In this post I’ll cover the 10 things that the top trainers and nutrition coaches in the world are doing. I’ll also recommend 6 books (many of which you probably haven’t read) that are guaranteed to make you a better coach. If you read these with an open mind I promise you’ll come out of this with a new perspective and an expanded skill set.
- Want to listen instead of read? Download the audio recording here…
In this article, we explore the top 10 things elite coaches – specifically fitness professionals, personal trainers, and strength coaches – do to stand out from the rest of the crowd.
We also recommend 6 books that are guaranteed to make you a better coach immediately.
If you want to become an elite professional yourself, make sure to follow the action steps at the end of each lesson.
Top 10 things elite coaches do
#1: Elite coaches assess
The best coaches in the world perform thorough assessments when working with new clients before doing anything else.
Training-wise, that means movement screens and basic performance tests. Nutrition-wise that means identifying the client’s current food intake and assessing lifestyle variables, including schedule, primary complaints, current level of social support, willingness to change, and more.
Good assessments are the only way to gain real knowledge of a client and make critical coaching decisions. As the popular saying goes, “If you’re not assessing, you’re just guessing.”
What to do: Define the most important things you’ll need to know about a client to build the best program for them. Then come up with the right assessments for finding this stuff out. Remember, only measure what will actually impact your program. (If you’d like to see some of the tools we use, check out our free 5 day course for fitness professionals).
#2: Elite coaches keep detailed statistics
Clients across the world are spending big bucks to get into shape. Often as much as five or ten thousand dollars. And if we can get them into shape, we’re worth every single penny.
But we’re only worth it if we can actually get folks into shape. And the greatest evidence of our value is found in our client record books.
That’s why the best coaches do the following:
- track client adherence
- log how their clients’ bodies are changing and over what time period
- record performance and lifestyle changes
- keep photo albums with before and after photos
Great coaches have nothing to hide. They document everything and can point to compelling evidence that they know what they’re doing. Heck, the best coaches can even introduce you to past clients so you can talk to them directly.
What to do: Keep a detailed book that spotlights a wide range of your clients and their success stories. Highlight before and after photos, body composition change data, and testimonials; and show this book to all prospective clients. Blurb.com is a great web site for creating affordable – and beautiful – books like this.
#3: Elite coaches become life-long learners
Sure, this can mean college degrees. It can also mean diplomas and certifications. But this isn’t just about having some extra letters after your name. We all know how the fitness industry is riddled with crappy weekend certifications and nonsense nutrition courses.
I’m talking about real training. High quality certifications, mentorships, and internships with the top coaches in the field. These aren’t easy to come by. And no, they’re often not cheap. But elite fitness pros find a way to get the best training anyway. They become life-long learners.
Clients can recognize this. But this isn’t just about increasing your status or your bottom line. It’s also about real education and knowledge. Knowing you’re worth every dollar you charge – and that you’re at the top of your field – is priceless.
What to do: Choose a select few coaches that you respect and admire, coaches you think you can really learn from. Then go out and learn everything you can from them. (While reading their books and articles is OK, I’ve found that you learn the most during structured mentorships, internships, or certification programs they offer.)
#4: Elite coaches practice what they preach
Would you trust a realtor who’s never owned a home? How about a broke financial planner? Probably not. So why would anyone hire an out-of-shape trainer?
Now, don’t get me wrong. Top trainers don’t have to look like fitness models or bodybuilders. However, they do have to live the kind of lifestyle they preach to their clients.
They should have a little more muscle, a little less fat, and a better health profile than the average person. This is powerful evidence that they know both how the body works (exercise/nutrition physiology) and how the mind works (change psychology).
What to do: Prioritize your own fitness even over the fitness of your clients. Block time off each day for your own training and meal preparation, even if it means taking fewer clients at first.
#5: Elite coaches reward behaviors, not outcomes
“I need to lose 10 pounds” is an outcome. “I need to exercise five times per week” is a behavior.
Elite coaches know that the outcome is their responsibility and that the behavior is the responsibility of the client.
