Coaching your clients to achieve lasting success depends on saying the right things in the right ways at the right times — and really connecting with them. 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.
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.
- 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
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, he or she will destroy the change process for clients. And no evidence shows that feeling bad creates lasting behavior changes.
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?
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.
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?”
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?”
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…”
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?”
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.)
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 humor 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 not 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.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes—in a way that’s personalized for their unique body, preferences, and circumstances—is both an art and a science.
If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification.