How being a personal trainer on a college campus helped make Shannon Briggs a better trainer and a better human being.
I have been in the fitness industry as a personal trainer and a group fitness instructor for over 30 years. Thirteen of those years were on a college campus. In my experience, those 13 years by far outweigh the rest of my career for molding me, stretching me, growing me and shaping me into a stronger, better and more equipped fitness professional. My professional history includes working at a large local gym for 17 years, a big box gym for three years and in rec sports at a university campus for 13 years.
Before I got to the college campus, I was very diligent about preparing my workouts for my classes and clients well in advance. I knew the space I had to work in and the equipment that was available to me. I planned accordingly and showed up. From there, I implemented my well-thought out program as expected.
When I came to work in campus rec, I brought with me many assumptions. Assumptions the bulk of my clientele will be 18 to 22 years of age. Assumptions they will be super strong, super healthy and full of youthful energy. And there were assumptions I would have top-of-the-line equipment available to use and tons of space to work in. To be fair, I did have a few of these things, but it certainly was not the norm.
So, let’s talk about age assumptions. Initially, I was a little disappointed. Most of my clients ranged in age from 18 to 88. The bulk of personal training clients were faculty and staff, and the occasional graduate student. This makes sense. Undergraduates don’t always have the money for personal training, and most haven’t come to a place in their life to prioritize their physical and mental health. Many are simply naturally active in their friend groups, clubs, etc. I quickly found myself doing double-time on research and prep for my clients with varying fitness and health levels. I had numerous elderly, retired professors with a menagerie of injuries, surgeries, health issues and medications I had to research and educate myself on. This was to keep them safe and healthy, while being compassionate and treating them with dignity.
The few undergraduates I did train often would show up for training in the afternoon having only eaten four strawberries because they were struggling with eating disorders, body dysmorphia and were obsessed with being skinny. This made it difficult for them to have the energy and strength needed for the workouts. Many of them had the additional stress of parents harping on them about how they had gained weight. Often, they would come on little sleep. I had to be prepared and be ready for whatever presented itself to me as a trainer. And I had to do the best I could to keep my all clients safe and healthy while being compassionate and treating them with dignity.
While I still planned out my sessions ahead of time thoroughly, I learned to hold those plans loosely in my hands because I knew they could change at the drop of a hat at any given time. I grew in my confidence to meet the needs of my clients in the moment as required. I also gained more knowledge of special populations, medications and injuries than I ever had in the private sector. Plus, I learned not to assume a clients’ abilities based on their age or any other demographic. I have been surprised at the physical weakness of an 18-year-old and blown away by the physical strength of a 79-year-old.
While every university or college varies in size and environment, one thing is for sure, the weight room gets used a lot. I mean a lot. Therefore, often equipment was unavailable due to overuse/damage to the equipment or a line of people waiting to get on a particularly popular piece of machinery. This means you must learn to adjust on the fly. You cannot stand for five to 10 minutes waiting for a piece of equipment with a client that is paying you for one-on-one training or simply leave out a muscle group because you don’t know another way of working that area of the body. You must always have in your pocket various ways to work the same muscles or parts of the body.
The college gyms can also be their own distraction or obstacle for a trainer, too. Often, it is very loud and highly active. For me, this took practice to concentrate on my client and block out other things going on around us.
College tours, kinesiology classes and large events can sometimes disrupt where you thought you would train your clients. I found myself learning multiple options for working out in different spaces to accomplish in our sessions what we needed to accomplish. Sometimes you must get creative.
I truly cherish my time on campus. This experience has made me a better trainer: more prepared, more compassionate, and more educated to care for and challenge my clients of all ages and situations. All I really need to know I learned training in campus rec.
I really benefitted from working with my collegiate peers and fitness/wellness team. There was a beautiful collaboration constantly happening in both group fitness and personal training I had never seen before. For example, instructors promoting other instructors’ classes in their own classes, attending other instructors’ classes and trainers reaching out to other trainers to problem solve for a special client need. This was done with a familial feeling of authentically wanting each other to be the absolute best they could be in their field and to learn from each other. At the risk of being too honest, this was not my experience in the private sector gyms.
So far, I have pointed out how being a personal trainer on a college campus helped to make me a better and stronger trainer. But, I want to point out and not miss a more crucial point for me personally. This experience has also made me a better human being.
Training on a college campus versus training at a big box gym or country club, the clientele is so much more diverse. In my experience, I have been able to engage in conversations, and meaningful friendships and relationships with people from all over the world. I have learned about other countries, other cultures and other faiths, and how to just be present to listen — while training of course. I count this as a huge privilege. This helps to grow me, mold me, stretch me and shape me into a better and stronger trainer. It also helps me be a better and stronger human being, one who has more kindness and more compassion to hold for others now than I did before.
If you are training or teaching in the collegiate arena, or overseeing those who do, please soak it all in. Learn as much as you can while you’re there. In my experience, there is not another environment that can shape you as well for your future.