Working with people who seem “unmotivated,” “resistant,” and “stubborn” can stump experienced fitness pros and newbie coaches alike. Instead of throwing your hands up, here are eight strategies for dealing with the most common coaching challenges, including difficult clients
A client comes to you for help.
They’ve tried exercise before. They’ve tried diets. (Probably lots of diets.) But nothing worked. (At least not for long.)
They know they need to make a change, but they need help. They need your help.
You want nothing more than to help them. And why not? After all, you’ve gone to school. You’ve got the certifications, the books, the terminology.
You’ve totally got this! (Not certified yet? Learn how to help anyone make lasting change with the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification—the world’s #1 rated nutrition certification.)
So you create the world’s most beautiful spreadsheet-based meal plan. You balance macronutrients, control timing, cycle calories, get the right fatty acids in there. Color code the bejeezus out of it.
Match that with an exercise program. A periodized, detailed ass-kicking with tiny fluctuations in sets, reps, rest and tempo. Energy systems, motor patterns and 1-rep max percentages. Space station math. A work of art.
The client is on board. They’re eager as heck. “Let’s do this!” High fives all around.
But then, a few weeks later, something’s off. The workouts are half-completed. The meal plan is (kinda, sorta) followed… sometimes. Your client seems like they’re starting to check out.
So it’s back to the drawing board. Your revise the workout. Re-do the meal plan. Cajole, caution and bargain with your client. There is nodding, maybe a hug, maybe a hopeful high-five. This time will be different. It has to be.
And yet… it isn’t.
Your client is still stuck. You know you need to do something, but what?
This is a familiar story.
If it’s happened to you, take heart: you’re not alone. Many trainers and coaches are wondering why their clients can’t seem to make progress, despite what seems like great information at their fingertips.
The fact is, when going through a change process, people can get stuck for different reasons, and at different places.
That’s why, when all else is equal, it’s your coaching skills that make all the difference.
So let’s talk coaching.
Here are eight common scenarios where you may find yourself working with people who seem “unmotivated”, “resistant”, and “stubborn”, and our best methods to address them.
“I can’t connect with this person. It’s like we just don’t get each other. No matter how many times I address their issues, nothing changes.”
Connecting with clients and coaching them to success depends on saying the right things, in the right ways, at the right times. It’s not always intuitive, but it is something you can learn.
Forging these connections means working on improving your coaching style, language, and listening techniques.
Most importantly, it means moving from “awfulness-based coaching” to “awesomeness-based coaching”.
Much of the fitness industry is based on “awfulness”. Think tough, crossed-arms hardass coaches pointing out your flaws, and screaming at you to fix them. Loud, aggressive, adversarial… and not great for long-term progress.
Awesomeness is pretty much the opposite of awfulness. Awesomeness-based coaching is an empathic coach working with their client, celebrating progress, and building on their client’s existing strengths to produce health and fitness success.
Awesomeness-based coaching is grounded in something we call “client-centered” coaching. In this process we help clients understand their inner motivation and help them own their decision to change. Then, we solidify their decision with clear, actionable solutions.
Becoming an awesomeness-based coach can take practice. But if you start adopting its principles — taking time to ask questions before giving advice, for example — you’ll start connecting better with your clients. And you’ll coach them to better results.
For specific examples of client-centered coaching, check out: Effective coach talk: What to say to clients and why it matters.
“My client complains a lot. They talk about how much everything sucks, how much they hurt, and how sad and broken they are. I try to keep everything positive, but it seems to make things worse.”
If your client is miserable and you try to compensate with sunshine and rainbows, you’ll never connect. They’ll dig their heels deeper into their own misery. We call this “The Positivity Trap”.
Being relentlessly positive in the face of client struggles (and clients will struggle — change is hard) kills understanding and rapport.
Lifestyle change involves highs and lows and ups and downs. The lows aren’t something to gloss over or ignore. They’re actually an important part of the change process. And unless you can acknowledge and relate to what your client is going through, you’ll seem uncaring and oblivious.
That doesn’t mean wallowing in the misery. It simply means taking time to hear out the resistance and ambivalence they feel. To identify with it. After all, chances are, you probably once felt something similar in some aspect of your life.
The best way to keep your clients moving forward is to embrace the entire emotional spectrum of the change process. Hear it out before moving on.
For more about The Positivity Trap, including how to work better with struggling clients, check this out: The Positivity Trap: How upbeat coaches can kill client results.
“My client isn’t following my instructions. They’re unmotivated. I’m starting to wonder whether I should just ‘fire’ them.”
In working with over 100,000 clients and students, we’ve learned that people tend to fall into one of three categories, each requiring a different coaching strategy.
- Type 1: Low compliance.
Struggles to follow the program.
- Type 2: High compliance, low results.
Follows the program, gets below-expected results.
- Type 3: High compliance, high results.
Follows the program, gets above-expected results.
Interestingly, all three types are capable of making dramatic change. But they all struggle at predictable times unless they’re coached in the way that works best for their type. (Yep, even ‘high compliance’ ones.)
Take a look at your client roster and consider which clients fit into each of the three categories. Then begin coaching each type based on their individual needs.
For a detailed breakdown of each client type and exactly what they need for success, check out: The 3 types of clients: Here’s how to coach each type to success.
“I’m giving my client the most advanced exercises and nutrition protocols that I can, but they keep hitting roadblocks and falling off track.”
Most skills are built on top of other smaller and more fundamental skills. Without strong “basics” we can’t get very good at more complicated stuff.
For example, to do an effective Olympic lift like the snatch, there are some prerequisites, like: good mobility in the ankles, knees, and shoulders, core strength and stability, and nervous system coordination.
This is why beginner (and, often, intermediate) exercisers can’t snatch properly. Because they haven’t spent enough time learning and practicing the fundamentals.
The same goes for every aspect of fitness: nutrition, stress management, sleep, etc.
As training and nutrition experts, it’s easy to forget that everything you ask a client to do is based on the development of some skill set.
Think about something as simple as “eat breakfast”. Eating breakfast requires your client to know what to eat, where to get those foods, how to prepare those foods, how to adjust their schedule so they can accommodate the extra morning preparation, and more.
When we fail to address the building blocks and jump straight to the bigger things, we put our clients on a shaky, failure-prone foundation.
By looking deeper into the skills our clients are learning, and understanding the practices that will help them establish those skills, we can build a strong foundation.
For the exact process we use to help clients develop new skills through daily practice, including a downloadable worksheet you can use too, check out: Precision Nutrition Coaching revealed: A practice-based formula for helping clients change their lives.
“My client is ambitious at first but loses motivation quickly. They don’t live up to all the things they say they will or want to do.”
Ahh, the catch 22. An ambitious client seems to want a lot in the beginning. Then you give it to them. And they crash.
As a fitness and nutrition professional, it’s your job to know better. Because giving a client multiple things to change at once usually sabotages their long-term progress.
No matter how excited clients are to get going, tackling a whole bunch of stuff at once sets in motion a lifestyle and psychological cascade that few people are really able to manage. Even the most ambitious client ends up feeling overwhelmed, out of balance, unimpressed by their progress, and liable to give up.
Experts have estimated that when people try to change a single behavior at a time, the likelihood that they’ll retain that habit for a year or more is better than 80 percent. When they try to tackle two behaviors at once, their chances of success are less than 35 percent. When they try for three behaviors or more, their success rate plummets to less than 5 percent.
So instead of assigning a whole bunch of changes at once, start with one.
Break the changes down into strategic steps that your client can practice and build upon over time. They don’t have to be small. However, they should follow our 5S criteria.
For more on building the right habits with clients, including detailed instruction and example practices, check out Fitness success secrets: On practicing one strategic habit at a time.
“Every time I make a suggestion, my client counters it with a reason why it won’t work. No matter how much convincing I try to do, or how solid my argument is, they won’t budge.”
You will never win this tug-of-war.
While it may seem counterintuitive, trying to convince your clients to change (“If you ate better, you’d lose weight,” or “Trust me, if you exercised more, you’d be able to go off your blood pressure meds”) almost always backfires.
If you push what they see as “your agenda”, clients will usually resist. They’ll take the opposite approach, and start arguing for why they can’t change. Even if they kinda wanted to change in the first place.
Yes, this is frustrating. But it’s also natural.
Most clients feel ambivalence when it comes to changing. Ambivalence is the feeling of, “I want to, but I also don’t want to”. It’s a common human response to change.
Ambivalence doesn’t go away with pressure. Push ambivalence and the ambivalence will push back. The bossier or more insistent a coach gets, the harder the client will resist and stand their ground.
So, instead of trying to convince, cajole, or persuade, try embracing the ambivalence that comes with change. With the right coach talk, you can help clients sort out their ambivalence and make the right choice for themselves. No tug-of-war required.
For more on how to help clients who seem ambivalent and resistant, check out: Motivational Interviewing: Free coaching workshop and Effective coach talk: What to say to clients and why it matters.
“My client talks a lot about “when.” I’ll do it “when….” But they never do it, so they don’t make progress.”
Who hasn’t put off something important because it’s just not the“right time”?
For each and every one of us, waiting for the “perfect” time can be a great distraction. It can be a way to avoid the risk of actually doing. For others, perfectionism and avoidance serve as armor against potential failure, criticism and embarrassment.
Whatever the reason, this delay can go on for months, years or even decades.
To help a client get started today, help them realize that all or nothing thinking rarely gets us “all”. It usually gets us “nothing”. Show them how they can get started now, with what they have, from where they are.
The trick is to start with starting. This means single, strategic practices that clients feel confident they can do today. The opposite of this is jumping into the middle of the process. This means gearing up for big lifestyle changes that are scary and intimidating.
When doing something totally new (like switching careers or learning a new language or having your first child), which would you rather experience? “Change everything!” or “Just try this one thing.”?
Everyone can start “this one thing” today. Big overhauls always trigger our procrastination response.
For more on how to help clients take action today instead of waiting for some imaginary perfect time, check this out: I’d love to get started, I’m just waiting for the perfect time.
“No matter how many meal plans I give my client, nothing seems to really work.”
In this scenario, it might be time to re-think the meal plan approach.
For most people, restrictive meal plans aren’t realistic. They often provoke rebound overeating. And, most of all, they aren’t necessary.
For anyone but a physique competitor a few weeks out from a contest, the little details in a meal plan don’t really matter. It’s the bigger trends that make a difference. And these are the things easiest to overlook.
It’s for this reason that long-term nutrition success is kinda like finance. It’s not about super-detailed spreadsheets and rigid rules. It’s about a general awareness of how much you’re making and how much you’re spending, decision making about what you’d like to spend on, and consistently following smart guidelines.
So, instead of hitting people with harsh rules, restrictions, and “follow-this-to-the-letter meal plans” — which usually lead to dietary rebellion and collapse — help clients make eating a low-stress, natural part of their lives.
For an interesting exploration of why meal plans usually backfire, check out: Meal plans usually suck: Here are 6 better ways to transform your diet. And for a solid alternative to calorie counting and meal plans, check this out: Forget calorie counting: Try this calorie control guide for men and women.
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.