Followed this week’s habits 90% of the time and didn’t miss any workouts? That’s worthy of a reward — regardless of the outcome — because it’s this pattern of behavior that will eventually lead to success.
It’s for this reason that elite coaches find the best ways to monitor and track client behavior – in addition to tracking outcomes like body weight, body fat, etc. By giving simple behaviors, tracking those behaviors, and rewarding follow-through, success is almost guaranteed.
What to do: Instead of setting outcome goals with your clients, set behavior goals with them. Then, when they nail the behaviors you set out for them, regardless of the outcome, find some way to reward them. Public recognition, fitness related gifts, or free workout sessions are always appreciated.
#6: Elite coaches take regular measurements
Clients want to achieve something measurable, so guess what the best coaches do? They measure everything worth measuring.
Elite fitness pros will monitor and record performance variables like sets, reps, and rest intervals. They’ll monitor nutrition habit and behavior compliance. They’ll monitor workout attendance. They’ll monitor body composition. They’ll take pictures.
Without metrics, no one knows what kind of progress — if any — is actually being made. Without metrics, on-the-fly adjustments are all but impossible.
What to do: Define the most important outcomes and behaviors to measure. Next, come up with the right tools to measure them. And get to measuring. (Again, if you’d like to see some of the tools we use, check out our free 5 day course).
#7: Elite coaches know how to help all clients
In the fitness field (as well as high performance athletics) we’ve seen three types of coaches. First, there are the mediocre coaches. These folks have the most basic training but, because they just don’t know enough or just don’t care enough, they fail to consistently produce client results. Fortunately, these coaches are easy to spot, and they don’t last very long.
Next, there are the good coaches. These folks are really good at getting results in a single client type (usually the type of client that’s just like them). However, if you’re not in their perfect demographic, or not just like them, they’re not very good. And that’s a problem. Their limitations mean that they can only help a small percentage of the clients that hire them.
Finally, there are the elite coaches. These folks are well-trained and adaptable. They’re able to produce results in every type of client. From 18-year-olds to 65-year-olds, from level 1 beginners to level 3 pros, women or men, they can do it all. That makes them indispensable. (And in demand.)
What to do: Once you’ve learned the basics of exercise and nutritional physiology, spend time studying change psychology. This field is rich in strategies for working with every type of client – from the most compliant, to the hardest to reach. (Note: we’ve included the best of these in the Precision Nutrition Certification text – The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition).
#8: Elite coaches use training and nutrition to get results
Top trainers know that exercise alone doesn’t work. And top nutrition coaches know that dieting alone doesn’t work. Both research and real-world evidence have proven that both exercise and nutrition are critical to the body transformation process.
That’s why elite coaches offer integrated nutrition and training solutions as part of their programming*. They oversee exercise programming. They coach the movements. They provide motivation. They also schedule private nutrition sessions. They assess nutritional intake and compliance regularly. They show their clients around the grocery store, and encourage them to prepare and cook their food.
What to do: Regardless of whether you’re a personal trainer, manual therapist, sports medicine doctor, or sports coach, make sure you’re well versed in all aspects of your craft – including nutrition. Just as the last 5 years brought “physio” techniques into the fitness world, the next 5 years will bring nutrition. Make sure you’re leading the charge.
*Just remember: Laws governing the terms and services a nutrition coaching professional can claim depend on education type/degree and licensing requirements, and vary by state/province. Please check your local laws, or contact a legal professional for help determining what you’re allowed to say and do.
#9: Elite coaches care about their clients
Let’s be honest here. If you can look back at the previous nine points and confidently say you follow them, you’re someone who actually gives a shit – about your clients and your craft.
[And if you aren’t following all of them, that’s okay, too. There’s no better time than the present to start making the improvements required to become an elite coach.]
I believe it’s every coach’s responsibility to help every person that comes to see them. And that means actually caring about that person and doing whatever it takes to help them make improvements in their body – and their life.
What to do: Surround yourself with other professionals who actually care – both about their clients and about what they do for a living. The richer your network of high-quality people interested in making the world a better place, the more you’ll care and the better you’ll become.
