Effective Coach Talk

What to say to clients and why it matters

By Krista Scott-Dixon and Ryan Andrews

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Coaching clients to lasting success depends on saying the right things in the right ways at the right times and really connecting. In this article, we’ll begin to show you how.

Have you ever worked with a client with whom you never really connected?

Perhaps you played the role of the “typical trainer”: You provided nuggets of information, random statistics and boot-camp-style encouragement. The client played the role of “obedient follower”, with stock responses and hyper-active nods.

You both went through the “proper” motions, but had no chemistry and got no lasting results.

Time for a change.

Coaching clients to lasting success depends on saying the right things in the right ways at the right times — and really connecting. In this article, we’ll begin to show you how.

This isn’t a hocus-pocus way of “tricking” your clients into success. (If only it were that easy.) Instead, you collaborate with clients as a partner and a guide, helping them instead of directing or pushing them.

It’s all about change

Can we guarantee that our coaching strategies will always work for you? No. There’s no holy gospel of coaching.

But we’ve reviewed the research on what really works. We’ve consulted the experts who are really getting results. We’ve tried this stuff on ourselves. Most importantly, we’ve helped thousands of men and thousands of women make real, measurable, and lasting change.

We’ll share what we know and how you can benefit.

We’ll cover:

  • coaching styles;
  • powerful language;
  • listening techniques; and
  • practical solutions.

Then, we’ll invite you to follow up with our free, five-day video course for fitness professionals.

The payoff: healthier clients who lead healthier lives.

Let’s start by looking at what’s wrong with fitness coaching.

Awfulness coaching vs. awesomeness coaching

Awfulness coaching

The nutrition and exercise field is full of scary-looking, arms-crossed disciplinarian-type trainers: men and women who look like they’re more ready to punch you in the face than pick you up when you’re down.

They’re not really meanies. They’re just mimicking what they see other trainers/coaches doing.

They think it’s somehow required.

Perhaps without realizing it, they’re doing Awfulness Coaching.

Awfulness Coaching says the client is broken and has to be fixed. It focuses on what’s wrong with the client — and how to purge it. It identifies “flaws” and obsesses over them.

It views good nutrition, movement, and health habits as something people have to be shamed into. It tells people to get into the gym and work off sins. It tells clients that they deserve to feel bad.

An awfulness coach is a drill sergeant and an unrelenting ass-kicker. With all the yelling-in-the-face and booting-in-the-butt, clients don’t know what direction to run in. They just know they need to get away.

Fear motivates us… but only briefly. Extreme approaches and drill-sergeant-style coaching can produce the most impressive results short-term, but almost never work over the long term.

Something deep inside human beings resists being pressured into new decisions. Coach Hardass may try to use coercion. But along the way, s/he’ll destroy the change process for clients. And no evidence shows that feeling bad creates lasting behavior changes.

Awesomeness coaching

Awesomeness Coaching, on the other hand, finds the awesomeness within the client.

We help the client find what’s fun and joyful in their life, and chase it. We view nutritious eating, movement, and health habits as a path to living life with purpose. We talk to clients about getting outside to play. About feeling good in their bodies, not ashamed or exhausted.

An awesomeness-based coach is a guide on the road to total wellness. While clients may be hesitant, we can grab their hand and offer to go in with them rather than shoving them forward alone.

Do you want your clients scared of you? Or do you want your clients to feel like working with you is a celebration of health and fitness while they love every minute of it?

Client-centered coaching

As a coach, you have considerable expertise. But your clients are the experts on their own bodies and lives. They live in their bodies and experiences 24-7. You don’t.

Clients have their own abilities and reasons for change. Your job is to find and develop these. When a client can identify their own limiting factors and then — more excitingly — propose their own solutions, we have a recipe for sustainable, long-term behavior change.

Another bonus: we tend to believe what we hear ourselves say. If a client generates and describes a solution, they’ll likely embrace it. (More on language in a sec.)

Remember, it’s about making decisions based on what really works best for the client, not based on what you think should work best for them. This is client-centered, rather than coach-centered, coaching.

Language is powerful

You can help clients examine their behaviors and work towards their goals with the following kinds of questions.

Explore

Ask open-ended questions that explore options, values, and possible outcomes, without judgement.

  • “What things are most important to you? How does your exercise and eating fit into this?”
  • “What sorts of things would you like to accomplish in your life?”
  • “What would you like to see change?”
  • “If things were better with your eating/exercise, what would be different?”
  • “What have you already tried? What worked/didn’t work?”

Imagine

Help clients visualize a new way of living by using their creative imaginations (just like in kindergarten).

  • “Imagine you can…”
  • “Imagine you are already…”
  • “Imagine that you have the body and health you desire. What did it take for you to achieve it?”

Breed success

Be solution-focused and emphasize that often, clients have already succeeded. All you need to do is help them expand the awesome.

  • “In the past, when were you successful with this, even just a little bit?”
  • “How could we do more of that?”

Sense into problems

Share your observations and intuitions. This is non-confrontational, and helps to make sure you and the client are on the same page with the immediate issue.

