To level up as a fitness professional, you can’t limit yourself to easy clients and clients like you. You’ll eventually have to learn how to work with—and get results for—clients of all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds. Here’s how.
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Think about your client roster for a second.
Who are the people you’re working with?
Are they people who are, well, already kinda healthy?
Do they understand what you mean when you say “squat” or “core” or “glycemic index” or “healthy fat”?
Can they move without pain most of the time? Do they already eat sorta healthy? Do they think about healthy living and want to improve?
Are they mostly motivated? Usually coachable? Ready to change?
If so, that’s nice.
But what about everybody else?
There are a lot of other people out there who need your help.
They’re the people who might be assigned “complicated client” status in your gym.
Maybe they’re overweight or taking too many medications. Maybe they’re limping from a knee injury that never seems to improve. Maybe they can’t sleep well. Can’t calm down. Can’t focus.
Maybe they can’t stick to a diet or exercise plan for long. Can’t resist the call of cookies or cocktails late at night. Can’t fit into their pants anymore.
Maybe they’ve even given up on the idea of having a happy, healthy life.
Whether they know it or not, they’re part of the biggest health crisis of our time.
Lucky for them, you’re here.
You’re passionate about health, fitness, and nutrition.
You believe in exercising, eating well, and living a healthy life. And you want to help others do the same. You’re their hope and possibly their solution.
The question is: Do you have what it takes to help the people who need you the most?
The difficult clients? The ones who seem unmotivated? The ones whose lifestyles seem so far from yours that you’re not sure if they can ever be helped?
If you have a nagging suspicion that you aren’t able to help these people right now, you might be right. And that’s okay.
We’ve all been there.
Sometimes I’d look at a client and think, “I don’t know what to do.”
When I first started coaching I had a few clients who seemed very difficult to me.
I didn’t know how to motivate them. I didn’t know how to keep them on track. I wasn’t sure about what they needed. I worried that my coaching style wasn’t a good fit.
It can be really intimidating to sit down with a client and think… “I don’t know what to do here. I’m not sure this person can be helped. Or, at least, I’m not sure I can help them. Does this make me a bad coach?”
It can really affect your confidence.
I realize now that I wasn’t a bad coach. (And that these people weren’t bad clients).
I just didn’t have the skills or the strategies to work with them.
Luckily, I’ve taken courses, done continuing education, and now have these skills.
Today, I take pride in being able to help anybody, as does the rest of the Precision Nutrition team.
Our clients come from all over the world, with different backgrounds, at different starting points in their coaching journey—from elite athletes to people who have never exercised a day in their lives.
How do we do help them?
By the end of this article I hope you’ll start to see how your most difficult clients can become your most rewarding.
After all, they’re real human beings with interesting diversity and unique struggles. And, if you’re good, you’ll see their challenges as fascinating puzzles to solve.
You can help anyone—with the right coaching skills, and the right mindset.
Let’s return to your client roster for a second.
Do you work with anyone who:
- Absolutely, without a doubt, hates the gym with a fiery passion? (Or is terrified of it?)
- Is so fatigued and/or depressed they find it hard to get out of bed in the morning?
- Is struggling with a chronic illness?
- Has experienced or is experiencing a gender transition?
- Is part of a culture you’re not familiar with?
- Is suffering from anxiety or another mental health issue?
- Is more than 30 years older than you?
- Is struggling to afford paying your services and may be making major sacrifices to do it?
- Has experienced or is experiencing an eating disorder?
- Doesn’t speak English well?
If your answer is no to some or all of these imaginary clients, that’s okay. Your clients are undoubtedly equally complex and deserving human beings.
The point, rather, is to ask yourself: Who else can I help?
And, even more to the point: What else do I need to learn so that I can help them?
Your coaching mindset
The best place to start is with your own mindset.
Gear yourself up for the fact that working with people is always an adventure.
You never know who’s going to show up in your practice, or what issues they might be coming to you with.
Let’s face it: people are complicated. Their situations and histories are complicated. Our bodies are complicated.
The best coaches don’t run from this fact.
They lean into it.
They love it.
They eat it for breakfast, chewing on it with a big fat coach grin.
This doesn’t mean you have to come up with an elaborate individualized solution for each client. You don’t have to solve every problem your clients have ever had.
In fact, you’ll generally get the best results by helping all your clients focus on and master crucial basics (such as mindful eating).
It just means that you have to: be ready for anything, willing to learn, and take 100% responsibility for not only your advice but for what your client does with that advice.
Some coaches think: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink”.
You think: “Of course you can’t make them drink! But you can make them very, very thirsty”.
Make your coaching accessible
Good coaching also involves effective communication and creating a welcoming environment.
With that in mind, think about the following:
- Is your website (if you have one) easy to access, navigate, and read?
- If you have handouts or other printed materials, how big is the font? Could someone with less-than-perfect eyesight read them comfortably? Do your resources include things like pictures along with text?
- Is your verbal communication clear and understandable? How much ambient noise is in your coaching environment? In other words, if someone doesn’t hear very well, could they hear you properly?
- How easy is it to get to your coaching space? Do people need to walk up stairs, for example? If your clientele is older and/or less mobile, think about how you could improve physical accessibility and safety.
- Would someone with a heavier body, or a body that doesn’t move well, be able to get around your coaching space and feel comfortable?
