Coaches often encourage changes in behavior to help clients reach their goals. Makes sense. The only problem, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is that it doesn’t always work.
But what if we change the frame, and instead of trying to fix their actions, we focus on their goals? Not the goals they tell you about, like what they want to look like in the mirror. You’re looking for their “why”—the true reason they want to make those changes.
A real why is more complex than, say, dropping 20 pounds. Finding it takes time and requires the kind of emotional unpacking few clients are willing to do on their own.
It sounds daunting, and it is. But it also gets to the heart of your job as a coach: to motivate clients. Nothing motivates people quite like finding their why.
Once they understand it, they’ll get better results, and their results are good for your bottom line. You’ll see better retention and more referrals.
Three examples of misplaced motivation
A client who hasn’t found their why will probably come to you with goals like these:
“I want to lose XX pounds”
I once had a client who said she wanted to lose weight. But when I asked her why, and pushed her to dig a little deeper, she revealed the true reason: Her daughter had told her she was too overweight to babysit her grandchild alone.
“Ten times out of 10 they don’t just want to lose weight,” says Jonathan Stuart, owner of OPEX Mount Sinai in New York. “Weight loss is not a purpose or an intention or a why.”
It’s easier to state a superficial goal than to admit to you, or even to themselves, why they need to change, and why they need to change now.
In my client’s case, clarifying that her real goal was to spend more time with her grandchild turned out to be a powerful motivator.
“I want to do this specific exercise”
Another client was adamant about doing a pull-up. But then she never did the supplemental exercises I gave her to do on her own. If that was her real goal, why blow off the homework?
It took some digging, but eventually she realized she only focused on doing a pull-up because she thought it would prove her worth to her athletic father. She was chasing something she thought she should want, rather than a goal with actual meaning to her.
This “a-ha!” moment helped relieve her feelings of inadequacy. She learned to embrace her worth regardless of her ability to do a pull-up, and her commitment to fitness actually increased.
“I want this thing I’ve always wanted”
Here’s a personal example that I’ll bet a lot of personal trainers can relate to. I’d been a competitive athlete my whole life. I competed in basketball and rowing in college, and then I turned to CrossFit, which led me to the CrossFit Games in 2014.
For a long time after that, I told myself I needed to train hard and get back to that level. But I slacked off week after week. Beating myself up about it just made training joyless.
It took me two years to realize my priorities had shifted. I no longer wanted to train twice a day for hours at a time. An hour a day was all I wanted or needed for physical and mental health. Once this clicked for me, my love for training was reborn.
That’s the power of finding your why. These four steps will help you help your clients.
Step 1: Create opportunity for real conversation
Group fitness is fun, but nobody is going to share their recent diabetes diagnosis in a room with 15 people. And while personal training is more intimate, it’s still tough to dig into deep issues between squats.
That’s why Stuart sets aside time with his clients specifically for lifestyle consults. It creates a chance for real conversation.
Arrange to meet with your client, one-on-one, in a private space. Limit distractions and arrive with a clear head, because you’re going to want to pay careful attention.
“Not pseudo-attentiveness,” says Stuart. “Real awareness of the person in front of you.”
READ ALSO: How to Supercharge Your Client’s Motivation
Step 2: Ask the hard questions
You probably don’t like prying into your clients’ personal lives. But that’s often what it takes to help them unpack their emotional pain, which is essential for finding their why.
When you do, it’s best to be direct. Don’t try to beat around the bush. If, for example, your client says she thinks she’ll be happier and more confident if she loses 20 pounds, ask, “Why do you believe that?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?”
The goal, Stuart says, is to help the client “restore a connection that’s been lost and forgotten.”
Other questions to consider:
- Where has that helped you or hurt you?
- Do you believe you’re capable of change?
- What’s the source of your biggest stress?
- What do you value most in life?
Step 3: Understand it’s a long game
If your client opens up in your one-on-one, great. But most of the time, unpacking pain and developing trust takes time, probably more than you have in one meeting.
Consider this example from veteran trainer Michael Pilhofer, owner of MSP Fitness in Minnesota.
One of his clients, we’ll call her Megan, took two years to find her real purpose. She talked about her body composition from time to time, and said she wanted to lose weight, but could never stick to a plan. Her interest and compliance would fade, and they stopped talking about that goal.
That all changed when Pilhofer decided to dig deeper.
He asked Megan if there was ever a time when she liked what she saw in the mirror. She said that, years before, she had gone on a strict diet, lost weight, and dropped to a size 8.
As she shared this, she broke down, revealing that even then—even when she’d reached her goal weight—she still hated what she saw in the mirror.
Through tears, she explained that growing up, her father had been overweight and was never much of a dad. He couldn’t move well and was unable to join in activities with her. Now, as an adult, she still associated food and weight with her unfulfilling relationship with her dad.
“She was scared she’d become her father to her kids,” Pilhofer says. “It wasn’t about losing weight at all. It was so much bigger than that.”
If you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere with your client, be patient. Building trust takes time.
READ ALSO: Five Ways to Help Your Clients Lose Weight
Step 4: Reframe the concept of discipline
When clients fall short of their goals, they usually assume they lack self-discipline. I believed that too, until I read “The Myth of Discipline” by the late Charles Poliquin.
As Poliquin saw it, discipline doesn’t exist. What does exist is love:
“You are the result of what you love most. You either love finely etched muscular abs more than donuts, or you love donuts more than washboard abs. Don’t beat yourself up that you have no discipline or further drown yourself in a sea of refined carbs. Admit that you like crappy food more than you love strength.”
So what’s the answer? For Poliquin, it’s about learning to love and value yourself more than the things that make you love yourself less.
And when your clients succeed, don’t frame it as a triumph of discipline. Present it as the result of making loving choices for themselves—choices that begin with finding their why. When they truly understand and appreciate what they love and value, their actions will begin to align with their goals.
That’s where lasting change begins.