The Positivity Trap:
How upbeat coaches can kill client results.


Using positive language with clients may seem like an essential part of your job. The reality? It can make them fail.


Think about how you sound when working with clients.

Do you say things like: 

“You’re only one workout away from a good mood!”

“You’re not gonna get the butt you want by sitting on it!”

“You’ll get a lot more compliments for working out than you will for sleeping in!”

Many health and fitness coaches think that always being positive, upbeat, inspiring, and ass-kicking is part of the job.

Encouraging language is what’s required to motivate clients through tough times and nudge them toward big success, right?

Actually, no.

Blindly spewing positivity in the midst of the suckiness of lifestyle change doesn’t show that you’re awesome and motivating.

In fact, it suggests you don’t care. That you don’t hear your clients, you don’t see them, and you don’t understand they’re struggling.

It sounds kinda crazy, but…

Too much positive talk is bad for your clients.

There’s certainly a place for positivity in coaching.

You want your clients to feel that you believe in them. You can help them visualize success, or point out the next steps they can take. All of that can be motivating. 

When your client is feeling all sunshine-and-rainbows, it’s okay to share that. Rock on with your rainbows.

But effective coaching also requires you to sense in and track with your clients.

This means paying attention. Observe carefully. Attune.

Know your clients’ cues. Listen to them. And understand their current state of mind.

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Because your clients need their pain.

In most fitness and health coaching situations, we’re working with people who are in the midst of lifestyle upheaval.

That takes a lot of work. It also comes with a lot of ups and downs. Which are all completely normal.

Your clients deserve the opportunity to “feel” the lows.

In fact — this is important; pay attention — your clients may need those low moments in order to make progress.

Most change comes from responding to pain. We usually don’t change until the pain of not changing gets too strong to be ignored.

In other words, we need that pain. Pain is a signal to pay attention, get present, and check in.

And from a coaching perspective, clients need people to be with them in that pain… but not necessarily trying to push them out of it too quickly.

A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reveals that fantasy-caliber positive thinking may make you less likely to achieve a goal because it doesn’t generate the energy that’s needed to push forward.

If you want your clients to follow you to the finish line, you have to be able to support them in dark times. You have to let them be real.

For that, they have to see that you really get them, and that you truly empathize with how hard it can be to keep going.

When someone is struggling, the knee-jerk tendency to act like everything is happy-happy, joy-joy doesn’t communicate compassion at all.

It communicates that you’re not really paying attention.

Too much positivity isn’t real.

As a coach, thinking you have to be positive and inspiring all the time not only drags clients down — it can actually de-motivate them.

Imagine: You’re a client having a “fat day”. (Or a “scrawny day”. Or an “I’m so out of shape day”. Or your darn shoulder hurts again. Or that chocolate croissant you ate is sitting in your gut like a brick. Or…)

You arrive at the gym to greet your coach — Mr. Perfect or Ms. Invincible, who ignores your emotional state and gets in your face with rah-rah let’s-go-team!!


You think:

Not only do I suck at this and fail miserably, but my coach is a perfect model of positivity. S/he has bulletproof abs and an awesome life and a perma-smile. S/he can’t even begin to relate to how hard this is for me. I’ll never be like that.

Or worse:

My coach doesn’t understand me. I’m just another client.

And once you as a client start feeling that way, here’s what happens.

  • Activate operation “Give the heck up”…
  • followed by “Eat more cookies and ice cream to soothe pain of giving up”…
  • and, finally, “Burn down the houses of all the positive people I know, starting with my annoying trainer.”

Just kidding about that last one. (Sort of.)

Incessant positivity costs coaches, too.

Not only does this excessive positivity make it tough for clients — it’s tough for coaches, too.

Who out there can honestly keep up the “I’m always positive and upbeat and motivating” charade?

Who can continue being a walking, talking fitspiration poster ‘round the clock? 

Who can cover all the bases — competition-fit body, super-nutritious diet, perfect life choices, sparkling attitude?

Hint: No one.

Real humans feel real emotions. Happiness and positivity. Ambivalence and pain.

Real humans — yes, even supercoaches — aren’t magazine cover models either.

Fitness and health are about making real choices in real lives with real demands and real messiness.

Commence operation “get real”.

To be a great coach, you need to learn when positivity and inspiration are useful. Or when other tools are more appropriate.

The truth is: Sometimes things suck. And people shouldn’t always have to look on the bright side.

Coaches can learn to be present with that and respect it.

In situations like this, don’t pat clients on the back and point to some cheesy-ass motivational poster on the wall. Don’t fall into the positivity trap. For most clients, these are actively de-motivating.

Instead, learn to recognize that real emotions are being felt. And that these real emotions have a purpose too. They have value. In fact, these real, icky, inconvenient, painful emotions may actually be moving your client closer to change.

Use these moments to connect on a meaningful level — during ups, downs, and in-betweens — because it goes much further.

Here’s how to connect.

Think about how you go about motivating clients.

Do your attitude and demeanor send the message that everything has to be happy, positive, and easy all the time?

Do you feel uncomfortable in the face of “difficult” emotions or discussions? (Or worse, silence? Augh! You probably want to freak out just reading that, right?)

Or do your actions signal that it’s okay to struggle, to be sad, to need help? To not know the answers? To feel lost?

Imagine that your client expresses some form of frustration, complaint, or negativity, like, “I’m not seeing progress,” or “My body hurts,” or “I just don’t think I can do this!”

 Now ask yourself:

  • How do you imagine reacting in this scenario?
  • Does your reaction show the client that you genuinely hear them?
  • Does your reaction help your client feel more connected to you as a human being?
  • How do your expressions, body language, and words convey to your client that you can see where they’re coming from in their struggle?
  • How can you show compassion and help your client develop self-compassion, even when — especially when — things are tough?

Next time you encounter a difficult situation where empathy and compassion is warranted — not motivational slogans — here are some responses to try:

“Wow. That does sound tough [or sad, or challenging, or puzzling…].
How can I help?”


“Wow. That does sound tough [or sad, or challenging, or puzzling…].
Want to talk about it a bit more?”


“It sounds like you’re  ___.
And that’s frustrating?”


“I have so been there.
And you know what? It’s perfectly normal and OK to feel anxious right now.
Lots of folks feel like this when ___.”


“Tell me what the most frustrating [anxiety-provoking, saddening, irritating, etc.] thing is about this situation for you.
What’s bothering you most?”

In these situations, you want a good combination of empathy and information gathering.

The key is to really hear your clients’ needs and feelings. Let them feel the suckiness.

Let yourself get used to feeling suckiness too. It’s OK.

And then find ways of moving forward, together.

What to do next

  • If you own a cheesy motivational poster and you regularly share it with clients, do this instead: Burn it.
  • Take a few moments and go through the above “Here’s how to connect” scenario. Consider alternatives to how you normally react to struggling clients and how you engage with them when things suck.
  • Remember: The ultimate goal isn’t to make clients pretend everything is groovy. Or even to make them feel groovy. It’s to meaningfully connect. That’s what elite coaches do.

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