PT on the Net Research

Neuro-Linguistic Programming


What might personal training be like in five or 10 years time? Ten or 20 years from now, what will PTs be doing with their clients? These questions are important because those personal trainers who are open to the changing needs of their clients and who innovate and provide leadership in the industry will be among the most successful and the most respected.

So far, it appears that the trend in innovation has been for a greater variety of types of physical exercises and for more training accessories and gimmicks such as stretch bands, step boxes, barbells, fit balls, etc. So what will the next innovations be?

In my mind, there are limits as to how much further such variations in physical activity can go, and these advances really don't address the core issue anyway - that of internally motivated exercise adherence and behavioral change.

In my opinion, the true innovations of the future will come from an expansion of personal education and training, particularly in the area of the psychology of these aspects: motivation, exercise adherence and behavioral change.

Exercise Adherence and Behavioral Change

Consider for a moment the real reason clients use your personal training services.

In simple terms, there are two types of clients:

  1. The person who wants to stay trim or lose weight and feel better about their physical body.
  2. The committed athlete who wants to get fitter, stronger and more flexible to enhance his or her athletic performance.

The second type of client is usually very committed and highly self motivated and needs your expertise primarily for tailoring an exercise program to suit the specific muscle strength and flexibility that will lead to the best performance in a given sport. These clients usually number a smaller portion of a personal trainer's clientele.

Consider then the first type of client: those people who come as basically unfit or overweight individuals wanting to trim up, lose weight and feel good about themselves. These people form the majority of PT clients and, in my opinion, need your help the most. But what specifically are they looking for help with?

The answer is motivation and behavioral change. These clients don't have the self motivation to exercise or the self discipline to change poor eating patterns or other limiting behaviors. If they did, they would already be doing it! They look to personal trainers to help motivate them and to help them change the patterns of behavior that will allow them to become the "new" person they want to be. Clients come to you to change themselves, and personal change is all about changing behavior.

Almost all of the issues clients present with concern either the person wanting to change a limiting or inappropriate behavior (e.g., lose weight, stop smoking, get fitter, etc), or change a negative feeling state of some kind (e.g., have more energy, be more confident, control pre-performance anxiety, etc). So understanding the psychological processes of successful behavioral change and how to initiate it with your clients is essential to personal trainers.

Yet the fact is that current courses in personal training devote very little time to understanding these key issues. Whether you're working with an elite athlete or sports team, preparing for an important competition performance, providing a fitness regimen for a busy executive or designing a weight loss program for a special client, the most successful personal trainers are not always those with the latest exercise routines or diets but rather the people who have an intuitive understanding of or professional training in behavioral change techniques. They know how to initiate and maintain personal change in clients. One of the most effective and powerful behavioral change technology available today is known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Professional training in NLP can provide personal trainers immense tools to offer their clients.

NLP offers a huge range of very powerful and easily applied techniques that are perfect for the one-on-one context of personal training, executive coaching and peak performance training for athletes. NLP is a powerful human performance and behavioral change technology based on modeling excellence, identifying the motivation and thinking strategies of highly successful people and providing practical tools for teaching these to others.

NLP has demonstrated phenomenal success in the areas of management, education and counseling, and new Sports-NLP applications have recently been designed for sports performance and personal training contexts. Sports-NLP techniques provide verifiable, sensory-based descriptions of an individual's subjective experience and practical tools and specific techniques for improving motivation, persistence and performance.

Building Blocks of Sports-NLP

There are three core building blocks of Sports-NLP that are of significant use in sports and personal training:

  1. VAK Strategies
  2. Anchoring Techniques
  3. Submodality Shifts

VAK Strategies

One of the main concepts underlying NLP is that all human behaviors - including motivation, desire, decision making, concentration, creativity, and so on - are a result of sequences of "thoughts." All thoughts are represented in terms of one of the five senses, with the primary building blocks of thinking being the Visual (or seeing), Auditory (or hearing) and Kinaesthetic (or feeling) senses.

So every behavior can be described as a sequence of Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic steps - and this is called a mental processing strategy. For example, a very simple motivation strategy for an individual might be: Visual (Picture my goal) -> Auditory (Tell myself to go for it) -> Kinaesthetic (Feel good about it) -> Do it!

Some motivation strategies are much more effective than others, and being able to identify an individual's strategies (and change them) can greatly assist you in helping them achieve their goals, whether they want to get fitter, lose weight or prepare for a competitive sports performance.

NLP trained practitioners identify an individual's mental processing strategies by watching for subtle cues such as eye movements, breathing changes, voice tone and tempo and skin color changes. The most easily recognizable cues are the eye movements of the individual. You can often identify how someone is thinking by noticing the direction of their eye movements. In general, an upward movements of the eyes indicates visual processing. Side to side movements indicate auditory processing, and downward movements indicate kinaesthetic processing.

So the above motivation strategy would be observed as: Visual (Picture my goal - person looks up) -> Auditory (Tell myself to go for it - person looks to the side) -> Kinaesthetic (Feel good about it - person looks down) -> Do it!

