In this two-part series, you will learn how to distinguish yourself as an exceptional personal trainer by integrating various coaching strategies into your programs to help even the most challenging clients achieve success.
WHY DO PEOPLE GO TO A TRAINER FOR HELP?
People seek out the services of personal trainers for a variety of reasons. They may need information regarding diet, exercise and/or exercise equipment. Or they may require assistance getting started with fitness programs and staying motivated to exercise (Keller, 2006). Sometimes, it’s a combination of both. Regardless of the area in which they need help, it is important to remember that the underlying reason people seek support to reach their health and fitness goals is because they lack the knowledge needed and/or the confidence/motivation to diet or exercise successfully on their own (Sonnon, 2003; Bandura, 1986).
This is a significant notion for trainers to grasp. Most fitness professionals simply ask clients what they want help with, decide what will and won't work, and then tell them what to do. The central problem with this “trainer take charge” approach to personal training is that the fitness professional assumes responsibility for dictating the actions necessary for clients to accomplish their goals. Consequently, clients have no sense of responsibility to come up with their own solutions for success.
The use of coaching strategies in your training program design process requires that your clients participate in decision-making, contribute input, and get involved in the process. As such, when used in conjunction with fitness program design, coaching techniques can help trainers increase their clients' confidence, teach them new skills and information, and foster feelings of responsibility for shaping their own outcomes. As the trainer, it's up to you to calculate the amount of time you are going to spend coaching each client during sessions (and the amount of time may vary from client to client). Regardless, dedicating session time to include coaching techniques will ultimately translate into success for you both.
There are several ways to adjust program design methods to include some basic coaching strategies, all of which are easy to implement with clients:
- Alter your initial consultation and assessment protocols to include a lifestyle assessment.
- Modify the way in which you approach goal setting with clients.
- Review goals and acknowledge achievement.
CONDUCTING LIFESTYLE ASSESSMENTS
Most trainers have been taught to conduct an initial consultation as follows: ask the client to identify health and fitness goals, then perform a series of baseline physical assessments to calculate what needs to be done from a program design standpoint for the client to achieve those goals. Trainers rarely, however, conduct assessments that specifically examine how external lifestyle factors such as family commitments, work stress, financial constraints, and social obligations may play into the success or failure of the program. For example, if your partner or family wants to go out for pizza every Friday night, you are more likely to eat pizza if you are with them. This type of information about social habits is not often gleaned during a typical initial consultation, but is vital to designing a successful program together with the client.
Modifying your standard consultation and assessment process to include a lifestyle assessment will help both you and your client gain a solid understanding of the client’s overall lifestyle situation, which provides a clear picture of all of the variables that can positively or negatively affect the program's success before it even begins. A sample from the "Work" portion of a lifestyle assessment form is included below.
Download a complete Lifestyle Assessment Form (PDF) that you can print and use with your clients.
Another simple way to integrate coaching strategies into your fitness programs is to modify the way you and your clients determine and set program goals.
SMART Goal Setting
You may already be familiar with the concept of SMART goal setting. This is the method of setting goals that ensures the end objective meets the following criteria:
SMART goal setting is a useful way to help a client think about the different aspects of her goal and whether she has set reasonable steps to reach it. First, get the client to identify a specific goal (e.g., to lose weight). Then try to help her refine the goal to be measurable (e.g., I want to lose 20 pounds in order to fit into my favorite jeans). Then pinpoint the date by which she hopes to achieve it (e.g., “by May 1”). Next, help the client determine whether this goal is achievable (e.g., Do I have enough time to exercise and/or support at home for dietary modifications?) and whether it is realistic (e.g., Can I achieve the goal based on my lifestyle or personal situation?). Once these four initial goal setting steps are complete, you can work together determine how the process can be timed to achieve that goal.
Most trainers make the mistake of having the client frame the final stage of SMART goal setting as the time period in which it will take to reach the desired outcome (e.g., 12 weeks). However, this approach can set a client up for failure before she even begins because the time gap between today and 12 weeks from today can be difficult to comprehend. Setting goals so far in the future prevents people from maintaining focus and motivation in the initial stages of fitness programs. A coaching approach to the timed aspect of SMART goal setting emphasizes a shorter-term perspective for achieving initial and subsequent objectives. Breaking clearly assessed and identified goals (such as those identified in the first four stages of a person’s SMART goal) down into manageable chunks (e.g., daily vs. a 12-week total goal) is the key to promoting behavior change that is reasonable, doable, and will result in successful goal attainment (Whitworth, 2007).
A coaching tool you can use to assist clients with realistic goal setting is called a “gap analysis.” In simplest terms, a gap analysis requires a client to consider the following question: “I’m here, but I want to be over there; so what must I do to get there?”
A basic gap analysis requires the client to do three things:
- Identify his/her current situation (e.g., 20 pounds overweight).
- Identify what he/she is going to do about it (e.g., swim 4x/week and eat whole grain toast at breakfast instead of croissants).
- Identify what he/she hopes to accomplish as a result of these efforts (20 pounds lighter and wearing a certain outfit).
Identifying and recording this basic information in a gap analysis can help the client mentally organize an overall plan of action. With your assistance, the client can then determine if the action plan can really bridge the gap between the current and desired state.