- Is your coaching space in a safe neighborhood? Will women feel comfortable walking into the gym at night?
Try to think about what you’re assuming about your clients’ mobility, physical capacities, and abilities? Do you need to revise your expectations and assumptions?
In the end, when you communicate well to a wide audience, develop a coaching environment that is easy to access, and make people feel comfortable, everyone wins, including you (i.e. you become an elite coach, you attract all types of clients, your clients refer all types of friends, and your business takes off).
Use your “whole-self” coaching skills
To be able to connect better with a more diverse group of people, give “whole-self” coaching a try.
Here’s what “whole-self” coaching is all about.
“Whole-self” coaching is when you don’t try to be perfect, or something you’re not.
Come to work as a real person. Human. Complex. Don’t pretend to be the perfect fitness specimen who never misses a workout, eats an unhealthy meal or makes a mistake. After all, you’re just another person trying to figure things out.
“Whole-self” coaching is authentic.
You don’t have to remember half-truths or hide the potentially embarrassing things. Bring your real self to coaching. Of course, don’t air your “dirty laundry” or prattle on about mistakes. Just be authentic. Clients can smell BS a mile away.
“Whole-self” coaching focuses us.
Mind, body, and soul; all systems integrated. Our energy and resources are going in one direction. We aren’t distracted. We aren’t wasting effort worrying or trying to cover things up. We’re checked in and mindful, focusing our energy productively.
“Whole-self” coaching is our “best self”.
When we use our own authentic thoughts, feelings, and experiences, we fire on all cylinders. When we’re honest, integral, and real, our best self bubbles up. We show our inner greatness and we become superhero coaches.
In the end, our clients don’t just change because of our “expert” knowledge or status. They also change because human relationships are inherently regulating.
Connecting with another person—in a meaningful, welcoming, affirming way—taps into our deeper selves.
Connection soothes. Connection inspires. Connection heals.
Connection sorts us out.
Connection creates change.
And all you have to do in order to connect with clients—even those clients you don’t understand yet— is be fully human, fully present, and fully your whole self.
Use your creativity to connect
We all relate to each other in different ways, so when working with a diverse group of clients, you might have to get creative.
Use all your coaching powers, skills, experiences, talents, interests, and aptitudes, whenever and wherever you need them.
- You might need to teach some material creatively — with drawings, flowcharts, videos, music, etc. (Puppet show? Haiku? A game of Twister? Possibilities are endless.)
- You might need to use metaphors and analogies that speak to the client’s individual experience (e.g. “Anna, you’re an accountant, right? So think of this like the body’s balance sheet…”)
- You might need to harness your talents or experiences to relate better to a client. (“Hey! Do you like cricket/sailing/stamp collecting? Me too! Here’s what I found: Eating better and training my grip strength really helped me focus on sticking all those little stamps on the page…”)
Let your own quirks, hobbies, talents, and super powers show even if they don’t seem to have a natural place in fitness. (Hint: they probably do have a place).
Also be willing to adapt to the learning styles, motivational messages, and thinking patterns that work well for each particular client.
Balance individualization with common themes
Most of the basic rules still apply. For example, good nutrition is still good nutrition.
But it’s not one-size-fits-all. Clients are different. Bodies are different. Life experiences and perspectives are different.
As a coach:
Be prepared to challenge yourself and work across boundaries.
To coach people like you. And not like you. And everything in between.
Be prepared to listen and learn.
To nourish and grow your mindset, build up your experiences, and cross-fertilize ideas, learning directly from your clients.
Be prepared to be curious.
If you’re not sure about how to help, just ask.
“How can I make this easier / more comfortable for you?”
“What do you need here?”
“Tell me about how well this is working for you, and how we can make it a good fit.”
Better to ask than to ignore, wonder, or sit awkwardly in an uncomfortable situation. Most people will be happy that you care enough to inquire.
Be prepared to acknowledge your own limitations.
Most people in the world are not you. That’s OK. (Besides, we know they broke the mold when they made you, rockstar.) Call it out. Work with it.
“I can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be ____. But I’m here to help. So let’s work together on this.”
“Please let me know when you might need accommodation for _____ or help with _____. I’ll try to anticipate it, but I won’t always know. Deal?”
“I used Google Translate to make a shopping list in your language. This might be a terrible translation, but I thought it might be easier for you. What do you think? Did I get it right? This is a great chance for me to learn a few new words!”
If you screw it up, no big deal. Learn and grow. Keep working your coaching game. Clients will love you for caring enough to try.
Embrace it: working with different kinds of people is awesome
Yes, it can be intimidating to tackle a new situation.
It’s also freaking awesome.
Because it means you’re gaining new skills. Acquiring new information and insight. Cross-fertilizing. Synthesizing. Creating. Adapting.
You’re helping people. All kinds of people. Your world is expanding. And they’re getting the assistance they need.
The more you work across boundaries, with diverse clients and situations, the better you’ll be as a coach.
Eventually, you’ll welcome the challenges, because they’ll only make you more resilient and robust.
You’ll be a better coach not in spite of—but because of—the challenges.
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This mentorship program is where the world’s best coaches come to take the next steps in their careers.
At the end of your 20-week program, you’ll be a Master Health Coach—able to go beyond nutrition and fitness with your clients so they can feel like their best selves again.
After joining, you’ll:
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Registration for our next PN Master Health Coaching Certification kicks off in April 2023.
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