Derek M. Hansen - January 2024
As someone who is regularly involved in continuing education events and the professional development of coaches, fitness professionals and rehabilitation practitioners, I consistently find myself asking how I can better contribute to the ongoing education of motivated individuals. It is one thing to be considered an ‘expert’ or a source of information on a particular topic or area. It is quite another to actually make a significant change in the motivation, aptitude and abilities of a working professional through a weekend course or a conference presentation. How can we make a lasting impact on the professional development of a person if you are not consistently around them on a daily or weekly basis, guiding their efforts and providing feedback at key moments?
We often hear about the 10,000 hour rule and the value of apprenticeships and internships to gradually mold young professionals into respected leaders in their field. An extended period of time under the guidance and supervision of experienced professionals is obviously valuable, but opportunities to truly learn from a master professional are few and far between, as our schedules are jam packed and life is moving much faster than ever before. The days of the legendary apprenticeships carried out over numerous years no longer exist. Internships, co-ops and work-study opportunities are micro-learning windows that rarely involve the same level of immersion, guidance, consequence or longevity experienced by past generations where patience, tenacity and perseverance prevailed.
As far as formal education goes, a bachelor’s degree in any subject yields no currency in the competitive workforce, and even a master’s degree can be considered an unsatisfactory attempt at proficiency. If you do decide to get a doctorate in a subject, you may be ridiculed for wasting your time on such a narrow focus. Degrees, credentials, certifications and designations are simply window dressings or proof of your ability to jump through hoops and follow convention. One would think a decade in university would make you a smarter individual. But the divide between academic prowess and practical efficacy can still be extensive. So, when and where does the real practical education begin?
Unfortunately, many organizations believe that continuing education can be packaged, quantified and documented with regular ‘re-certifications’ being thrust upon as an incentive to learning. We have all scrambled to accumulate CEU’s at the last minute so that we could remain relevant and compliant. I am frankly embarrassed by the fact that I may feel compelled to attend a particular event to simply attain credit hours for a certification requirement. Shouldn’t my education be guided by a dynamic combination of need, desire, excitement and the intrinsic motivation to improve myself?
If you are like me and the thought of wasting precious time on less efficacious educational efforts to simply tick off a box drives you insane, then you have to consider some productive alternatives. Maybe entering my fifties and realizing that my life is more than half over has changed me, but I am now forced to admit that ‘time’ is our most precious resource and the one thing that we cannot get back after it has been spent. As such, I have collected a list of thoughts on professional development efforts that I hope can influence the paths of others looking to improve themselves. These thoughts are listed in no particular order, but are collectively based on my own experiences and the observations of other experienced professionals of whom I hold in high regard.
Some of my most profound learning experiences have been those which I am required to urgently and effectively learn about a subject with which I had no previous experience. Being a homeowner has been the most significant impetus for learning skills quickly to simply avoid the exorbitant costs of bringing in a plumber or electrician on short notice to address problems. When you are standing in knee deep water in your basement on a weekend evening, you learn to be an efficient problem solver under extremely stressful conditions. Having access to YouTube doesn’t hurt as well. When faced with the need to act quickly and stress levels are high, skills can be acquired rapidly, as well as retained over the long run.
In sporting situations, I have been faced with similar scenarios that have allowed me to grow as a professional. Some of the most significant learning instances have been with injured athletes where I have had to rapidly understand the nature and implications of different injuries in order to move forward. When I was exclusively coaching Track and Field sprinters, I didn’t have access to a medical staff to quickly refer patients to and help develop a return-to-play strategy. As injuries such as hamstring strains, ankle sprains, plantar fascia tears and adductor pulls arose, I was forced to figure out a combination of workarounds that allowed training to continue, while also rehabilitating the injury. For instances of post-surgical cases such as ACL reconstructions, Achilles Tendon repairs and complex shoulder injuries, it is a much more complex challenge that includes significant risk of reinjury if not handled correctly. In these types of cases, it is also good to have mentors that can help guide you, much like a plumbing YouTube video, to make sure you are on the right track. But, you are still responsible for putting in the work and getting a result.