Anchoring Techniques

Anchoring is another name for the sophisticated stimulus-response conditioning techniques used in NLP. Anchoring techniques can be used by the personal trainer, covertly or overtly, to disrupt negative strategies or emotional states and to lock in positive resource states for the client.

For example, an individual may have a negative step in their motivation strategy (such as a negative, critical internal voice), which prevents them from achieving what they have the potential to achieve. Anchoring can be used to remove this negative step in the strategy, and replace it with a more positive step (such as an enthusiastic, encouraging internal voice).

Self-anchoring techniques can also be taught to the client, to encourage positive states in training, competition performance, and other areas where the client wants to experience powerful, positive emotional states and feel more confident and "in control."

Anchors can be established in any of the five sensory systems, with the most commonly used being kinaesthetic and auditory anchors. You, yourself, can in fact become a positive visual anchor for your client - just seeing you can help shift them into a positive training state!

This process can be encouraged by deliberately asking the person "What's good in your life today?" or "What's the good news?" on first greeting them in person or on the phone. This is a great strategy for establishing a positive training state in clients immediately. By having them focus on something positive in their life, they will automatically start to feel more positive emotions - and this makes your job a lot easier.

This is also a particularly good thing to do for those people in your life who are continually negative. It can otherwise be very difficult to be around continually negative people, or clients.

Another way of breaking the negative patterns of habitually negative people is to have some simple conversational strategies to use to turn their negativity around. Doing this regularly can educate them that they are responsible for their feelings and thoughts, and they can choose to feel positive rather than negative emotions - if they want.

For instance, if someone says "I feel tired and depressed today," instead or asking them why or commiserating with them (as most people would do), which encourages their negative feelings even further, ask, "Well, what would you rather be feeling?" Or you could ask, "Are you happy feeling tired and depressed (or whatever bad feeling)?" to which they will naturally respond, "No." You can then challenge them by saying, "What would you rather be feeling?" and help them to get into that state with your warm-up routine.

It's important to recognize and remember that the best warm ups do not just warm up the body but also warm up the mind and emotions of your clients, leaving them with a positive, energized feeling state and ready to get into training.

Submodality Shifts

Submodalities are further distinctions that can be identified in our sensory thinking processes. For example, some submodalities of our visual sense are: size, brightness, color, distance, movement and so on.

So a mental image that you hold in your mind might be small or large; bright or dim; close or far away; in color or black and white; moving or still, etc. Submodalities of the auditory sense are loudness, tone, tempo, distance and so on. So you could say something to yourself in a voice that is loud or soft; high or low toned; and with a slow or rapid tempo, and so on.

Submodalities are important in behavioral change, because a small change in a key submodality for an individual can generate very different behavioral and feeling responses - and this is especially so in motivation strategies. For instance, if someone holds an image of a desired goal in their mind, but that goal is pictured small, dim, distant and in black and white - then it's not going to be as motivating as one which is large, bright, close and colorful.

Teaching clients how to shift submodalities to lessen the intensity of stressful experiences and negative emotions, and heighten the intensity of enjoyable experiences and positive emotions, will enable you to install an automatic positive self-direction for them - which will not only enhance motivation, but provide significant, practical self-empowerment tools for dealing with anxiety, co-dependency, depression, binge-eating and other counter productive behaviors.

For example, try it yourself right now. Picture a goal you'd like to achieve for yourself in the next year or so, and as you picture it, see it the size of a postage stamp, black and white, about 50 meters away - and notice how motivated you feel to achieve it.

Now take that same picture and bring it up to just 5 meters away from you, make it the size of a movie screen, colorful, bright and 3-D. Add in some sounds around you. Notice how much more compelling and motivated that way of thinking about your goal makes you feel? All you did was change a few submodalities of the way you pictured your goal - yet your feelings and motivation changed considerably didn't they?

Submodalities can be used to not only to increase motivation feelings, but also to reduce compulsive feelings in clients. For example, if someone has a compulsive eating disorder - for example, whenever they see chocolate, they've just got to eat it - you can change some of the submodalities of the way they picture chocolate (e.g., have them picture the chocolate bar dim and dull and small and far away), and this can reduce their compulsion to have it.

PT Applications of Sports-NLP Training

Some of the many applications for Sports-NLP techniques in personal training include:

Once more PTs master NLP behavioral change techniques - and it is already beginning - the title of "Personal Trainer" will rightly change to Personal Coach. So we will progress from PT to PC. A personal coach provides much more for a client than just an exercise routine or a healthy diet. They support their clients to become happier, healthier and more successful people. You can't do that if you limit your education to exercise physiology and nutrition, so get out there and learn about behavioral change - learn about NLP!

In future, the successful personal trainers will be those who have educated themselves, not just in the physiological aspects of health and fitness but also by developing superb skills in the psychological aspects of peak performance and human behavioral change. Sports-NLP techniques will become a benchmark for both performance enhancement programs for competitive athletes and behavioral change approaches for health and fitness clients.