PT on the Net Research

Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)

Are your clients motivated by wanting to move away from their current state, or are they compelled to move towards a goal? In other words, are they fed up with being over weight and unfit, or are they looking forward to being slim and having more energy?

Both are in pursuit of the same outcome, but their motivation is crucially different, and it is their motivation that will determine whether they succeed or not - being motivated by wanting to move away from some state is seldom as successful as being driven towards a goal.

Thirty years after it was originated, it is now becoming widely recognized that the field of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) has much to contribute to the fitness industry. A number of innovative fitness professionals have taken the initiative and trained as NLP Practitioners and Master Practitioners – some have even continued to work in the industry! Those of us still in fitness stay because we have discovered for ourselves that NLP offers us powerful tools that complement perfectly those skills we had already learned and developed. Essentially, what we are able to do is work with our clients’ minds, not just their bodies. And as a consequence, we have seen unprecedented results.

Perhaps the clearest way of demonstrating how NLP complements our existing skills is to consider Robert Dilts’ Neurological Levels model:

Current practice focuses almost exclusively on what clients are doing (i.e., eating too much junk food) and not doing (i.e., exercising) as is often the case. Either way, the focus is on the clients’ behavior, and traditionally trainers have responded by telling clients to exercise more, cut out junk food and eat healthier. In so doing, they endeavour to help clients elicit results by having them change some aspect of their behavior. This approach is at best limited because it does not allow for the clients thoughts and feelings or their sense of self. Yes, we can provide marvellous facilities, teach clients how to use the equipment, offer nutritional advice and prescribe exercise, but if you don’t address what clients have going on in their minds, it could be said you are selling them short.

Fitness professionals trained in NLP have a more holistic approach; they are able to work with their clients' values and beliefs, and consequently, they are able to respond and intervene at the appropriate level. They help their clients explore the values they have around health and fitness, establish whether they were moving "away from" or "towards" a goal and identify any limiting beliefs a client might have. This is important because offering a behavioral response to a client who is motivated by wanting to move away from rather than towards a goal is unlikely to be successful in the long term. Similarly, simply telling a client who is running limiting beliefs such as "I’ll always be fat" what exercise to do isn’t useful; unless they address how they feel, the client is likely to continue behaving in a way that supports the belief.

This article focuses on the work you can do around your clients’ values so that any subsequent behavioral changes you suggest will be sustainable. The next article in the series will explore how you help clients overcome their limiting beliefs.

The Key to Success

I can think of clients who have done all the right things and have still not reached their targets. They have exercised more (I know this because I witnessed it), and they said they had eaten less and healthier foods. I had no reason to disbelieve certain clients, and yet still there was no change of the type they wanted. My personal belief now is that these particular individuals were strongly motivated by wanting to move "away from" where they were or they were trying to avoid a state they had come to loathe, rather than focusing on what they wanted. It’s a case of "mind over matter." In these circumstances, the impact of the negative mindset negates the positive behavioral changes.

Being motivated by wanting to move "away from" some state keeps the clients' focus on the unwanted state rather than their goals. And as you get what you focus on, the tendency is for clients to simply get more of what they don’t want. The unconscious mind doesn’t get the "don’t"  in the thought "I don’t want to be fat anymore." Therefore, what happens is the idea of being fat is kept very much alive.

For example, if a client is motivated by having had enough of being a size 18 and being tired all the time, his focus will be on being a size 18 and being tired. Consequently, there will be no change at a neurological level, and while exercising will have an effect, it will not be as powerful or as long lasting as it might be were his thought patterns supporting his actions.

In the short term, being motivated by wanting to move "away from" some state will get clients off the sofa and to the gym; however, they are unlikely to see their membership out or be successful.

So wouldn’t it be useful to understand how your clients motivate themselves? If you knew what motivated your client, you would know in advance that this is someone who will need more support when it comes to setting a positive mind frame and shifting their thinking toward that outcome.

How do you determine whether your clients are motivated by moving "away from" or "towards" their fitness goals? Some clients who are very much the "away from" type might literally not be able to tell you what they want, only what they don’t want. That would be a clue. Listening carefully to what your clients tell you might also give them away. For example, are they fed up with eating junk food, watching television and not being able to get into their old clothes (away from type)? Or have they been inspired by watching a marathon and want to enter next year's event (toward type)? A fitness professional trained in NLP will use carefully crafted questions and listen closely to their clients' responses for the tell tale signs (this is the Linguistic part of NLP). Some questions include:

  1. Can you tell me why exactly you are here?
  2. Why are you really here?
  3. What do you want in terms of your health and fitness?
  4. Why do you want this change?

Asking questions will help you gather information, but it is not always clear cut – the surest way to find out what motivates your clients is to elicit their values with regard to their health and fitness. Values Elicitation is a powerful tool and requires skill and practice in order to elegantly establish what really matters to your client. For example, if you ask your client, “What is important to you in terms of your health and fitness?” They might answer, "Looking good, having energy and being able to run for the bus.” And of course, these are the types of answers people will have in response to standard questions, but it’s what you ask next that will get the result. You need to ask them a "why" question: “Why is looking good/having energy/being able to run for the bus important in the context of your health and fitness?” It is this line of questioning that will provide the most revealing responses. In regard to the above question, one of my clients responded, "Because I am fed up with looking like the back end of a rhinoceros!" This is definitely an "away from" type statement.

