketing strategy helps, but there’s no substitution for the simple policy of: don’t spend more dollars than you collect. 

Boom!  Business 101 in just six words.

This being said, both my undergraduate business degree and my MBA were absolutely worth it…just not necessarily for the reasons you’d think.

Here are three very important lessons you’ll learn in college (and graduate school) that are immensely valuable for anyone looking to jump in to the fitness industry.

1. Nobody cares if you fail

In the beginning, I was not a good student.  In fact, I’d describe myself as a bad student up until right around the start of my second semester of college.  I coasted along with a mediocre work ethic, had the tendency to fall back on the excuse that I was dyslexic, and assumed that a good SAT score was all it would take for me to attend the college of my choice.  I was an idiot.

When you’re living under your parents’ roof and attending middle school or high school, there are all kinds of safety nets keeping you from complete and utter failure.  When I had a couple of less than stellar weeks of academics to start a term, a progress report was sent home requiring a parent signature.  Parent/Teacher Conferences were also the norm.  Someone always seemed to be paying attention to my productivity. 

My first semester at Babson College was the kick in the pants that I needed to begin understanding how the world actually works.  (A d-minus in calculus will do that for you.)  I learned more important lessons during the fall of 1999 than I had in the 18 years leading up to it.  The most important takeaway was that nobody cares if you succeed once you’re done with your formative years. 

When you get to college, no one is concerned with whether or not you showed up to class on a given day or remembered to do your homework.  No one holds you accountable if you don’t carry a passing average past a mid-term exam.  You pay for the opportunity to pursue a degree, but the school has little incentive to worry about your performance once your money is sitting in their bank account.

Once you decide it is time to dive into the real world and become a strength coach, personal trainer, or whatever type of fitness professional title you’d like to apply to your resume, you’ll realize that no one actually cares what level of success you achieve.  I’m thankful to have learned this lesson during college because it kept me from burning bridges professionally when “real life” kicked in.

2. Your ability to network will drive your earning potential

During the first five minutes of my very first college class, I listened to a professor make a statement that sticks with me to this day:

“You guys really want to succeed in the business world?  Learn to play golf.”

Photo Credit: www.back9network.com

Photo Credit: www.back9network.com

While the suggestion was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the message was important: business is about managing relationships and being an effective conversationalist.  Striking a golf ball with accuracy is of little importance, but having the ability to comfortably “talk shop” between strokes on the course is a skill that translates to success in multiple facets in life.

I was reminded on a daily basis during my college years that my classmates would become the foundation of my professional network at a time when LinkedIn, Facebook, and any other type of social networking platform did not yet exist.  We were constantly asked to complete group assignments that required us to master the art of shared responsibility and a collaborative task-driven work dynamic that you are unlikely to experience at any point in high school.

My higher education experience forced me to learn to “play well with others” in a professional setting.  I am a better colleague, manager of people, and contributor to the fitness industry today because of these networking skills acquired while attending college and graduate school.

3. Growth and development lie outside of your immediate comfort zone

By bypassing the pursuit of higher education in favor of entering the fitness industry, you miss the opportunity to surround yourself with ambitious individuals with other areas of interest.  If you secure a coaching job in your hometown, socialize with nothing but other fitness professionals, and only concern yourself with getting better by attending fitness events, you’ll never have the chance to learn from people from outside of your field.

I am a firm believer in the concept that you are the product of the five people you spend the most time with.  As it turns out, my business partner is the only one of “my five” with any interest in, or connection to the world of fitness.  This allows me to source professional ideas and concepts from individuals with unique perspectives and business experience that isn’t grounded in time spent on a gym floor.

Of the people who have had the biggest influence on my professional development beyond my business partner, one is a guy I met as an undergraduate student who now makes his living as a venture capitalist, and another was my academic advisor during my MBA program.  Take into consideration the fact that Eric and I met as the result of our college selection, and you’ll see that three of the biggest influences on me professionally became a part of my life thanks to my pursuit of higher education.

It’s about more than accumulating book smarts

One of the most common statements I hear from participants of our CSP internship program goes a little something like this: “I’ve learned more in the past four months of coaching here at CSP than I did during four years of college.”

Though I can appreciate the compliment in this claim, I feel inclined to point out the fact that we will not even consider intern applicants under the age of 21 with less than two years of college under their belts.  Whether students realize it or not, their time spent in school helped them to develop the emotional maturity and soft skills necessary to handle one’s self on the training floor at CSP.

There is a ton of value in obtaining a degree that isn’t found within the pages of a textbook.