  • “I get the sense that…”
  • “It seems to me like…”

Speculate

Open-ended, speculative statements can get clients thinking and responding to possible choices. These aren’t exactly questions, but act like them.

  • “I wonder what it would be like if you…”
  • “I wonder if we could try…”

Evoke change talk

Get the client talking about change on their own terms. Examples include:

  • “In what ways does this concern you?”
  • “If you decided to make a change, what makes you think you could do it?”
  • “How would you like things to be different?”
  • “How would things be better if you changed?”
  • “What concerns you now about your current exercise and eating patterns?”

Assess readiness

Establish how confident and ready a client is to make a change. No readiness means no change — no matter how great a coach you are.

Once clients identify a behavior they want to change, follow up with this kind of question:

If you decided to change, on a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that you could change, when 1 represents not at all confident and 10 equals extremely confident?”

If they respond with a 9 or 10, great. If they respond with a lower number, ask them how they can make the selected behavior less overwhelming.

Or the “Half Measures Rule”:

“If you suck at something, cut it in half.”

In other words, keep dividing a large problem or challenge into small, manageable steps until you can handle it.

Plan next steps

Instead of directing a client forward, have them generate their own solutions. Examples:

  • “So, given all this, what do you think you will do next?”
  • “What’s next for you?”
  • “If nothing changes, what do you see happening in five years? If you decide to change, what will it be like?”
  • “How would you like things to be different?”

Give advice… carefully

Find out if clients want your advice. Some will, some won’t. If you do give advice, keep it general and experiential. For example:

  • “In my work with clients like yourself, I’ve found that…”

Bringing it all together: Change scenarios

Now that you have some ideas for powerful coaching language to use, let’s apply them in some specific scenarios to move the change process forward.

Scenario 1: Change talk wedge

1. Validate and affirm the opposite of what they should be doing.

Yeah, we know it sounds weird. But you might say something like “Wow, it really sounds like you have a lot on your plate. I can see how it’s tough to schedule gym time.” Or: “I know it can be hard to resist those home-made brownies.”

(Be sincere here. Genuinely empathize, if you can. Sarcasm usually backfires and creates hostility.)

2. Wait.

After validating and affirming the opposite, be quiet. Don’t be afraid to open up the space and let them fall into it. No rush. Be patient, empathetic, and attentive.

3. Listen for “change talk”.

It won’t always come, but many times clients will argue for changing their behaviors. Client: “Yeah, I know I do have a lot going on. But I really should do XYZ. I know I would feel better.” Or: “Honestly, I don’t think I really need three brownies. I’d probably be happy with just one.”

4. Drive the wedge in to that “change talk” opening.

Using their language, reflect and imply (but don’t push) a next action. Focus on concrete to-dos. You: “It sounds like you think you’d feel better if you did XYZ?” Or: “It sounds like maybe 1 brownie would be enough for you?”

5. Wait again.

Listen for further change talk.

6. Repeat as needed.

Keep wiggling the “change wedge” in further and further, slowly. Go at their speed.

Scenario 2: Continuum

Use after listening for change talk. Be sure you understand the situation first.

Have clients imagine a spectrum or continuum of behaviors from worse to better. Then:

1. Help them move a “notch”.

Highlight the benefits of doing so. Coach: “OK, so it sounds like you want to do X but going all the way to Y feels like too much. The good news is that you don’t have to do that all right away! What a relief, eh? What could you do that would be X+1?”

1a. Scale back as needed.

Coach: “X+2 is awesome — we’ll get to that. But what about X+1 instead? That seems even more manageable.”

2. Follow up with strategy for immediate execution.

Coach: “X+1 sounds like a great idea! How are you going to make that happen today? And how can I help?”

3. Once action is assigned, book follow up.

Coach: “OK, mark this on your calendar — I’d like to hear from you tomorrow/by Friday, to tell me how you did with X+1.”

Scenario 3: Crazy questions

You can also ask some questions that your clients might not expect.

1. Listen, validate, affirm.

Preface with “I know this is wacky but…” Coach: “It sounds like [reiterate what they just said about their understanding of the problem]. OK, I’m going to ask you two crazy questions, and I know this is going to sound really weird, but just humour me…”

2. Ask your questions.

  • What is GOOD about X behavior [where X behavior is the problem behavior we want to change]?
  • What is BAD about changing? What would you lose or give up if you got rid of X?”

3. Normalize and empathize.

You can begin by normalizing and empathizing with the unwanted behavior first, using the seemingly weird technique of first arguing (slightly) in favor of changing.

Coach: “Wow, yeah, it sounds like there’s lots going on there for you. I think we’d all want a few cookies in that situation!” Client: “Yeah, but I really should find a better way to deal with this…”

Hey lookee here! They proposed change, not the coach!

4. Allow space/time to grieve the loss of the status quo.

Coach: “Well, tell you what. There’s no rush to do this. When you’re ready, why don’t you try…”

  • …moving one “notch” along the continuum?
  • …doing the behavior you proposed?
  • …thinking about how you could more effectively live the values you describe?

5. But don’t let them off the hook.

Follow up in a few days as needed.