While we would all prefer to have perfect scenarios where you can be trained comprehensively in advance of a problem, this is not necessarily the most time efficient nor practical strategy of coming up with a solution. Learning on the fly or under the gun has an incredible way of compelling you to emphatically absorb practical knowledge efficiently and effectively. Thus, it is not a bad idea to accept tasks that you may not completely feel fully prepared for at the time. Going into a challenge with feelings of insecurity, fear and anxiety can be incredibly motivating and bring out the best in an individual who is open to learning new skills. And while your first attempt at problem solving may not be perfect, the process will reward you with valuable information that you can apply more effectively on your subsequent attempts, making you a more effective and confident practitioner.
In an age when online learning can be cost-effective and convenient, we must push each other to sacrifice time and expense to meet knowledgeable experts and peers on a regular basis as part of our ongoing professional development. Over 20 years ago, when I was much younger, I would travel to different parts of North America at my own expense to learn from proven coaches and practitioners. There were very few formal in-person courses and conferences available at the time, and many of these visits were simply to watch coaches coach and athletes train. It was more of a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ experience where I could witness the precise nuances of coaching or rehabilitation, asking questions sparingly so as not to disturb the moment. While observation and discussion was an important part of the learning process, so to was the actual relationship building and networking, as well as learning how frame intelligent questions that yielded worthwhile and memorable responses.
When someone travels a significant distance to learn at their own expense, they are sacrificing resources and taking a risk with their professional development. Will they learn something new and valuable? Will it be worth their while? Will this knowledge help their career? The sacrifice creates an urgency and importance around the effort, instilling value and significance on the action. Clicking an ‘add to cart’ icon on a digital course product may involve a financial commitment, but not the same physical and emotional effort of making a physical trip and interacting with people in person and in real time.
Some of my most memorable and profound learning experiences have happened on trips where luggage was lost, rental cars broke down in sketchy neighborhoods and GPS navigation was not yet invented. All of these challenges always made me feel that the sacrifice to further my knowledge and education was worth it. If ability and wisdom came easy, perhaps it wouldn’t have had as significant an impact on my development. I look back at those times with tremendous fondness and sometimes wonder if I have lost my passion for learning because I have not been taking the same risks for learning more recently. Then I remember that it’s a little bit harder to jump on a flight or road trip on a whim for the sake of learning when you have three kids and a dog to help take care of daily. But, young or old, we all need to take risks and make sacrifices to better ourselves.
People will always ask me for recommendations on books to learn how to coach sprinting. When I tell them that I don’t believe that there are any good comprehensive books on the subject, they look at me with great disappointment. I do tell them about a few books that influenced me to seek out knowledgeable people to visit in person. But I don’t really think that I have learned much about coaching from a book. Perhaps I am simply not a ‘book learner.’
You will see lots of coaches and professionals post about the books they are reading. Are they actually applying the information that they are reading, or is it more of a show-and-tell exercise to give the impression of accumulated wisdom? I applaud people for taking the time to expand their horizons and expose themselves to a diverse array of resources. Is reading enough to transform you from a regular person to a great practitioner?
I have read a lot of books. My personal library is quite extensive and, on occasion, I may crack open a book to verify a reference or quote. But I do not directly credit any of these books with making me an effective practitioner. I credit a network of brilliant individuals for helping me to become a competent coach. The books may have been part of the contextual journey, but my methods are based on verifiable practices that I have witnessed and then reproduced on my own. In depth conversations have bolstered those practices and provided me with even greater confidence to carry these practices out on my own.