#10: Elite coaches read more than just training books
I personally read about 4 books a month, about 50 books each year. Many of them are training and nutrition related. During the course of my career, I’ve read hundreds of books directly related to what I do professionally.
However, early in my career I made a fundamental mistake. I focused only on physiology books without paying much attention to an absolutely critical area of coaching: change psychology.
So you don’t make the same mistake as me, here are 6 books you probably haven’t read that will help you immeasurably as a coach and elite fitness pro.
6 books every elite coach should read
1. The Power of Less, by Leo Babauta
Truly an outstanding little book describing the author’s analysis of his own growth and change. If you want to understand how change happens and how new habits are actually formed in the real world, there isn’t a better book than this one.
A short read, chock full of simple, practical — and often counterintuitive — insight into the transformation process. We recommend it to all our coaching clients. And if you want to learn how to coach people who are struggling with change, you’d do well to read it too.
2. Motivational Interviewing, by William R Miller & Stephen Rollnick
Most trainers and coaches are utterly lost when it comes to talking to clients, or understanding how to help them change. That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity. Because few people realize how important the dialog between coach and client really is, and what a key role it plays in the transformation process.
Motivational Interviewing is a very specific style of dialog designed to provide clients with a safe place to contemplate change — and all coaching, whether with elite athletes or with rank beginners, is about facilitating change. The truth is that, in general, the way you speak to your clients is either encouraging change or deepening resistance. And if you haven’t read MI, you’ll be surprised to learn that much of what you’re doing has the effect of actually making change less likely.
3. Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath
They say that change is hard. Yet if that’s true, we sure don’t act like it. Every day, people are happily embarking on new career paths, getting married, having kids, and more. And these are huge changes. So why can’t you convince your clients to eat less processed food and more broccoli?
Well, that’s what authors Chip and Dan Heath investigate in this excellent book. From their research, it’s clear that change isn’t always hard. Rather, when the two sides of our brains – our rational and our emotional brains – act in harmony, change can be effortless. Of course, there are specific steps that must be taken in every change effort. And in Switch, the Heath brothers will walk you through each of them, sharing an exact blueprint for helping others change anything about themselves.
4. Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson et al.
Always pandering to a client is a sign of weakness in a coach. But so is berating them or being completely insensitive to their needs. A great coach must be able to hold clients accountable, and that inevitably means discussing difficult things (eating habits, behavioral patterns, problems with a spouse, compliance issues, etc.).
Crucial Conversations is the best book I’ve found on the topic, and I’ve read quite a number. The authors describe a step-by-step process, from recognizing when the discussion is getting critical (i.e., becoming aware of the emotions at stake) to being honest without being hurtful, to settling an issue and moving forward in agreement.
5. The Blackmail Diet, by John Bear
This is a really hard one to track down, because it’s been out of print for so long. I just happened upon it a few years ago in a used book store and picked it up for $2 based on the name alone. And the short book didn’t disappoint. In it, the author describes a host of weight loss experiments revolving around a single concept: people make a legally-binding pledge to either lose weight or face an unpalatable consequence.
It’s a fascinating read for a coach, with two very important lessons: 1) when people have enough leverage on themselves, anything is possible; 2) clients have to make decisions and commitments when the motivation is high that will have lasting impact when the motivation wanes — which it inevitably will.
6. Influence, by Robert Cialdini
A classic collection of psychology experiments and anecdotes examining how influence actually works. Cialdini weaves a solid argument that people are hard-wired to look for very specific cues before they are convinced of something. Well, your clients will be examining everything about you and your practice, even in ways you might not have anticipated.
I highly recommend picking up this book if only to understand the thought process your clients go through when evaluating your services.
What to do: Start with any one of the books above and get reading. Now, if you’re not much of a reader, start with the shortest one, “The Power of Less”. Here’s a link to pick up a copy. Alternatively, think about participating in the upcoming PN Certification group.
Becoming an elite coach
Great coaching is developed over time, through education and practice.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
You can help people build sustainable nutrition and lifestyle habits that will significantly improve their physical and mental health—while you make a great living doing what you love. We'll show you how.
If you’d like to learn more, consider the PN Level 1 Nutrition Coaching Certification.