Is your coaching style helping—or hurting—clients? It’s worth exploring. Because, when your go-to fitness coaching techniques kill progress, it’s time to try some different methods.
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What’s that in your hand? A donut?
Get off your butt and let’s see some pushups, you pathetic, unmotivated blob of goo!
If you’ve been hanging around fitness media lately, it might be. (Cough cough Biggest Loser cough “fitspiration”.)
The idea here is that pointing out how much people suck is “motivating”.
That if we can “convince” people of the awfulness of their current lifestyle—that what they eat, how they move (or don’t), and what they look like is all wrong—they’ll finally get the memo, and change.
Just one problem (aside from the fact that it’s kind of a bummer for all involved):
That approach doesn’t work.
At Precision Nutrition we call this method “awfulness-based coaching”.
This style of fitness coaching focuses on “fixing” a client’s “weaknesses” and “flaws”. For most people, it’s demoralizing and demotivating.
Unfortunately, because it’s so ingrained, many coaches have already been schooled in this method. You can be a good trainer and still have adopted at least one or two of these tactics without even realizing it.
But that’s okay. Some simple swaps are all that’s needed to turn your fitness coaching process from “awfulness-based” to “awesomeness-based.”
Read on to learn how.
What NOT to do
If you want to kill client progress, try some of these classic awfulness-based techniques.
Don’t involve clients in their own progress. Make it top down. You’re the boss, not them. They do what you say. Be coercive and controlling. Next to you, Machiavelli looks like Barney the dinosaur.
Make their progress (or lack of it) about you. View any lack of progress as a personal affront. How could they hurt you like this? Now you’re not going to win coach of the month! Plus, they’re making your business look bad. Maybe you should fire them.
Use a one-size-fits-all approach. If pursuing a universal mathematical standard of perfection was good enough for the ancient Greeks, it’s good enough for you. Whether it’s an 82-year-old grandparent or an 18-year-old gridiron god, it’s all the same client. Wait… what was their name again?
Be outcome-focused. The end justifies all means. You want performance, damn it! Let them figure out how to get there. Dangle rewards in front of them at the outset. Shift their focus to getting that reward instead of mastering the skills or understanding the process they need to get there.
Especially focus on outcomes they can’t control. Berate them if their numbers don’t add up. Even better, post their skinfolds publicly. Peer pressure worked in high school, after all.
Make sure that they feel pain if they don’t deliver. Avoiding pain is a fundamental animal drive. Marathon sets of burpees, verbal abuse, or humiliation in front of the popular kids… as the Spanish Inquisitors knew, the choices for pain are endless.
Reward people for things they should already do. Salute them for showing up on time. Throw them a treat for not complaining. Give them a discount if they eat a green vegetable. Tie behavior to rewards so they’ll keep jumping through the hoops. Especially give them rewards they really, really want. Then they’ll feel extra-sad if they don’t get them.
Pump up the volume. Just like you should speak louder and slower at someone who doesn’t understand English, you should make yelling part of your repertoire. Maybe the client didn’t get the message. Belt it out. They’ll know you mean business, sergeant!
Put the pressure on. Let them know you have high expectations. Real high. Shove them out of their comfort zone—hard. And explain to them what’s at stake here: everything. People learn and perform best when they have a fire under their ass, especially if that fire is a raging napalm inferno full of angry flaming killer bees.
Rush. No time to waste! Set deadlines! Clock is ticking! Go!!!!
Make it a competition. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Pit your clients against one another in your version of the Hunger Games. Loser has to walk through the gym in their underwear.
Use your approval as a bargaining tool. If clients don’t do well, make a frowny face and let them know you are taking away your love and acceptance. Sigh deeply and painfully during weigh-ins. Threaten to dump them if they binge again. If clients please you, shower them with adoration, but make sure it’s clear: you could be displeased again at any moment.
By now, it should be pretty obvious why these are things NOT to do.
(If you’re still not convinced, imagine someone using these tactics on your five-year-old child’s Little League team.)
Try these awfulness-based methods, and you’ll probably end up with clients who are more anxious, stressed and overwhelmed than ever.
Any “results” acquired in a such a program will probably be short-lived. Chances are, your client will never want to set foot in another gym…. let alone call you again.
But what if those are the only tactics you’ve been taught? If this stuff doesn’t work, what does?
The better way
Try some of these techniques instead:
Involve client in their own progress. Understand that each client is on their own unique journey. You are the navigator, not the ship’s captain.
Understand your client. What do they want? What do they need? What truly matters to them? Who are they as individuals? What’s their story? Why is fitness and nutrition a meaningful project for them?
Share the joys but detach emotionally from the lows. Their lack of progress doesn’t make you a bad coach. Make any necessary changes to your process and plan without taking it personally.
Be process-focused. Look for evidence that clients are building skills and doing the daily actions that truly matter. Focus them on outcomes (especially daily behaviors) that they can control.
Keep it simple. One thing at a time. Don’t overwhelm them.
Set clear expectations. Look to the client to set the pace, even if it seems excruciatingly slow. Push them a little bit when they need to be pushed, but not too far.
Avoid competition unless it’s friendly and without consequence. And you’re sure your client will truly enjoy it. Instead, focus on helping your client exceed their own limits, and become their “best self”.
Respect and accept them unconditionally. Show them that you’re with them for the long haul. Meet them where they are, giving them their dignity.
Identify and build on strengths. What is your client already good at? What are they already doing well? What do they already enjoy? How can you simply do more of that? Call out victories, successes, and progress wherever you see them, no matter how small those things are.
Warning: This is the stuff that’s going to make you feel like a supercoach! You’ll get such good results you might have trouble finding the time to schedule all your clients.
Seriously. This stuff works. It gets results.
But because we’ve been conditioned to think that workouts need to be scary do-or-die situations, this style can almost feel too easy. Because it’s friendly and accommodating—and most importantly because it supports a steady, step-by-step process towards skill development—it feels magical.
Your clients will think you’re a miracle worker.
And you just might agree with them.
What to do next
Recall your own experience.
Have you ever had a teacher or coach who gave you the “awfulness-based” treatment? How did that style of instruction work for you? How did it feel? What about a teacher or coach who believed in you, encouraged you, and involved you in your own progress? How did that feel?
Review the “what not to do” section. Think about your coaching approach.
Do you ever rely on any of these techniques? Don’t worry, no one is judging. Just reflect a little and look for similarities in your own style. (Hint: Two of the most common sneaky ones are trying to “convince” people, and spending a lot of time on “fixing flaws”.)
Notice your own discomfort.
You’ll probably think that some of these awesomeness-based techniques are woo-woo or “too touchy-feely”. You’ll probably think that focusing “too much” on what’s already working, or client strengths, may be “ignoring problems”. Give it a try anyway. See what happens.
Analyze your own success.
If you’re a fan of awfulness-based coaching, ask yourself how well it’s working for you to always feel like you have to “motivate” sluggish clients. Or like you’re always “fixing problems”. Or “convincing” your clients to change. Or like everyone is an idiot but you.
Review “the better way” section.
Is there a technique or two you’d like to try? Next time you’re with a client, try swapping out one of the awfulness-based techniques for an awesome one.
See what happens. How does your client respond to the “awesome” technique compared to the “awfulness-based” one?
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.