I encourage you to keep reading books. Reading is exercise for the brain. But don’t rely on books as a ‘how-to’ resource, as the information is often one-dimensional and lacking context. If anything, I tend to read books from other fields and industries that provide guidance on general concepts that can be applied to my own work. These types of resources provide inspiration to find better solutions for challenges in my daily work. As an example, I am currently reading a book by Will Guidara titled, “Unreasonable Hospitality,” that focuses on going beyond the expectations of customers and providing an exceptional experience in the restaurant business. It is an enjoyable read that makes me think about improving myself as a person and over-delivering in anything that I do. This book may not make me better at analyzing gait mechanics, but I do believe it has the ability to make me a better friend, husband, father and business person, encouraging me to over-deliver in every personal interaction. In this way, books can provide the motivation to make you better, as opposed to being a road map.
One of the best ways to reaffirm your current knowledge, as well as assess your strengths and weaknesses, is to teach others. In my own experience, relatively early on in my career, I was placed into a situation where I was given the opportunity to teach sport coaches about strength and conditioning concepts and recovery/regeneration principles in a formal educational setting as part of a national coaching certification program. The courses were set up as a year-long commitment, with weekly sessions scheduled in a classroom setting.
I learned a great deal about my own skills and abilities over the five to six years that I taught the course, often to coaches who were much older and more experienced in their sport (and life) than me. Many of the coaches had competed as athletes at the Olympic level, as well as coached other Olympians over their careers. Learning how to organize my materials in an easy to communicate fashion, as well as providing an elevated level of expertise was a weekly challenge that was accompanied by a lot of anxiety and self-doubt initially. As long as I acknowledged their expertise and experience, and coupled that with my own knowledge and personal practices, the exchanges during class time were productive and collaborative. I learned a good deal about different sports as well as my own ability to communicate effectively and develop relationships with experts in their field.
If you are like me, I do not feel comfortable teaching a subject without being over-prepared and entirely confident in my experiences and abilities. If someone thinks that one thousand hours of experience for teaching a subject is adequate, I am striving to have no less than ten to twenty thousand hours of preparation. Being placed in a situation where I had to teach other adult professionals motivated me to be exceptionally prepared and up on my game.
While it is not necessary to teach at the university or college level to challenge yourself, you can volunteer to teach others at every opportunity. When I was a college strength and conditioning coach, I would force myself to hold weekly two-hour classroom sessions with my interns on a variety of subjects throughout the year. Sometimes I would prepare an organized presentation, while other times I would spontaneously break into a lecture about a random subject or timely topic. The exercise of putting myself on the spot to teach others made me a better presenter, communicator and practitioner, particularly when the sessions were more spontaneous and improvised in nature. There were also times when I was questioned on my approach or logic, and had to think deeply about why I was doing what I was doing. Again, these situations were another example undertaking a positive exercise for personal and professional development over the long run.
I have had the pleasure and fortune of working with some very special people. Some of these people have been coaches and athletes, while others have had exceptional careers in other fields. Over 15 years ago, I was asked to work closely with an actor, Benicio Del Toro, who was shooting a film in Vancouver, BC. He needed someone to monitor his fitness activities and, although I wasn’t well versed in celebrity personal training, I thought it would be an interesting gig.
Having now worked with him over eight film productions, we have had lots of time to compare notes. We have discussed learning and education on occasion, and one of his recommendations was that he believes that, “Everyone should take at least one acting class.” When I asked him why, his reply was, “We are all essentially acting most of the time. We rarely present ourselves in a manner that projects how we may actually feel about a person or situation. We are acting in a fashion that best fits the circumstances. Sometimes it is sincere, but there are occasions when it might not be. It is ‘acting’ nonetheless.” It is important to note that he enrolled in an acting class as an elective while attending business school in university and look where it took him. I couldn’t argue with his logic.