There are many techniques that can assist you in helping a client make a shift from being "away from" to "towards" motivated. Any techniques that focus on helping the client create a compelling future will achieve this. (We will cover some of these in forthcoming articles.) You will need to persuade your clients and demonstrate to them that they can, literally, change their minds (this is the Programming part of NLP). You will need to encourage them to get very focused on what it is they want because, again, you get what you concentrate on. The aim is to let the unconscious mind know what it is aiming for – when your clients think about what they want (the state they are moving "towards"), neurological changes are triggered that begin and facilitate the change process. This is similar to a person walking through a field and always taking a particular route. After a number of times through the field, a path will begin to form. As the path forms, the person’s pace will become faster since he knows where to go and consequently the grass is worn down under one’s steps, eventually becoming a well trodden track. In the same manner, by having clients focus on what they want, a neuron path for the desired state and its associated behaviors (i.e., being a size 12 and having an abundance of energy) will begin to form. After a period of time, the thinking and new behaviors to support that state will become second nature because the neuron connections that make up that state have been conditioned to set up that particular route.

Using the Well Formed Outcome model below will kick start this process and help your client set a positive outcome. Working through the questions will help clients re-focus and encourage them to develop a "towards" orientation. They will begin to focus on how they will feel when they have achieved their outcome, rather than where they are now. Before working with clients, think of something you want to achieve, be it a business or fitness goal, and work through the questions yourself or with a colleague a few times.

Well Formed Outcomes

  1. Stated in the Positive
    • “What do you want?”
    • “What will that do for you?”
  2. Demonstrable in Sensory Experience – Evidence Procedure
    • “How will you know when you have got it?”
    • “What will you be seeing when you have got it?”
    • “What will you be hearing when you have got it?”
    • “What will you be feeling when you have got it?”
    • “What will I see you doing when you have got it?”
    • “What will I hear you saying when you have got it?”
  3. Started and Maintained by You
    • “Can you start and maintain this outcome?”
  4. Appropriately Contextualized
    • “When, where and with whom do you want it?”
    • “When, where and with whom do you not want it?”
    • “For how long?”
  5. Maintain the Current Positive By-products
    • “What do I get out of my current behavior that I would wish to preserve?”
  6. Ecology Check
    • “Is it worth the cost to you?”
    • “Is it worth the time it is going to take?”
    • “Is this outcome in keeping with your sense of self?”

If a client has a collection of strong "away from" motivations, more therapeutic work such as an NLP Breakthrough Session may be required (see Case Study below). In such a scenario, it is important that you recognize where your role as a fitness professional ends and refer the client to an appropriately qualified practitioner. Recognizing that "away from" values are created during significant emotional events, often in early childhood, a Master Practitioner would use techniques such as Parts Integration, Alignment Therapy in the first instance to resolve the incongruities that exist for the client and Memory Resolution to release negative emotions and limiting beliefs from the past. This will relieve the need to avoid things in the future. The "away from" values and motivation will disappear and be replaced with "towards" values. This in turn makes it possible for the client to achieve his or her fitness goals with ease as the motivation for wanting to do so is now balanced and healthy and creates change at a neurological level.

Helping your clients achieve a "towards" motivation is absolutely vital, not least because this enables their ultimate success but also because encouraging clients to subscribe to exercise while their motivation is "away from" only has the result of fueling negativity, which is uncomfortable and unhealthy for the client. In this respect, the best thing that can happen is the client gives up because the alternative is that he or she might become an obsessive compulsive over exerciser, which potentially is far more damaging, physically and mentally, than being a yo-yo exerciser.

* * *


Pre-session Values Elicitation around Health and Fitness

  1. Aesthetics
    • Important in order to be sexually attractive
    • Important because nothing else matters
    • Important because attracts men
    • Important because otherwise believes she is ugly and will be alone
    • Wants to avoid/move "away from" feeling ugly and loneliness
  2. Recognition
    • Important because it confirms existence
    • Client had been so de-valued while growing up that she had little or no internal sense of self worth and was entirely dependent on external recognition to validate her existence
    • Wants to avoid/move "away from" feelings of worthlessness
  3. Being Smaller
    • Important because it helps maintain identity of being "Daddy’s Little Girl"
    • Important because otherwise endured what was perceived to be life threatening physical violence
    • Wants to avoid/move "away from" physical violence and consequently develops eating disorder at age 6

It is not difficult to see that the client’s motivation and values around her health and fitness are 100% "away froms" and, given the circumstances of her life, this is entirely understandable. Following the session (two days) which resolved issues such as the internal conflict between wanting to be sexually attractive and needing to stay smaller, this client now feels able to "grow up." The re-elicitation of her values after the session revealed an enormous shift in thinking that she is now acting on in her day to day life.

Post Session Values Elicitation

  1. Being Healthy
    • Important to achieve all that I am capable of and lead a full and rewarding life
  2. Being Fit
    • Important so that I can live until I am 90 years old and enjoy life
  3. Being able to sprint
    • Important so that I can experience the joy of movement and so that I can move quickly "toward" my goals
  4. Energy
    • Important so that  I can get the most out of every day
  5. Helping others
    • Important so that others can be helped by what I have learned from my experiences


  1. Alignment Therapy. Technique accredited to John Overdurf and Julie Silverthorn.
  2. Memory Resolution. Technique accredited to Susie Srang Wood and Craig Wood.
  3. O'Connor, Joseph. NLP Workbook: The Practical Guidebook to Achieving the Results You Want. Thorsons, 2001.