Coaching Alcohol and Fitness

Kevin Mullins | 07 Mar 2017

splashing glass

Prohibition was a failed American experiment that lasted from 1920 until 1933 and resulted in the creation of new alcohols, hidden passageways, and even NASCAR. Driven by religious passion and pushed by the government officials who felt it, Prohibition made a perfectly normal activity illegal for thirteen years.

The funny thing is, most people still drank alcohol from time to time, albeit in the secrecy of their homes or a well-fortified speakeasy. Being told to avoid something made many people want it more, essentially making it a forbidden fruit among a general populace that didn’t need any more motivation to acquire and consume.

People were drinking right under the noses of the government that swore to make them stop… Are your fitness clients doing the same to you because they are worried about what you’ll say or, worse, make them do?

Are your exacting your own version of Prohibition and creating a scenario in which your clients feel they must sneak it under your watchful eye?

Drinking alcohol is an interesting topic in the field of fitness because it is usually the first or last change that is made to someone’s lifestyle and nutrition profile. It’s placement in the hierarchy depends on two things:

tops of beer bottles1. The severity of the alcohol use with the client

An intervention might take place if a client presents a serious addiction to alcohol or if a discussion shows that it is the primary seed that causes other problems to sprout. These clients must face the reality that their choices are directly impacting their health and wellness.

Others may only drink socially, but do so in excess – which leads to a series of problems of its own.

Each client is going to present a different relationship with alcohol. It is important to assess each individual’s lifestyle uniquely.

2. The attitude and lifestyle of the coach that the client is subscribing to follow

A coach who does not grasp the social aspect of drinking may be less relatable, as would a fitness competitor who routinely goes months without a drink to prepare for a show. On the contrary, a trainer who enjoys the occasional night out with friends, bottle of wine with their significant other, or glass of bourbon to relax will understand the values that drinking may present to someone.

Neither attitude is inherently wrong, nor is it right. It is important for the coach to put their own bias and attitude on the bench and make the best call for their client’s lifestyle and goals.

It is important to understand that you aren’t wrong if you, as a coach, want to focus on removing alcohol from someone’s lifestyle as there are very few tangible benefits when it comes to health and weight loss. In fact, alcohol has been shown to (“Alcohol,” 2017):

  1. Increase fat accumulation as a result of slowed metabolic rates (prioritizing the breakdown of alcohol).
  2. Decreased protein synthesis as a result of slowed metabolic rates and blocked pathways.
  3. Decreased self-control and a decreased sense of fullness.
  4. Disrupted sleep patterns, poor sleep quality, and poor morning routines.

The list goes on if we begin factoring in the liver, kidneys, brain cells, and other regions of the body that suffer from excessive alcohol use. Simply put, it isn’t good for us. Especially in high amounts (binging), or high frequency (nightly wine drinkers).

Yet, we still do it. As a society, we invest millions of our dollars into the alcohol and bar industry each year.

Why?

Because drinking alcohol is a part of the fabric of a free society. Nearly every culture in the world that allows drinking embraces it for cultural, spiritual, and social reasons. Small countries celebrate their meads, and big business is made from spirits and wines.

people cheers with bottles

There is something deeply satisfying about a bottle of wine on a perfect date or a row of shot glasses with your best friends beside you.

Hemingway made drinking whiskey and rum a dark mind’s delight.

The Stoics would consume copious amounts of alcohol and theorize and contemplate for hours on end, always ending with a revelation to be shared.

Modern pop culture itself has made a night out an image of envy and desire.

So, how in the world can we coach a client to handle alcohol?

And what are the best methods to initiate change in a client who may need intervention in regards to alcohol?

Lastly, where is the stopping point for normality? When do you just become an annoying fitness professional that doesn’t seem to understand that there is a balance between work and play for a truly fruitful existence?

Below are five points to answer these questions and better form your platform for coaching. These tips are here to help you become a better coach immediately, and build a training relationship formed upon mutual understanding and more importantly, respect.

1. Don’t pry about amounts but do ask when a client drinks

If your client drinks they most likely fall under one of two categories – a nightly drinker who consumes no more than a single serving, or a weekend partier who will have more than 3 drinks in an evening.

Neither is better or worse, but there is an impact on how you’ll coach them.

Don’t pry about how much the weekend partier drinks each time they go out, as they’ll feel like you are judging them for their less-than-perfect decision making. If you really want to know how much they probably drink, then look at their age, ask where they went, and come to know what their favorite drink is. An older gentleman who likes his whiskey neat at a fancy bar is going to consume a lot less alcohol (probably) than a young adult who is slamming vodka sodas and light beers at a dive bar.