The main point of this story is that taking a course or class in something that may not seem to fit your field can feel counter-intuitive. But if we start to open our minds and see the indirect benefits of learning something new and unfamiliar, perhaps we can benefit in our own personal and professional development. The acting class may help us with our communication skills or the ability to make someone else feel comfortable in a potentially uncomfortable situation. Portraying a personality or projecting a sentiment that fits the scenario can be motivating and encouraging for those around you. It may also make it easier for people to follow your lead or hire you for a job or project. Do other people really need to know how you are actually feeling in a particular moment, or should they simply go with the ‘acting’ performance that you are projecting to improve the situation for everyone?
Taking a course in cooking, meditation, a new language, photography or oil painting can grow your brain in ways that you never thought could benefit your career. Not only will you learn a new skill, but you may also meet new friends and acquire a new way of looking at problems and challenges. We always talk about how young athletes should have a well-rounded, multi-lateral sporting background to make them more adaptive and less susceptible to injury. The same could be said for mental resiliency and career adaptability. Take a chance and diversify your education in ways that you may have never envisioned. I will say that I have yet to take that acting class, but I am still considering it.
One area that I continue to work on even at my advanced age is the ability to communicate and connect with other individuals. I know that I can be much better in this area, and it is why I continue to write articles, attend in-person learning events, participate in podcasts and conduct regular presentations and course events. Practice can make perfect but we must also remember that poor practice results in the perpetuation of bad communication.
Whenever I am speaking in public, I make a point of recording the session with both video and audio. I want to be able to observe how I am speaking and communicating with body language, and generally how I am interacting with the people in attendance. Am I facing the audience and speaking directly to them? Is my dialogue audible and clear? Do I speak too fast or pause too frequently with “uumm’s” and “uhhh’s”? Am I using my hands too much when talking and distracting the audience’s attention from my words? Do I use too much text in my PowerPoint slides? Do I rely on too many slides? These are all things that I review after every speaking engagement, and quite often I am disappointed with the performance. I even share clips of the videos with family and friends to get their opinions, and usually they can be equally as ruthless and truthful in their assessments. Negative feedback, provided in a polite manner, can often be the path to positive change and improvement.
One task that I continue to struggle with – exacerbated by my advancing age – is remembering people’s names. If I am introduced to somebody, I can look directly in their eyes and repeat their name with a handshake, and then immediately forget their name not but five seconds later, particularly if I am meeting a group of people. This is something I am trying to improve constantly, even making word associations with people’s names to help ingrain the memory. It is a weakness that I am fully aware of, but continue to struggle with on a regular basis. But, awareness and acknowledgement of a limitation is half the battle and I am committed to improving.
If you have flaws in your communication skills, your message will not be as clear and concise. Your audience may get confused, irritated and/or bored. Good communication skills also have a way of enhancing your credibility and professionalism in the eyes of those around you. While many professionals constantly try to improve their expertise and knowledge in their field, intelligent practitioners learn how to get their message out to their audience in a more efficient, convincing and inspiring manner.
As human beings, we are constantly gravitating towards environments, activities and people that make us feel more comfortable. We want things to get easier, and we also yearn for calming, relaxing situations that we consider safe. If we go back to my second point about traveling to meet and learn from others, 25 years ago traveling by air was much easier in my opinion. Security lines at the airports were not as slow, inconvenient and invasive, planes were not as jam packed with passengers and I actually looked forward to taking a flight somewhere, regardless of the distance.
These days, I actually loathe the entire flying process, from the purchase of the ticket, to the selection of the seat, to the drive to the airport, to the waiting in line, to the search for overhead compartment space and the boarding and un-boarding of the plane. If we had access to the Star Trek transporter room technology and it was guaranteed that 1 in 100 persons would be incinerated in a periodic malfunction, I would probably choose that option over conventional flying today, playing the odds as compared with guaranteed suffering.
Yet, every time that I go through the process of taking a flight, I am better for the experience. The inconveniences and uncomfortable instances make you more resilient. You better appreciate the fact that you have the freedom to travel wherever and whenever you want, despite having a few delays or stopovers. The first class section is for the weak-minded, soft and entitled crowd. At least this is what I keep telling myself as I make my way past these people on my way to the economy seats.