Scenario 4: Choose your own adventure

1. Affirm, validate, “hear”, normalize.

Coach: “Yes, I hear you and understand what you’re thinking/feeling/experiencing, and it’s quite normal. Lots of people go through this.”

2. Ask leading, rhetorical questions.

This isn’t a dialogue invitation; it’s a “tell yourself what to do” question.

Coach: “It sounds like you already have a good sense of what some of the key issues are. Knowing this, if you were the coach, what would you recommend?”

In other words: How would you, the client, solve your own problem?

3. Rank confidence.

After they’ve proposed a solution, have the client rank their own confidence in doing the solution.

4. Affirm and book follow up.

Tell them you think they’ve come up with a good solution and then ask them to check back in a few days to share their success.

Next step: free, five-day video course

There’s a lot more to being a great fitness coach than counting reps, intervals, and weights. Without diet change, exercise coaching alone yields as little as half a pound of true fat loss per month.

That’s not good.

Adding nutrition coaching to your practice will triple your effectiveness — at least.

That’s why our coaching team created a free, five-day video course for fitness professionals. Click this link to sign up for the free course:

The good news: if you can influence your client to change their nutrition while also coaching them at the gym, pool, or track, you’ll get exponentially better results.

That means that if — like 90% of all clients — your client is looking for fat loss, they can expect to lose 3-5 times more fat if you help them make changes to their diet, and support them in making these changes.

Yes! Three to five times more effective as a fitness professional, just by helping your clients to change their nutrition habits!

If you can spare 12 minutes a day for the next five days for our free video course the course will teach you:

  • How to integrate nutrition coaching in a personal training or strength
 coaching environment
  • How to assess a new client
  • How to devise a nutrition plan based on that assessment
  • What stats to measure and how
  • How to optimize a nutrition plan based on those stats

And we don’t just talk about this stuff. We show you how to do it. In fact, we even give you all the forms and resources you need to go and do it right away.

This course will make you a better professional.  Budget about 12 minutes to watch each video and additional time to download and look through all the resources. Keep the emails, and you’ll be able to refer back to the course whenever you like.

Happy — and effective — coaching.

About us

Thanks for reading this far. You’re probably wondering who we are and how we know all this stuff.

Ryan Andrews, MS, RD, CSCS

 Effective coach talk: What to say to clients and why it matters.

Ryan is a world-leading educator in the fields of exercise science and nutrition.

He completed his education in exercise and nutrition at the University of Northern Colorado, Kent State University, and Johns Hopkins Medicine. Apart from having earned nearly every accreditation available (Registered Dietician, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, two Masters degrees, and more), Ryan was a nationally ranked competitive bodybuilder from 1996-2001.

Ryan is an expert coach who has trained and worked at the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, one of the most recognized and awarded research institutions in the world. He currently works as part of the Precision Nutrition team. He played a large role in helping develop the Precision Nutrition Lean Eating Coaching Program, and has personally coached five cohorts of Lean Eating clients.

Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD

krista3 Effective coach talk: What to say to clients and why it matters.

A former university researcher and teacher in the field of gender, work, and public health, Dr. Scott-Dixon now serves as the research director for the Healthy Food Bank foundation and the editor-in-chief of Spezzatino magazine – the food magazine that really feeds people.

Passionate about women’s fitness since her own body transformation in the mid-1990s, Dr. Scott-Dixon has run the extremely popular women’s weight training and nutrition site Stumptuous.com since 1997.

Dr. Scott-Dixon is an expert coach and specialist in adult education. She currently works as part of the Precision Nutrition team. She’s the curriculum designer for both the men’s and women’s Lean Eating Coaching Program, and has personally coached three cohorts of Lean Eating Clients.

Both Ryan and Krista have collaborated with Dr. John Berardi to develop Precision Nutrition’s coaching and certification programs. And through these programs, Precision Nutrition coaches thousands of clients each year, helping them to change their deepest behavior patterns and their bodies, using the very techniques discussed in this article.

More about Precision Nutrition

Precision Nutrition is life-changing, research-driven nutrition coaching for everyone. We translate science into real results for real people, and we collect more nutrition coaching data than anyone in the world.

Precision Nutrition also certifies fitness professionals and trainers worldwide through its Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition textbook and online course so they can help their clients lose fat and live healthier, more satisfying lives.

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

Take the next step…

Regardless of which field you’re coming from, developing your skill set and becoming a great coach takes education and practice.

If you’d like to fast track the process, consider working with us.

Our next Precision Nutrition certification group kicks off shortly and is designed to teach fitness, strength, nutrition, and rehab professionals how to be awesome coaches and help clients get in the best shape of their lives.

Since we only take a limited amount of students, and the program sells out every time, I strongly recommend you add your name to our presale list below.

When you do, you get the chance to sign up 24 hours before everyone else. Even better, you save $200 off the cost of the program.

Don't miss out! Get on the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification presale list today!

If you're interested in the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification, we strongly recommend you join the presale list below.

We'll send you more info about the program, and give you the chance to register 24 hours before everyone else. You'll also save over $200.