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The sports training industry has developed into an over $8 billion industry. New athlete training facilities are popping up everywhere.  They have become a popular business venture for many people who enjoy athletics and like to be around athletes.  Unfortunately, as the industry becomes more saturated, it has allowed for lower quality operations to move into the space, so it’s very important to put some effort into effectively evaluating a facility before choosing to make an investment.  

At their best, a low-quality facility will just provide you with less value for your money, but, at its worst, an inadequate facility can set you up for being injured or hurt, maybe even while training.  The following questions will hopefully serve as a guide for you to help cut through some of the marketing and hype when evaluating a training facility, helping you to get to what really matters.

1. What are the qualifications of the staff?

This is perhaps the most important variable.  Make sure to ask about what the credentials of the people providing training to you or your kids.  At a minimum, the coach should have a 4 year degree in exercise science, or a similar field, and a certification from a reputable certifying body like the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) or NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine). 

There are so many people starting facilities right now who were accounting majors in college (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and now want to become trainers thinking that reading things online is enough to make them qualified.  There is not substitute for real education in this field.  You may think that because this person or people are just helping you workout or train, that it’s not that big of a deal, but it is.  

Relying on a trainer or coach who is under or uneducated, no matter how they look, could very well be dangerous.  Bad coaching or cues can result in you not achieving results you’re paying for, or worse, could be leading down the path to injury.  This may sound like a harsh accusation, but I’ve seen it too many times.  It’s kind of like asking a carpenter to do your dental work because they own some similar looking equipment and watched YouTube videos on how to do it.  

[Hiring an unqualified coach or training is] kind of like asking a carpenter to do your dental work because they own some similar looking equipment and watched YouTube videos on how to do it. 

I’ll provide a brief example.  I once saw a female athlete with a spondylolisthesis, which is a fracture, most often in the low back, typically caused by over-extension of the spine.  I asked her to do a squat and cringed as she demonstrated a massive hinge in her low back as she squatted (which is a mechanism for that injury). 

I knew she trained at a local facility, so of course I inquired, “How long have you been training at this facility?”  Her response was, “About 4 years.”  Yikes.  If nothing was done about this in four years, that’s a problem.  This is why I have qualifications as the number one thing to evaluate about a facility.  If you can’t check this box, start looking elsewhere. 

2. Who trains the athletes?

This piggy-backs off of the first question, but is also very important.  Some facilities may advertise one trainer or coach who has made a big name for him/herself.  In reality that person may only work with a handful of athletes, while the majority of training is performed by interns or other staff. 

In some cases, a training facility will even offer college athletes or others the opportunity to train at the facility in exchange for working with and training some of the youth or high school athlete groups.  Be on the lookout for this.  These aren’t trainers or coaches, they are supervisors, who are being compensated with usage of the facility.  If you’re paying for training, you should be working with a qualified coach.  

Disclaimer: This isn’t to say that having an older athlete help with coaching is a bad thing.  It can sometimes be a great way for that athlete to gain experience, if they are interested in a career as a trainer, and it can be good for the younger kids to form bonds with them.  The kicker is, it should be done in addition to the qualified coach or trainer who is working with the athletes, not as a replacement.

3. What coaching points are emphasized?

You should be paying for a coach’s expertise and ability to provide detailed movement cues, program workouts, and appropriately manage the stresses placed on an athlete.  You shouldn’t be paying for someone to count reps and make you sweat.  That doesn’t require expertise and certainly won’t help you realize your potential as an athlete.  

The programming of your workout should vary based on your sport, but most training should include elements of speed and agility training, core stability and strengthening, and strength training.  An emphasis should always be place on quality of movement and programs should be advanced according to progression of movement abilities.  Why is quality movement so important?  Read more here.

4. What is the typical group size?

Training in a small group can have a lot of benefits: competition, accountability, motivation, and community to name a few.  The size, and make-up, of the training group is very important to consider. A group of 4-6 athletes tends to be ideal for seeing the benefits of being in a group without sacrificing quality 1on1 instruction that really provides athletes with the feedback they need to make progress in their training.  

A maximum of 6 athletes tends to be the point at which quality coaching can be maintained at a high level. I do not have data (yet) to support this, but it is something we have observed in thousands of training sessions.  In a group of 12-15 athletes with one coach present, it is difficult for each athlete to get much 1on1 coaching.

Another aspect to consider here is who athletes are training with in a group.  Typically, athletes of similar maturity and sport do best training together. A 7th grade volleyball athlete and 12th grade football athlete should ideally not be in the same group together.  Neither athlete tends to be well served in this situation.

5. Can you see and observe the training space?

Transparency is big.  If there seems to be a veil that prevents parents and others from viewing the area where athletes are training, there’s probably something they don’t want you to see.  There should be good visibility of the training area so that parents can easily observe what is happening during a training session.

If there isn’t something to hide, this shouldn’t be an issue.  I’ve seen and heard of several facilities that keep the training area completely blocked off from view of anywhere else and they never allow parents behind the door. That should raise at least a yellow flag.

6. How are workouts programmed?

Athlete workouts should be programmed based on the specific needs, deficits, and goals of each athlete.  Exercise selection, loading parameters, and training volume are all variables that should be specifically adjusted to fit where the athlete is in their training and competition cycle.  

Avoid the cookie-cutter programs where athletes of all ages and sports all perform similar programs together that are written on a whiteboard or not posted at all. Each athlete should have their own workout card and it should be updated frequently, based on training results.  Programming is another reason why the coaches qualifications are so important to the process.

7. What are the results?

This is what it really all boils down to, because this is why you are there in the first place.  Do the athletes participating in the program see results? A facility should be able to readily provide you with real numbers reflecting the testing results of the athletes who are similar to you.  

If they don’t have numbers to back up what they do, they may not be evaluating and testing appropriately, or their programs may not be producing results. Regular evaluation and re-testing is critical for measuring progress and evaluating the effectiveness of your training, so that adjustments can be made where necessary.  

Final thoughts

Please do not price shop when choosing a training facility.  Too often, I find athletes and parents calling around looking for the lowest price for a training program.  Please do not let this alone make your decision. There is a wide variety of quality out there, so please do your due diligence in evaluating based on quality first.  If you have determined that 2 or more facilities are capable of providing a comparable service and level of quality, then take price into consideration.

Investing money into something that yields no results is a complete waste of that money!  I’ve seen this happen way to many times. You’re way better off spending 2x as much to accomplish what you went there for rather than throwing away money for no result.  Avoid this trap of shopping based on sticker price.  There is a reason you don’t purchase the absolute cheapest car you can find.  The same logic should be practiced here.  

My hope in writing this article is to empower informed consumers, when it comes to choosing a training facility.  No matter where you are, or who you choose to work with, my hope is that the questions above help you cut through some of the marketing fluff that’s out there and get to the heart of what will really help athletes have a quality experience and see real results.  

Follow Dr. Grant on Instagram and Twitter.

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