Have clients complete a gap analysis for each program week (and/or day, if necessary) so they can clearly identify the steps needed to move closer to their goals. Ideally, a gap analysis should include information about the goal and the desired outcome as well as perceived challenges and opportunities.
Sample Gap Analysis for George Taka
- Overall Objective: Eat fewer saturated fats to improve heart health
- Identify your goal for the week: To eat a total of 3 fewer servings of bacon, french fries, cheese or other saturated fats than I normally would consume between now and Saturday.
- Identify any obstacles you see that may prevent you from doing that this week: Taking daughter out for cheeseburgers for her birthday on Wednesday; limited access to eating establishments other than fast food restaurants near my workplace.
- Identify your personal strengths that may help you achieve your goal this week: I can choose a grilled chicken sandwich rather than burger and fries for lunch at Burger King; I can bring my own lunches to work 2 times this week; I can read the paper in my office during break time instead of going into the break room where there is a tempting bowl of chocolates.
- Identify any other areas in your life that may assist you in accomplishing your goal this week: I can ask my wife to pick up lunch supplies for me while she is at the grocery store; I can keep pretzels or fruit in my bag to snack on if I am very hungry so that I do not get grouchy from not eating what I want; I can ask my friend not to offer me donuts when I arrive at work.
- Identify your achievements this week: I did not eat any of the cheesecake that was brought into the office for someone’s birthday and I had a plain tuna sandwich instead of a tuna melt with cheese for dinner.
Using a gap analysis structured in this manner helps clients focus on ways they can achieve success and reminds them of the steps they have already taken toward bridging the gap between “here” and “there.” The results of the Lifestyle Assessment Form can also be used to come up with ideas on how to achieve goals in conjunction with areas of high or low satisfaction ratings (e.g., attending appropriate group fitness classes to increase social interactions as well as to lose weight).
Watch the video demonstration below to see how to use a GAP analysis with a client:
Wording Goals in a Positive Manner
When working with clients on setting goals or completing gap analyses, encourage them to frame their objectives in a positive manner. For example, if you have a client whose goal is to lose 20 pounds, try to find out how she came up with that number. You will usually discover that the number is simply representative of the amount of weight the client believes she must lose in order to be able to fit in to a specific outfit or article of clothing. As such, have your client reword her goal from a negative objective (lose 20 pounds) to a positive one (fit into my black trousers). Similarly, when assisting a client with eating goals, always frame the goal in terms of what good changes she wishes to make as opposed to what foods she has to eliminate. For example, a goal of “cut out all chocolate” automatically creates a feeling of deprivation. This can turn into a self-sabotaging pattern of feeling like she is missing out on all her favorite things, which may lead to binge eating. Instead, have your client highlight what good things she can add to her diet (e.g., eat ½ cup rolled oats for breakfast with a tablespoon of raspberries). This way your client is not constantly focused on the things she cannot have. If you notice that a client has difficulty wording goals in a positive manner, help her by suggesting ways she can phrase (or rephrase) goals to inspire forward movement.
REVIEWING GOALS AND ACKNOWLEDGING ACHIEVEMENTS
A final component of goal setting is the regular review of goals and applauding successes. In order to remain useful and motivating, goals should be reviewed every week so that adjustments can be made, if necessary, and successes acknowledged. Routine goal review is especially helpful for clients who have difficulty identifying personal strengths (AKA - personally controllable decisions) or recounting successes (which can be as simple as skipping a drink at dinner). Taking the opportunity to praise specific behaviors that a client performed to meet his/her objectives enables you to help identify the behavior(s) that will lead to ultimate goal success. Even if a client says that everything is going well and he doesn't need to review his goals or discuss happenings during the week, you should still take a quick look at what he's been doing. The primary point of goal review is to use it as a tool to boost the client's confidence. Discussing the actions a client has been taking and giving him positive feedback on his progress will increase his feelings of self-efficacy.
Goal review and acknowledgment also serves another purpose. It gives you, the trainer, the opportunity to highlight those behaviors that you want your clients to adapt on a regular basis (Price, 2010). For example, imagine a client has set a goal to eat an additional piece of fruit each day in place of a candy bar. When conducting your goal review with this client, you learn that in order to achieve this goal he has placed a basket of fruit on his desk at work so he can access it prior to his lunchtime stroll. Since eating fruit instead of candy and increasing activity levels are two things that can help this client toward his overall weight loss goal, you can commend him on his innovation and suggest that he do this regularly. You can also explain to him the reasons why these behaviors will help him reach his goal. Even though these improvements may seem minor from your perspective as the trainer, the important thing is that the client found a solution to incorporate desired objectives on his own. This is exactly what you want to happen.
When clients are confident about what they need to do to achieve success they will start to take responsibility for doing their homework correctly and commit even more to taking the initiative to hit upon health and fitness solutions.
In Part 2 of this series, you will learn more in-depth coaching strategies to assist you with more challenging clients.
- Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Keller, J. (2006). Profile of Personal Training Clients. IDEA Fitness Journal, 3(1).
- Price, J. (2010). Corrective Exercise Program Design. Module 4 Reference Manual of The BioMechanics Method Educational Program. Retreived from www.thebiomechanicsmethod.com.
- Sonnon, S. (2003). Body-Flow: Freedom From Fear-Reactivity. Atlanta, GA: RMAX.tv Productions.
- Whitworth, L. et al. (2007). Co-Active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and Life (2nd ed). Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.