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Lesley Aitken is a specialist in sales and marketing, with a career in the fitness industry spanning more than 25 years.  She is the founder of Nurturing Skills, which works with companies to create exceptional teams that can deliver the ultimate customer service to their members. 

Recently Lesley has been working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to design and deliver a programme called True Grit, which aims to get young people on the Government’s Kickstart Scheme and into ultimately work.

Over the last seven months Lesley has coached more than 300 youngsters and seen many turn their lives around. During the course of this work, Lesley has seen many synergies with the fitness industry and believes there are valuable lessons to be learned on how to get 18-24 year olds into health clubs and leisure centres.

Here, she shares her story:

Safe space
I first met 21-year-old Shawn during his four-week True Grit programme, where I coached him and others through employability skills and self-development, and became his coach and mentor post True Grit.

Before the programme, like many others, Shawn lacked confidence and self-esteem. Many of the participants didn’t believe they were good enough for work; they suffered terrible anxiety, didn’t take part in any physical activity and this knocked the motivation to try to get a job or even to consider volunteering work as a stepping stone to getting on the employment ladder.

By engaging with me and others on the course, Shawn gradually built confidence. It became a safe place for small groups of twenty 18-24 year olds to engage, discuss and overcome challenges and go on a journey of self-development to prepare for work.  A safe place to escape from home pressures, Covid, gaming or hanging out on social media and participate in a course that didn’t just focus on ‘how to get a job and stay in a job’, but also on physical activity for the mind and body.

The youths quickly realised how many employees focus on the importance of wellbeing for their staff, and therefore how important it was to be able to talk to potential employees about how they look after themselves.

Working with these youngsters, and seeing how much they developed with our support in such a short space of time, really opened my eyes to our industry’s lack of engagement with this group. We have to ask ourselves, why aren’t we engaging more 18-24 year olds in physical activity?

Perhaps we don’t know where to engage with them? You might be surprised to learn that 84% of True Grit Participants joined our private True Grit Facebook group, where they shared hobbies, interests, ideas and stories about their journey to finding work.

They also participated in short, live workouts at home delivered by international fitness presenter, Pierre Pozzuto, and read, engaged and commented on information about health, wellbeing and nutrition; some even shared recipes and pictures of meals they conjured up.

Cross-sector learning
So what can we, as an industry, take away from this? Could you design a free course to help young people find work?

We are masters of people skills in our industry. Surely we can help 18-24 year olds improve their communication skills and confidence for work, and engage them in physical activity along the way by creating safe spaces/workshops where they feel mentored and at ease, whilst being with others of a similar age. You may even find a shinning star or two for your own organisation!

Shawn is savvy with IT, social media and digital stuff, like most young people. It was no surprise to me that landed a Junior Web Developer role, after call centre, bar job and cleaning job interview offers. Simply by building his confidence and reducing his anxiety he’s secured a role he didn’t believe he would achieve at the beginning of True Grit, and he’s not alone! I have so many similar success stories.

Perhaps reading Shawn’s message to other youngsters about how exercise has changed his mindset and his life will help you think differently about how we could, and should, communicate with and inspire our young people.

In all my years (many of them) in the fitness industry, this has been the most rewarding role, and the personal learning I’ve gained by working with 18-24 year olds in very tough Covid times has been immense. It can be exhausting and mentally draining because, as much as you want to, you can’t fix everything for everyone, but you can mentor, support and get young people moving more.

Here’s my advice for working with young people: believe in them regardless of their home life, background or education.

Let them talk, to find their voice in new situations, and listen lots. Understand them to be able to guide them, and never force them into doing anything, such as physical activity. Inspire them, talk their language, and eventually they’ll join in.

You’ll know you’ve done your job well when you get personal and an emotional thank you for changing their lives and you get to share their excitement for trying something new, like going for a walk, going for their first interview and, better still, getting the job they wanted.