Most fitness pros know that helping clients develop physical skills is critical. But most don’t realize that helping clients develop mental skills may be even more important. Welcome to brain training for fitness.
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Changing your body and improving your health isn’t just a physical process.
It’s a psychological process too.
The best coaches don’t just teach physical skills. They also teach mental skills: the psychological capabilities necessary for focus, motivation, resilience, and change.
So what are mental skills?
Mental skills cover a wide range of psychological abilities, probably too many to cover here. But here are a few examples to help point you in the right direction.
- Mental skill: Staying focused
Purposely placing attention where it needs to be, even in the face of distraction. For example: Sticking to a healthy eating plan despite a busy work schedule. Or staying on track with a home workout while your kids are crawling the walls.
- Mental skill: Re-focusing
Bringing your attention back, as soon as possible, when things get off track. For example: Immediately getting back to a normal healthy eating routine after a holiday weekend of partying. Or finishing a workout after a text message from your boss.
- Mental skill: Goal follow-through
Setting a goal, working toward it, and staying on track with it. For example: Deciding that sleep is more important than evening TV and sticking to that priority almost every night.
- Mental skill: Identifying core values
Understanding your most important values in life, making them a priority, and taking steps to live them. For example: Realizing that your #1 motivation is to set a good example for your children and following through on that.
- Mental skill: Developing awareness
Understanding how your immediate thoughts and feelings are intimately connected to your behaviors. For example: Discovering that different emotions reliably lead to specific eating choices. Or specific external circumstances reliably cause you to attend or skip the gym.
- Mental skill: Uncovering stories about ourselves
Realizing that we’re constantly “writing” stories and scripts for ourselves and acknowledging that we have the power to rewrite them with a different ending. For example: “I’m a gym dork” can be re-written to “I’m showing up every day and trying hard” and eventually “Hey! I just did my first chin-up! Gym dork begone!”.
- Mental skill: Releasing wondering and worrying
Confronting anxieties, fears, or worries head on instead of shrinking from them. For example: Noticing and naming that you’re “worried whether this will work” or “that you might fail” and that it’s okay to feel these things—everyone does—and that these feelings are no reason to pull back.
- Mental skill: Limiting factors
Identifying limiting factors (the things in your way right now) and changing them. For example: Maybe you hate your job, have unsupportive friends, or live in a place unsuitable to your goals. Identifying that and working to change it.
- Mental skill: Getting “un-stuck”
Knowing when unhelpful beliefs or patterns are in your way. For example: “I guess I just don’t have any willpower”. And being able to create new beliefs or patterns. For example: “I am in charge of my choices”.
- Mental skill: Impulse and emotion control
Seeing when impulses and emotions tend to get the better of you, paying attention to that, and working to improve it. For example: Improving your automatic responses to being angry, sad, or bored.
- Mental skill: Discomfort
Embracing and sitting with discomfort. For example: When learning a new movement or habit, knowing it’s supposed to suck. And doing it anyway.
- Mental Skill: Resilience
Trusting that you’ll survive, no matter what, and bouncing back from “failures”, defeats, and/or setbacks. For example: “That bad thing happened and it’s okay; I’m going to learn something from it and be better because of it”.
Whew, a lot of mental skills there! And we’re just scratching the surface. There are a host of additional skills your clients will need to achieve long-term health and fitness. But don’t get overwhelmed. These can be built.
As Dr. Berardi outlined in his recent article, when you break down your goals into skills, and skills into daily practices, anything can be improved.
That’s where you come in.
Just like you help your clients train their muscles and energy systems, you can help them build their mental skills.
Why mental skills are so critical in fitness
It’s no wonder 95% of the people who lose weight seem to gain it back. Changing your eating and exercise habits is one of the hardest problems to solve.
Sure, the physiology is easy. Eat the right amount; for most people that’s less. Move appropriately; for most people that’s more. Do those two things and you lose weight, improve your blood markers, and experience better health.
However, when someone attempts to eat less or move more, they’re working against gravity. They’re trying to overcome the inertia of current behaviors. And these behaviors exist for a reason; they fit perfectly into the person’s life as it is now.