Some people loathe speaking on social media platforms. I have a fear of live streaming content on social media platforms because of the potential to make a mistake or appear awkward, without the ability to edit or reshoot the content. If I do decide to try live streaming, it would not be so much about enhancing my brand, but more so accepting the challenge of doing something that makes me uncomfortable. It would be akin to stepping onstage during open mic night at the local comedy club. I have no aspirations to be a stand-up comic, but doing one set in front of a group of total strangers would seem like a worthy challenge and bucket-list task. But in all cases, I might get a chance to learn something about myself and develop a new skill, not to mention a great story for the grandkids.
Personal and professional development need not always be easy, comfortable and embarrassment free. A combination of anxiety, self-doubt and scar tissue can make you a more formidable practitioner. Consider my prescription a regular metaphorical professional development cold-plunge experience.
While I have already recommended that you teach others, writing and implementing your own course – whether delivered in-person or virtually – will help to develop additional skills and consolidate your knowledge in a more formal manner. Writing and producing a good comprehensive course requires a good deal of organizational skill and focus. Translating all of your knowledge into a finite course curriculum and communicating your ideas over multiple lectures, lessons and demonstrations can be a productive challenge. Refining your thoughts and ideas into easily digestible notes and graphics helps to clarify your overall philosophy and, to some degree, becomes a representation of your knowledge and body of work.
In some ways, course production could be compared with writing and publishing a book. However, where the process becomes even more dynamic with a course is on the delivery end. Teaching your course curriculum in person and interacting with your students can be quite an exhilarating experience, as you witness the faces and expressions of your audience as you teach. There can also be significant interaction with your students as you engage in practical demonstrations, discussions and ongoing questions. This engagement can also help you to improve your course content, as well as the delivery of the information, refining all facets as you teach the curriculum over and over again. You will gain not only a better understanding of your own material, but also how your audience processes and interacts with the information. In my own experience, whenever I teach one of my courses to a new audience, I always end up adding to or modifying my course materials based on the interactions I had with attendees. It can be an ever-evolving process.
In the case of on-line course production and delivery, there are different ways to deliver a course that may include video lectures, practical demonstrations, live presentations and group discussions via teleconferencing applications. Technological advances make online course delivery both easier to construct and implement, but also more user-friendly on the consumer side. My own experiences with online course development have been extremely valuable in not only understanding new technologies, but also finding more creative ways to communicate my thoughts and concepts in a succinct manner. Online platforms also allow users to review your material over-and-over again indefinitely. Hence, you want to make sure that your message is precise and impactful. The process of creating an engaging and valued online experience is an exercise that will make you a better overall educator and practitioner, allowing you to reach a broader audience.
One of the recurring themes with all of these professional development activities is that your individual effort and persistence is what is required to make all of this work. Doing the same comfortable and familiar things over and over again, and expecting to be in demand for your wisdom and services simply does not happen. Exceptional abilities and influence do not arise from a place of comfort. You will not be magically discovered or recruited for your talents unless you are making some noise and breaking some furniture.
Certainly continue to read books and articles, review videos and attend conferences and seminars as a means of gathering more information. But these passive methods of developing your knowledge will not yield the same returns as activities that require you to actively engage others and insert yourself into new, unfamiliar scenarios and environments. My own experiences have proven that my most profound development has been through experiences and initiatives that have produced fear, anxiety and, in many cases, failure.
This does not mean that you have to be reckless in your pursuit of professional development and education. But it does mean that you must be open to trying new things, traveling to unfamiliar places and/or interacting with individuals and groups that you may not have considered like-minded. And most importantly, encourage others in your network to follow the same philosophy, as it is always helpful to get a push from a friend or colleague and take the plunge together. Misery may love company, but enlightenment, personal development and victory always go better when you get to share it with a team.