This question gets brought up in fitness circles all the time. In fact, I was presenting a research poster at the 2017 ISSN conference this afternoon, and it came up again during a great conversation with my friend Jay Woith, who was kind enough to stop by. I am currently two weeks out, and both Jay and his wife are competitive physique athletes, so we were discussing some of the “weird” side effects of prep that only competitors (and their spouses) really know about. I suppose we should have been talking about the content of my poster, which compared the validity of a variety of body composition testing methods, but the ISSN crowd sure loves to talk bodybuilding. Anyway, I figured I would put my two cents down in writing, since this topic is so commonly discussed.
I tend to lean libertarian in all matters regarding the trade of goods and services, so my first thought is, you don’t need to do anything- your value as a prep coach is exactly what someone will pay you to prep them for a show, whether you’re a seasoned veteran or you’ve never stepped foot on stage. Having said that, it’s common to see people jump into prepping athletes very, very quickly. Some people seem to become a coach the second they step off stage for the first time, and others begin prepping athletes having never done a prep themselves. On the surface, I’d say this probably isn’t ideal, and I would be very hesitant to trust them with my prep (and my money).
Nonetheless, I think categorizing an individual as “has competed” or “has not competed” is overly reductionist. For example, let’s not ignore the obvious: Just because an individual has competed, doesn’t mean they’ve competed well. If they technically have competed, but have never showed up in great shape, that’s not helping me hire them. On the flip side, just because they have a great physique and have had great showings on stage, doesn’t mean they can take you to that level, or even maximize your potential. There are some genetic unicorns out there who get in really great shape doing some really stupid things.
There are a lot of factors to consider when evaluating a potential coach. Do they have the basic “textbook knowledge” in exercise, nutrition, and physiology? A degree or certification in a relevant field can be reassuring here, but isn’t necessarily a must. Do they stay on top of the relevant research as it emerges? Do they have the practical experience? This could mean personally, as a competitor, or this could refer to their previous track record as a coach. Are they prompt, organized, and responsive? Are they passionate about teaching you the process as you go? Do they have an appropriate client load that will allow them to devote sufficient time to your prep? Is their personality and communication style compatible with yours?
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider, and the relative importance of each factor will vary from client to client. There are coaches who have never competed that check off plenty of these boxes, and there are seasoned competitors that check off very few of them.
Having said that, contest prep can bring you to some strange places, both psychologically and physiologically. It’s a unique experience with unique challenges, and there is tremendous benefit in having “been there” if you’re hoping to coach others through it. Personally experiencing the rigors of contest prep equips the coach with a level of knowledge, understanding, and empathy that, in my opinion, cannot be obtained by any other route. I would never claim that a coach must have competed prior to prepping others, but this is one of the primary reasons that I would never personally hire a coach that had never driven themselves to obtain a stage-ready level of conditioning and put it all on the line in a competitive setting.
I have always planned to coach some physique athletes one day. However, I intend to wait until I have accomplished some things that my future clients will appreciate, just so they can be certain that they’re in good hands. A few years ago I was thinking about when it would be the “right time” for me to begin coaching, and I decided that I wanted to conduct laboratory research in the bodybuilding population, prep myself through a few full competition seasons, earn my pro card, and finish up my PhD in a related field before I thought about bringing on clients. Admittedly, these are excessive barriers to entry and by no means represent necessary coaching prerequisites; this is just the path I chose for myself. But with all the highly qualified prep coaches that are out there at this point, I think consumers deserve to hire someone who has put in the effort to acquire both the educational background and the practical experience to support an effective coaching service.
So, bottom line, hire whoever you want. Just remember that you are the employer in that relationship, and the coach is your employee. As such, you’re well within your rights to demand that the prospective coach has put in the work necessary to develop a strong skill set and continuously makes an effort to provide an acceptable level of service. And if people want to hire you to prep them, more power to you, whatever your background may be. But, if you’re thinking about getting into coaching or want to take your coaching skills to the next level, I do believe that there is tremendous value in the experience of competing.