Ask questions but don’t pass judgements.

For the nightly drinker, ask them what they enjoy about the experience. Come to know why they choose a drink over a snack, or even feel the need to indulge in the first place.

Your best coaching strategy will come from their stories and uniqueness and not from a blanket approach.

2. Ask about how they feel about their habits, don’t tell them

Once you’ve learned about their habits, regardless of what they may be, fight the urge to tell them how much it needs to change. Don’t tell them they can’t succeed if they keep doing what they are doing (even if it’s true) as your job is not to judge, rather you must coach, and all good coaches listen.

Ask your clients how their behavior makes them feel in the moment, after the fact, and right now as they sit with you. Arrange your questions to sound inquisitive and share your own experiences to keep yourself relatable.

This is another opportunity to gauge their relationship with alcohol. Do they reach for it because of a deep-seeded need for temporary release? Or do they find themselves to be creatures of habit and pleasure?

Knowing which is which is imperative in the next steps. Passing judgement on them or punishing them for their choices will not make them succeed any faster, if at all.

3. Create context by wagering their goals vs. their habits

pizzaIf you have a client that is desperate to lose weight but spends each night of the weekend partying until the early AM and chasing the booze with pizza, then they need to make some changes to their priorities.

If your client needs a drink to unwind after a long day or else they’ll lose sleep, then you’ll need to intervene with their exercise, sleep, and meditation habits.

The point here is that you need to customize the plan to the individual who is in front of you. You must avoid the prohibitionist approach and resist the urge to tell them to “just stop” because if it were that easy, then they wouldn’t do it. The client needs to learn how their alcohol intake is impacting their more meaningful goal, such as weight loss, and come to realize that they need to make some changes in order to make their goals become reality.

4. Develop strategies to minimize the frequency or intensity of drinking

Cold turkey doesn’t work for 99.9% of the population. Thus, you’ll have to play a game of give and take with your clients in order to help them move in the right direction:

  • You may tell your weekend partier to stop drinking after midnight, even if they are out later, to help with digesting and processing the alcohol and limiting the hangover effect.
  • You may tell everyone to go 1 drink and 1 water in order to prevent overconsuming alcohol due to thirst.
  • You may tell your nightly glass of wine to pick two days they truly don’t need it and start there.

Again, you’ll customize your recommendations to the individual in front of you and you’ll meet them halfway. You can’t stand on the mountain top with what they want and expect them to just run up to you because they pay you. You need to walk with them and understand their journey.

5. Know when to stop because you are their trainer, not their mother

This last point is imperative if you want to have a long-term relationship with your client and see significant change in their wellness behaviors. Acting like you are above them with your own attitudes and temptations (or lack thereof) will only make them think of you as a boss and not a coach.

Know when you’ve pushed hard enough and that change takes time. Remember that small victories are still victories and more often than not, you just need time. A person may need to mature further. They may need to stumble on their own and learn their own limits. They may have to feel good, regress, and feel good again to truly understand the value.

There will come a point where you won’t be able to influence that night out with their loved ones. There will be a glass of wine after a long day of life that you can’t take from their grasp.

Truth is…you shouldn’t anyway.

We are human, and what we are is flawed. Sure, alcohol is not going to get us to where we want to go, but then again it just might. Understand that there is risk in the substance and it has minimal value in fitness, but know that your client is still a person first and your client second.

Be human with them.

References

"Alcohol - Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects." Examine.com, 2017. Web.

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Kevin Mullins

About the author: Kevin Mullins

Kevin Mullins, CSCS is a Tier 3+ coach for Equinox Sports Club in Washington D.C. A B.S. in Kinesiology from the University of Maryland serves as the scientific foundation for the following certifications - ISSA certified Personal Trainer, USAW Level 1 Sports Performance, and Precision Nutrition Level 1.

Kevin writes for multiple resources and has been featured by PTontheNet, the PTDC, Men's Health, Women's Health, the Washington Post, and local television outlets. He was selected as Men's Health Next Top Trainer in 2014 and 2015.

Kevin maintains his own site at KevinMullinsFitness.com

As a fitness professional, Kevin aims to listen and learn as much about a client in an effort to design training and nutrition programs that are personalized to someone's physiological, psychological, and sociological readiness. No two programs should look the same.

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Comments (1)

Zweck, Dean | 09 Mar 2017, 17:50 PM

Love the focus on the individuality of the intervention and the coaching aspect! Telling someone what to do invokes 'sustain talk' and harms the chances of Behaviour Change and therefore success! Great work

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