That’s why, when you’re trying to change (or if change has found you, and is dragging you along kicking and screaming), you also have to:
- Manage the discomfort and anxiety we all feel when trying new things.
- Focus on purposely doing certain things (many of which are new) and not doing other things (many of which you actually want to do more).
- Listen to your experience by letting go of what’s not working, and considering other new and different options.
- Negotiate for what you need with the people around you including family, friends, and colleagues.
- Stay resilient, flexible, and optimistic in the face of inevitable setbacks which are bound to zap your energy, and even.
- Change some of your beliefs about who you are, what you need, and “how things should work”.
Sure, it’s all doable. But it’s a far cry from the “just eat less and move more” advice we hear in the fitness industry nowadays.
It can be downright tough. And this doesn’t just apply to fitness. Think about something you’ve struggled to change in your own life; family relationships, work environment, etc. Not always easy, is it?
And that’s why the mental game is so important.
When you help your clients build mental skills, you’re helping them become more powerful, confident, and better able to handle whatever life throws at them.
You also help them get better at stress management.
Mental skills and stress management
Along with helping your clients through the change process, brain skills help them cope with stress.
It’s a tough old world out there. That’s why we ask clients about their stress levels the day they begin coaching with us. Not only do we want to learn about their stressors. We also want to learn about how they deal with those stressors.
The result: People generally arrive at our doorstep feeling battered and bruised. Maybe you notice the same thing too?
Not only have clients tried many diet or exercise plans before coming to see us (which makes them understandably frustrated, anxious, and discouraged), they’re also often trying to cope with a host of serious lifestyle stressors.
- 40% of women and over 20% of men say they are often on the brink of a breakdown and struggle with stress management.
- Nearly two-thirds of men and women say their work is moderately stressful, and almost one-third say it’s highly stressful.
- Almost three-quarters of women say taking care of others (such as children or aging parents) is moderately stressful, and 15% say it’s extremely stressful. The rest are possibly taking care of pet rocks or turtles.
No wonder people feel stressed. They’re balancing work, family and other life demands. Often they’re also students or taking care of other people.
In the face of these other pressures, change gets even harder. And learning mental skills becomes even more crucial.
Because when you’re stressed out, or have other things on your mind, you…
Don’t want to change.
You want to hunker down into what you know, and cope in any way you can (which often includes self-medicating with stuff like drinking or eating too much).
Might not take care of yourself…even a little.
In fact, “self-care” or “time for myself” to a busy parent might seem as realistic as “win a billion dollars and go live in a moon colony”.
Feel rushed, distracted, and pressured.
Who has time to eat right or go to the gym? I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom some days! you think.
Are on an emotional roller coaster.
Your thoughts and feelings can either get rigid and repetitive, go numb and blank, or swing all over the place from crying jags to stony silence to red-hot rage.
Without practicing mental skills, it’s really hard to deal with all of this. It’s hard to take steps to improve your life. Without mental skills, you stay “stuck”.
Conversely, mental skills can help you navigate the challenges that life inevitably throws your way.
Even better, with mental skills you start to see challenge as a game. A game that you can win. And even—eventually—enjoy.
Bring it on, life. I got this.
That’s why coaches who can teach mental skills get results, big-time.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows
Okay, you’re sold. You’re ready to build mental skills coaching into your practice. Bring on the brain training!
First, let me offer you some advice.
When our clients begin Precision Nutrition Coaching, many are surprised to find out that we don’t just talk about what to eat, or even how to eat.
Sure, we do talk about all that juicy stuff. However, many lessons ask clients to think about and observe their “inner game”: their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and worldviews. And many daily practices are designed for mental skill building.
To some folks, this seems kinda weird. Maybe a bit fluffy. Or intrusive.
Where’s the real nutrition? I’m not here for therapy. Who cares what I think? None of your business. Cut the woo-woo and give me some science!
You might want to prepare yourself for the same thing. When introducing mental skill development, you’ll raise a few eyebrows at first. And that’s okay.
As a coach, it’s your job to acknowledge that resistance. To respect people’s objections, concerns, and make them feel heard.
Let them know you understand. Then you can ask them to come along with you slowly—maybe very slowly—through the process of learning something new.
Even the most doubtful of clients can undergo a major mind-shift after doing this work. Indeed, at PN, most of the early doubters change their tune considerably.
Eventually, people say things like:
I had no idea that was relevant. Wow. What a huge difference it’s made.
You’ve expanded my awareness. Thanks!
I’m having “lightbulb moments” all over the place.
These are the kinds of breakthroughs that come as clients build mental skills.
They can see how learning mental skills directly affects their ability to make smart choices. And perhaps more importantly, to feel good about those choices.
Because once a client starts acquiring mental skills, they see for themselves how powerful those skills are.
For example, they realize:
- The more you’re aware of what you are thinking, feeling, choosing, and believing, the more able you are to change these things.
- The more you can consciously calm yourself or proactively plan ahead, the less likely you are to make impulsive, stressed-out choices.
- The more aware you are that your “life scripts” are just that—scripts—the more you’ll feel like you can change and re-write them.
That is real empowerment.
That is deep, meaningful, life-long change.
Skills for coaches, skills for clients
Teaching you how to coach mental skill development is outside the scope of this article; mostly because you can’t learn what you haven’t experienced yourself.
That’s why I always say that if you want to coach mental skills, you probably need to get some mental skills coaching yourself, first.
For a lot of fitness and health professionals, that can feel weird. Why should you put the time into working on yourself instead of focusing on your clients?
- To build your own capacity.
Coaching is a demanding occupation. By developing your own mental skills, you’ll be better able to manage stress, work through change, and do the same psychological backflips you’re asking clients to do. This means a better life for you and more energy to help clients. In fitness, we tell moms to take care of themselves so they’re better able to care for their children. The same applies to you.
- To feel what your clients are feeling.
The only way to really understand what someone else is going through is to experience it yourself. It’s hard to advocate for (and sell) coaching if you don’t believe in coaching enough to get some yourself. And we need help in some areas—especially when it comes to mental skills.
Understand that outside change depends on inside change.
Trying to help a client change their body without also working on their brain, guts, and soul is a recipe for failure.
They either end up deeply unhappy, surprisingly dissatisfied, or regressing faster than it took to see progress in the first place.
Conversely, if you help them work on their “inner game”, they achieve “deep health”, integrity, and consistent performance.
Recognize that change is hard.
That’s normal. When there’s a lot of stress involved, behavior change can feel impossible.
It’s also why the “Coach Hardass McScreamy” approach doesn’t work so well. “Just do it, you pathetic sack of crap” doesn’t help when you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and incapable.
You can make change a lot easier by adding mental skills training to your exercise and nutrition programming for clients. This will help with their focus, motivation, resiliency, and more.
Get some coaching for your own mental game.
If you want to become a master coach, you need more capacity. Better stress management. And more energy for your clients. All of which require that you build these important brain skills.
As a bonus, by going through mental skills training yourself, you’ll get an inside look into what your clients are experiencing while you train them. It’s a double win.
In the end, if you’re the type of coach who helps clients master their mental skills, you’ll be head and shoulders above everyone else in the field. You’ll build a better reputation, more business, and a rewarding practice.
Mental skills training from Precision Nutrition
As mentioned, we teach mental skills to clients as part of our Precision Nutrition Coaching program.
In addition, our Precision Nutrition Level 2 Certification Master Class includes the double-whammy of brain training for professionals.
We not only coach fitness and health pros through their own mental skills development. We also teach them how to coach clients through the same thing.
So, if you’d like to take your coaching to the next level—and develop into the best possible trainer and fitness professional—consider working with us.
Our next Precision Nutrition Level 2 Certification Master Class kicks off shortly and is the exact training program we use to onboard our in-house supercoaches.
You’ll get backstage access to our newest coaching tools and technologies. And you’ll learn our proven system for delivering the results you want and your clients need.
Since we only take a limited number of students, and since 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 get a huge discount off the cost of the program.
[Note: Our Level 2 Master Class is for students and graduates of our Level 1 Certification Program. So, if you haven’t yet participated in Level 1, that’s where you should begin.]